LeBron James looked over his shoulder, almost in disbelief.
This isn’t what he — or anyone else — imagined for the Cavaliers.
As Utah’s Gordon Hayward was mobbed by teammates after hitting a fadeaway shot over the outstretched arm of Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson at the buzzer to beat Cleveland 102-100 on Wednesday night, James peered back incredulously at the celebration one last time. He shook his head and walked to the locker room after a second stunning loss in 24 hours.
The Cavs: James, fellow All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, picked by Vegas oddsmakers to win it all, are 1-3 and look nothing like championship contenders.
Four games into the season, they are not gelling and something of a mess.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” James said.
Neither are NBA title teams.
Just a week into the season, the Cavaliers have major chemistry issues, a motionless offense and defensive holes they might not be able to address without making a trade or two. Rookie coach David Blatt has preached patience, but has already toyed with his starting lineup, replacing guard Dion Waiters with veteran Shawn Marion.
One day after James played passively in a loss at Portland to prove a point to his young teammates, Cleveland tied a franchise record with just six assists against Utah. According to STATS LLC, the six assists are the fewest in a game for any NBA team scoring at least 100 points since 1985-86.
“There’s no way you can win a basketball game like that, just having six assists,” said James, who had four of the six assists. “We just can’t win like that. We have to figure out a way to help each other and not make it so tough.”
And while some Cleveland fans are troubled by the slow start, James seems to be taking it in stride, posting a message on his Twitter page Thursday.
James wrote: “In the words of the great @AaronRodgers12 ‘RELAX.'”
Irving scored 34 points against the Jazz, but Cleveland’s starting point guard did not record an assist in 45 minutes — an alarming statistic for a player supposedly running his team’s offense. Irving’s performance came after James, without naming names, pointed toward some teammates playing selfishly in the 19-point loss to the Trail Blazers.
“There’s a lot of bad habits, a lot of bad habits been built up the past couple years,” James said.
Irving did speak with reporters following the loss in Portland, which included another statistical anomaly: James did not score in the second half.
James is conflicted. He’s trying to decide whether to carry the Cavs or let them learn tough lessons through losses. The easy solution would be for the four-time MVP to take over games the way he used to, but James has a long-term vision for the Cavs.
He’s willing to accept failure as long as it stimulates growth.
“I still got to figure out ways to get my teammates involved, too,” James said after scoring 31 points, including Cleveland’s final six, in the loss to the Jazz. “‘Cause it just can’t be a one-, two- or three-man show. We have to do it together.”
He’s been through this before. When James joined Miami in 2010, the Heat ended up in the finals but started 9-8. James was subjected to the same scrutiny he’s enduring now except he said there was “anger behind the questions.” This time around, the inquiries are less emotional but equally direct: What’s going on?
For starters, James is still learning how to play with his new teammates and vice versa. There have been some sloppy moments as James, Love and Irving mesh after not being on the court together much in the preseason. The timing will come, but it’s going to take time.
The Cavs, who play at Denver on Friday, have been atrocious defensively. They’re giving up wide-open shots and their interior rotations were too slow against the Jazz, who scored 46 points in the paint and outrebounded the Cavs 41-30.
“We’re going to get every team’s best shot and we’ve got to understand we’ve got to play defense,” Marion said. “We’ve got to guard somebody. It’s easy to get points, but if you don’t play defense you’re not going to give yourself a chance.”
Blatt’s offense, based on the precise cutting and screening principles he learned while playing guard at Princeton, isn’t working. The Cavs are standing and watching each other. They’re not moving the ball in search of a better shot. There have been flashes, not nearly enough.
Back when he announced his return to Cleveland, James cautioned the Cavs would face challenges. In his Sports Illustrated essay, James forecast failing would be part of the path to a title.
“I’m not promising a championship,” he said in July. “I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested.”
Perhaps sooner than he thought.
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