WASHINGTON D.C. — The past is prelude, and that can sometimes serve as comfort. It's given the Cleveland Cavaliers a cushion. It's been the primary reason that much of the national media, which mauled the Miami Heat for their sluggish start to the 2010-11 season, have been preaching patience as this latest so-called superteam stumbles out of the starting gate.
That, however, can become a crutch, an assumption that everything will be all right, merely because in a somewhat similar circumstance, it has been once before. That assumption is dangerous, since it may also be wrong.
LeBron James doesn't believe that any outcomes are assumed, certainly not without the work, and yet even he has commonly drawn upon comparisons to the adversity he experienced four years earlier. He did so again Friday morning, when asked how he balances perspective about the process with his desire for more immediate success.
"It's my biggest test," he said. "My patience isn't... I have a low tolerance for things of this nature. So it's something I'm working on as well. Which I knew from the beginning that was going to be my biggest test, to see how much patience I got with the process. What helps me out is I've been through it before. But at the same, I'm a winner, and I want to win, and I want to win now. It's not tomorrow, it's not down the line, I want to win now. So it's a fine line for me. But I understand what we're enduring right now."
Later, in a 91-78 loss to the currently clearly superior Washington Wizards, a national television audience got a better sense of what that is, and it's not exactly what James has encountered already. The Cavaliers are enduring the effects of a lack of cohesion and an absence of confidence in each other. And, at this point, it's officially more concerning than anything that long-ago Heat team went through.
For starters, that team actually started 7-4, not 5-6 as the Cavaliers have, even though everyone only remembers that Miami slipped to 9-8 on a deflating night in Dallas. That Miami team had three blowout victories in its first five games. This Cavaliers squad has had just one, in its eighth contest, against Atlanta. That Miami team didn't lose for a third time by double digits until its 41st outing, on Jan. 13, even though it was without two of its top five projected players, Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem, for most of that time. This Cavaliers squad, which has lost one rotation guy (Matthew Dellavedova) has already lost by 19, 13 and nine, with only a Dion Waiters garbage-time jumper saving it from a double-digit defeat against Denver.
That Miami team didn't look as lethargic, and its players didn't look like they loathed each other, as these players appear to at times. Things were messy, for sure, especially as the three established stars, adjusting to redefined roles, tripped over one another, but that never seemed to be from a lack of earnest effort. And it never borne out of selfishness. If anything, it was due to exaggerated selflessness, with no one wanting to be the one to impede too much on anyone else.
Which brings us to Friday.
When these Cavaliers brought all their worst basketball behavior.
"Obviously, right now, we're struggling, and we're a little bit in the dark," coach David Blatt said. "And we got to find our way out."
Blatt spoke of how the defense, which has predictably been a persistent issue, was good enough—even though John Wall (28 points, six rebounds, seven assists) repeatedly torched Kyrie Irving—but how the offense, which had produced point totals of 110, 118, 122 and 127 during a recent four-game winning streak, had gone awry. He referred to "irresponsible play with the ball," including several fast-break situations where the Cavaliers couldn't even get a shot ("not high-level basketball"). He bemoaned the tendency for the ball and bodies to stop moving after the denial of the first offensive action.
"That's not what we've been doing," Blatt said. "We've got to get back to doing what we were doing."
Certainly, they won't win anything significant by doing many of the things they did Friday—and yet, some of the errors are expected by now.
Such as Dion Waiters, part of a bench that shot a combined 3-of-16, taking three dribbles and a stepback 20-footer without ever looking at James to his right. Such as Waiters going 1-on-4 on one break, and later getting rejected by Kevin Seraphin, rather than noticing that Irving or Shawn Marion were running with him.
Such as Marion making a lazy pass, and Irving making an equally lazy run to the ball, which led to a Wall steal and dunk. Such as Kevin Love getting only eight shots, so ignored at times that he sometimes forced the action, even in transition opportunities, once wildly hooking one shot off the backboard and later plowing into Bradley Beal.
Such as Irving jamming up the half-court offense by dribbling and dribbling and dribbling some more, never getting the ball to anyone else before jacking up a contested corner jumper.
Such as James shooting under 50 percent for the eighth time in 11 games this season, which, considering his track record, is a reflection of those around him, at least as much as it is on him.
He was more efficient when he shot dirty and disappointed looks. He wasn't the only one to sigh and slump his shoulders—Love looked absolutely exasperated at times, especially on a second-quarter play when he was calling for the correct running of a play, and then the ball, only to watch Tristan Thompson bulldoze the lane for an offensive foul.
Still, the Cavaliers will take their cues from James, who has been more careful with his body language in recent years, taking that as one of the primary lessons from veteran mentors, most notably Ray Allen. But James couldn't hide it Friday.
He strolled back on one possession. After another transition miss, he hardly budged at all. He took a standstill three. In those moments, he didn't appear to be soothed much by memories of how everything worked itself out in Miami. His admitted low tolerance for "things of this nature" seemed to be trumping his understanding of the need for patience with the process.
Blatt sat him for the final 1:24, with a game against red-hot Toronto on tap for Saturday in Cleveland. But he only cooled slightly by the time he met with the media. He said he could not explain the team's lack of energy. He couldn't think of a single lineup that had shown cohesiveness. He said they all needed to work on their body language, starting with himself.
"Right now, I'm frustrated," James said. "Tomorrow I'll be OK. It's part of the competitive nature of who I am. It's going to be a challenge, I knew that. I'm frustrated obviously right now, but tomorrow's a new day. ... We have some work to do."
Then he spent the next 10 minutes facing his locker, sometimes shaking his head, sometimes pressing a towel to it, sometimes extending his arms across the top shelf, all while rarely looking up.
Maybe things will look up soon.
But he will need to look for different answers than he found in Miami.
This is a decidedly different situation.
In Miami, he had a coach who had NBA experience—two playoff seasons as the head man—with the organization's full commitment. Pat Riley's unconditional support gave that coach an opportunity and the space to find his footing, even in the face of intense media pressure. And a 9-8 start turned into a 21-1 stretch.
Will Blatt, who acknowledged that some of his European teams have started slowly, get the backing he needs to make his way? And to make his team believe in him?
In Miami, James had proven championship partners, starting with Dwyane Wade, to help him chart the course, players who ultimately were more concerned with collective goals, even if those ambitions came at an individual cost.
Does he have those here? Can Irving be one? Or Love another? Or is that too much to expect of two guys who, in nine combined seasons, have never made the playoffs? Can they, and their teammates, table all their losing habits?
In Miami, James had teammates who made it a mission to get him the ball in the proper spots, so he could lift his percentages, and by extension, the group as well.
Will he start getting those quality shots, consistently, here?
"Guys got to be willing to pass the ball ahead, to make good cuts, to set good screens, to move hard to their spots, to read overplays and use press release, and cut and backcut again, and keep moving," Blatt said. "I told you, a week, 10 days ago, we were scoring the heck out of the ball. It's not a different group."
No, it's not different from the Cleveland group that recently won four straight.
But it's different than those Miami teams.
All of them. Even the first one. Even 2010-11. Even 9-8. Some of the frustration may be the same, but the solutions won't be. There won't truly be comfort until James finds a few of those.