The Cavs looked dreadful again on Tuesday night, similar to their lackluster performance against the Knicks to start the season. LeBron James, especially, seemed disinterested in competing when the Blazers made their run in the second half to put the game away. But James tells Brian Windhorst of ESPN what might look like apathy on his part is actually his new leadership style, one where he sits back and hopes his teammates learn their team-first lesson the hard way. That long-term view isn’t shared by some loud mouths in the media, though.
“Everyone wants to win, I would hope,” James tells Windhorst. “Would you rather play selfish basketball and lose, or play unselfish basketball and sacrifice and win? So you pick it.”
That seems to be the premise behind James’ hands-off approach to leading the Cavs so far this season. Still, it’s peculiar. As long-time LeBron watcher Windhorst points out, it’s not something he’s ever done before:
This is a conscious decision on how he plans to operate in a passive-aggressive mission to yank some teammates toward his way of thinking. Let some of them fail at their way so they will be open to new ideas, is what it looks and sounds like…
This style of leadership is not part of James’ typical nature and it wouldn’t be like him to keep it up very long. More likely, frustrated by the way the game unfolded as the Cavs’ offense collapsed into one-on-one ball, this was his way of counting to 10 to calm down.
LeBron sounds like a long-time veteran of losing, unperturbed by the day-to-day exigencies this Cavs team is experiencing under a huge media glare — largely as a result of his signing this summer and the trade to bring Kevin Love over from Minnesota. Nobody predicted a 1-2 start to the year, including an embarrassing home loss to the Knicks and getting blown out in Portland. But, LeBron says he sees a light at the end of a long tunnel, which is why he’s letting his teammates go it alone for a time:
“It’s going to be a long process, man. There’s been a lot of losing basketball around here for a few years. … But there’s a lot of bad habits, a lot of bad habits have been built up over the last couple of years, and when you play that style of basketball it takes a lot to get it up out of you. But I’m here to help, and that’s what it’s about.”
“My mission is not a one-game thing,” James explained. “We have to do multiple things in order to win. We got to share the ball. We got to play defense. We got to sacrifice in order to ultimately win. And obviously when you’re going through the process, it’s not the best part of the process, but I’m looking at the end of the tunnel.”
“It’s going to be a process. I keep on harping on that word, but it’s the truth,” James said. “I’ve been there before and understand it. But you do have to go through it even though you don’t like to go through it.”
Our culture of day-to-day sports analysis forgets the NBA has a pretty long regular season. A season so many twists and turns, prognosticators can go from being right to being wrong to being right again in as little as a week.
Right now, LeBron is immune to the enmity losing can inspire, believing it’s part of the process of growing together as a team. Hard times bring people together, and a 1-2 start is considered a hard time these days.
Some, like ESPN’s “First Take” antagonist, Stephen A. Smith, believe the one-on-one stylings of Kyrie Irving — just 3-of-17 last night in a horrendous showdown with Damian Lillard (game-high 27 points), who he beat out to make the World Cup team this summer — could actually drive LeBron away…again.
Smith said on his daily SHOUTING show this morning that LeBron “would leave again, don’t you doubt it.” By way of SportsGrid comes his blasphemous overreaction just eight days and three games into the 2014-15 NBA season:
“I was hearing it before he arrived in Cleveland, I’ve heard it since he arrived in Cleveland… this notion, that there is no way in hell that LeBron James would ever leave Cleveland again? That would be a grave mistake for anybody to make. He would leave again. Don’t you doubt it.”
In the offending snippet on video, you’ll notice that even fellow self-righteous bloviator, Skip Bayless, believes Smith is off his rocker. When you make Skip Bayless look thoughtful and taciturn, then you know you’ve gone off the deep end:
Yes, LeBron might be frustrated, but — to quote Smith — “there’s no way in hell” LeBron is leaving Cleveland. That much is pretty clear-cut, though Smith believes otherwise.
Yes, the Cavs look like jumbled parts mashed together, and first-time NBA head coach David Blatt is trying any and all rotations to see if he can find a formula for the pass-first ball they were playing during a 5-2 preseason. But LeBron will be the ultimate factor in turning things around. Right now he appears content to wait out the slings and arrows this Cavs team is liable to take as they form into a title contender.
Whether the media will be able to think beyond today’s headline is another thing entirely. As Smith’s dunderheaded comments this morning show, it’ll be easy for talking heads to do just that. But the rhetoric is more than empty, it’s flat out obtuse until LeBron actually decides to up and leave…again.
There’s no way that’s happening, but the Cavs might not be the 65-win behemoth everyone predicted the moment Kevin Love held up a Cavs jersey. This will be a learning season in Cleveland, we just hope the rest of the media can hold their breath on overreacting long enough for them to figure things out. If not, the growing chorus of non-believers will extend further than Stephen A. Smith’s Pinocchio-nose musings about LeBron hightailing it outta Ohio.
Right now, even after a 1-2 start, Smith’s comments sound ridiculous. But two months from now, if the Cavs are still under .500, it won’t be just the Stephen A. Smith’s of the world who say LeBron could bolt; it’ll be an ever-expanding list of non-believers who will trip all over themselves to critique LeBron for his Decision 2.0 and opine about exit strategies.
The real question is whether LeBron will be one of them. Based off his quotes to Windhorst, we highly doubt that ever happens. Then again, we never thought we’d see LeBron back in a Cavs uniform.
Will the Cavs mesh fast enough to compete for a title this season?
Follow Spencer on Twitter at @SpencerTyrel.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.