CLEVELAND (AP) — The chemistry has been slow to develop. The rookie coach is under fire. The record isn’t nearly what it’s supposed to be.
No, the Cleveland Cavaliers aren’t having the season everyone expected. Not even close. And now, superstar LeBron James will sit out for at least two weeks.
The championship chase is now a crawl.
James was diagnosed with strains to his left knee and lower back and will be sidelined until they heal. In the meantime, the Cavs need to get themselves patched up.
The injuries to the four-time NBA MVP have threatened to capsize his homecoming season in Cleveland and further hinder the struggling Cavs, who have been jarred by a rash of medical issues and haven’t lived up to the enormous expectations triggered by James re-signing as a free agent last summer.
James’ injuries added to a turbulent week in which there has been growing speculation about coach David Blatt’s future, James’ commitment to Cleveland was again questioned, forward Kevin Love was sidelined with back spasms and starting forward Anderson Varejao underwent season-ending surgery after tearing his Achilles.
The Cavs (18-14) have lost three straight games and four of five heading into Friday’s matchup in Charlotte. James, who missed the previous two games, didn’t make the trip and it’s not clear when he’ll rejoin his teammates, some of whom are about to be reminded what the previous four years were like without him.
But even when James has been at full strength — he said Wednesday that his knee has bothered him most of the season — the Cavs have not clicked at either end of the floor. Blatt has struggled trying to find the right rotations and the former international coaching legend is still adjusting to the NBA game.
Cleveland has lacked defensive intensity, the bench has been inconsistent at best and the Cavs aren’t deep enough to handle any significant injuries.
Compounding things for Blatt was a report that there’s concern within the organization that he doesn’t seem to be connecting with his players. Blatt, who was hired before James decided to come back to Ohio, believes he and the 10-time All-Star are on the same page and their relationship is growing.
But until the losses turn to wins, the pressure will only increase the scrutiny on Blatt, whose external challenge was to get his team playing at a championship level right away. James had preached patience in the poignant essay he wrote in July, saying the team would need time to jell.
However, the team’s acquisition of Love in a blockbuster trade made the Cavs title favorites.
They don’t look like one.
The Cavs were thin up front before Varejao went down, and general manager David Griffin has explored trades to bring in a rim-protecting big man and help for the bench. But Cleveland’s problems may run deeper than that, and James’ health has suddenly added an unexpected hurdle.
The game’s most dynamic player, James, who turned 30 on Tuesday, hasn’t been himself all season. He came into his 12th year lighter than ever after a substantial weight loss this summer. He looks different and so does his game as James has not shown the same explosiveness while driving to the basket and he’s been willing to defer to teammates.
Last week, James said he was playing in “chill mode,” a comment some construed as pacing himself for the grind ahead.
He acknowledged his body has taken a beating.
“I’ve got 41,000 minutes on me, including the playoffs,” he joked. “You drive that car in the winter time.”
James has never missed more than five straight games in his professional career. If the two-week timetable holds up, his absence could reach 10 games or more. By the time he gets back, the Cavs, who have a five-game West Coast trip coming up, could have a losing record. That would be unimaginable if not for their previous problems.
Fortunately, the Cavs play in the Eastern Conference, where anything over 35 wins will likely earn a playoff spot.
But this season promised to be more, so much more than that for Cleveland. This was supposed to be a run at long-sought championship, which currently seems far away.
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