Humbled by the Warriors Yet Again, LeBron James on Verge of Becoming Irrelevant

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Humbled by the Warriors Yet Again, LeBron James on Verge of Becoming Irrelevant
Tony Dejak/Associated Press

CLEVELAND — LeBron James is not a selfish guy. He's more than fine letting the limelight shine on his teammates. It's one of his greatest qualities.

He is, of course, so accustomed to having attention on him that he can afford to be generous with it.

Perhaps no one on earth is less acquainted with the common phenomenon known as the spotlight effect, which is when we mistakenly believe people are paying more attention to us than they really are.

People have always paid attention to LeBron.

From prep phenom to global icon—whether champ, chump or homecoming king—folks have been his witnesses for a long time.

This season has been a little different, though.

And Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors' dismissing James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in Ohio on Monday like inconsequential snow flurries, 132-98, offered an even clearer view of today's NBA landscape.

James is as irrelevant as we've ever known him.

Sure, he only gets more famous as the years go by. He's even bolstering his entertainment portfolio with a CNBC reality TV series called Cleveland Hustles to help entrepreneurs boost the local economy on the heels of that heralded big-screen acting debut in Trainwreck. His basketball brilliance remains.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

But the feeling of his utter dominance in the sport is gone.

Part of it is that James has reached the point in his career where we take his greatness for granted. Not that it's proper, but Kevin Durant is back and Anthony Davis is made for this stat-tracking era. Beyond that, seeing Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler or even Curry have breakthrough nights stands out more than James' unique blend of power and passing that wowed us when he was the rising star but has desensitized us after 12-plus seasons.

Meanwhile, the Cavaliers are not exciting or excellent this season. James' journeys to the NBA Finals have been so consistent that it has become Groundhog Day repetitive—a challenge we've seen him conquer time and again anyway.

Whether James conquers it one more time this season hardly matters, though, if the Cavaliers are a long shot to beat the Western Conference champions in the end. That is the unquestioned conclusion even James was drawing Monday after the rout—the worst home loss in James' career, according to B/R Insights.

"Tonight was an example of how far we've got to go to get to a championship level," James said.

And the paradoxical thing about it is that James' heart is in the right place. He wants more than ever to share his spotlight with his teammates.

But what can he do if they are unworthy?

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

He will need guys to step way up for him to have a realistic shot at beating the Warriors, who already handled the Cavs on Christmas in a game marked by Draymond Green's dominance of Kevin Love. The Warriors are simply better than they were last season, while the Cavaliers are the team that must be.

James allowed there is time to gain the necessary ground. And Kyrie Irving, his fractured kneecap behind him, should certainly get sharper as the playoffs near; he predicted after the blowout: "We'll be just fine."

Yet seeing Love so repeatedly ruin Cleveland's team defense with blown rotations, massive pick-and-roll confusion and plain lame effort Monday suggests an unsolvable problem there. The Spurs surged past the Cavaliers last Thursday by preying on Love's defense, too.

James' improved communication with Love from the summer just doesn't matter if James has overrated Love's physical talent and misjudged his mental strength.

James' friendship with J.R. Smith doesn't matter either if Smith simply isn't a trustable teammate.   

When the Cavs were supposed to be hungry and on point to redeem their horrid first half Monday, Smith had to be summoned by David Blatt to get off the bench and join the first huddle. Then Smith lost the ball out of bounds for the turnover on the first play Blatt drew up. Then Smith was ejected for his flagrant foul. (And this was all after he showed up late before the game.)

"We have some inexperienced guys that haven't played enough meaningful basketball games where they can fall back on," James said.

David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

It's the truth.

But the byproduct of that was this harsh reality Monday: The Warriors were plus-34 points when Curry was on the floor…and the Cavaliers were minus-34 points when James was on the floor.

Even while James hasn't been at the forefront of the NBA scene, there has been an expectation that his work behind the scenes would transform Irving and Love into Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, with Blatt evolving the way inexperienced Erik Spoelstra did as James' coach in Miami.

It made logical sense that all the assembled parts would fit together in their second year in Cleveland, expanding that spotlight anew for James.

If that's not possible, though, here's what becomes probable:

James never returns to front and center of the NBA stage.

Jason Miller/Getty Images

Doing it all himself is neither his style nor his strength, and James sure doesn't want that now at 31 with a creaky back. He sought out a situation where Irving, Love and a new supporting cast would rise as he fell.

Of course, his legend is secure. But James needs this to work.

Behind the retiring Kobe Bryant (1,533,432 votes), Curry (1,206,467) owned a massive lead on James (830,345) in the third All-Star balloting returns. Durant (774,782) wasn't far from James, and actually, neither was Wade (736,732).

The shift has already happened.

It's up to James—or maybe Irving and Love—to reverse it.

 

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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