Searching for Silver Linings in LeBron James' Absence

Ethan Skolnick@@EthanJSkolnickNBA Senior WriterJanuary 2, 2015

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The conversation occurred on Dec. 20, and LeBron James has played five games since. Still, nearly two weeks later, with a two-week sabbatical now planned, these statements have a little extra resonance. 

"We all know that Father Time is undefeated," James said when asked that day whether his athleticism may change as he ages. "I don't care who you are; I don't care how much stretching, yoga, treatment, tables—Father Time is undefeated. So, for me, I've just got to continue to listen to my body, train my body, like I've been doing over the years."

The Cleveland Cavaliers forward is hearing it loud and clear now, missing the past two games and likely missing at least seven more due to what the team has termed "knee and back strains."

For a man who has never missed more than five regular-season contests in succession, that qualifies as an unusually extended absence. And it comes at a time when the Cavaliers (18-14) are not only still struggling to find chemistry and cohesion but are adjusting to the season-ending injury of starting center Anderson Varejao and nursing forwards Kevin Love (back) and Shawn Marion (ankle) through more minor ailments. 

So, no, not even Oksana Baiul at her best could spin this situation into something good. 

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 21: Kyrie Irving #2 and Kevin Love #0 of the Cleveland Cavaliersat sit on the sideline during a game against the Washington Wizards the Verizon Center on November 21, 2014 in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowled
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The Cavaliers are likely to do some losing in the next couple of weeks. OK, a lot of losing. They've played few of the West powers to this point, which means they have upcoming dates with Dallas (Sunday), Houston (Wednesday), Golden State (Jan. 9) and the Los Angeles Clippers (Jan. 16), with James' timeline all but assuring he'll miss all but the last one. If he doesn't get back by that date, the Cavaliers' next game is at home, on Jan. 19, against the Eastern Conference-contending Chicago Bulls.

Cleveland is a plus-5.3 with James on the floor this season and a minus-6.3 when he's off. The Cavaliers are also 0-3 with him inactive after the Heat were 9-9 when he didn't play during the past four seasons. All of this means that Cleveland, already 4.5 games back of the East's fourth seed, could need binoculars to see the backs of Toronto, Washington, Atlanta and Chicago jerseys by the time James returns.

But while the No. 5 seed wouldn't be ideal, not with the prospect of starting three series on the road just to get to the Finals, at least it's unlikely to get worse than that. Even if the Cavaliers lose, say, six of their next nine, they may not fall behind Milwaukee or Brooklyn or Miami, the three teams currently holding spots six through eight.

Looking for other reasons this won't be cataclysmic for the Cavaliers?

Here's our Sunny Side Six: 

1. David Blatt may learn what to do with Kevin Love

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

This, of course, assumes that Love, whose back tightened up in Atlanta and who sat out the home loss to Milwaukee, returns reasonably soon. And that Love returns with the right attitude, doing less pouting when the ball doesn't come and things don't go his way. Certainly, he should put aside the disdainful pirouetting when his post-up presence is ignored. 

Now, the Cavaliers would seem to have little choice but to play through him more often, and perhaps Blatt might even mix in some pick-and-pops rather than planting him behind the three-point arc.

Love has been a net positive for the Cavaliers offensively this season—they score 7.5 more points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor—but he'll need to be better than that now. He's made no impact defensively; they've been below average whether or not he plays, and that doesn't figure to change. 

Now, though, his touches will probably pick up, so perhaps his chin will, too. At least until someone mentions how much Andrew Wiggins has already improved in Minnesota

2. The coach may get a little more media slack

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

What seemed like an inspired hire has now been swamped with second-guessing. Blatt has struggled to connect with players, manage a rotation and implement his system in his first two NBA months. 

But, remember, this wasn't the type of team he was supposed to coach this season, not one with so many assertive personalities and such lofty expectations. No one is expecting much the next two weeks, however.

If Blatt's team plays hard and together, as it mostly did without James against Oklahoma City and Atlanta, it buys him a little more time, regardless of whether his record is suffering.  

3. If Blatt and Love perform well without James, they may earn more of his trust

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

James didn't choose Blatt as his coach; the hire was made prior to his arrival, and James was coming back to Cleveland no matter which man Dan Gilbert picked to stalk the sideline.

James has acknowledged that all of his relationships with coaches take some time, since they need to go through some adversity together and come out smarter and smiling on the other side. But this is a chance, while he watches, to see Blatt in a different way, especially if the Cavaliers can come up with a few surprising wins. 

James' chemistry with Love hasn't come quickly, either, even after that famous phone call, following James' decision to rejoin the Cavaliers, in which they talked about how well their games would fit. They don't seem especially compatible from a personality perspective, with James considerably more outgoing and Love appearing to largely keep to himself.

On the court, they haven't fallen completely flat, but they haven't clicked quite like James and Chris Bosh did, either. In Bosh's first 31 games with the Heat, he shot 50.5 percent from the floor while averaging 18.4 points. In Love's first 31 games with the Cavaliers, he has shot 42.7 percent from the floor while averaging 16.7 points. Even accounting for Love's three-point propensity, something Bosh didn't display until later seasons, first-season Bosh was more efficient with James than Love has been.

When you compare all of 2013-14 Bosh with the first 31 games of 2014-15 Love, it's not close. 

James and Love, when playing together, are a plus-5.6 points per 100 possessions, lower than James' number with Tristan Thompson (10.3), Shawn Marion (9.2), Kyrie Irving (9.0) or even Joe Harris (5.9). James and Bosh, when playing together last season, were a plus-10.2 per 100 possessions, easily the Heat's best duo. 

Can Love be as good a partner as Bosh was?

That remains to be seen. It might actually be something James needs to see as a spectator.

4. James could use a break

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Not just a physical one. A mental one, too. 

He has appeared emotionally exhausted at times this season. He's admitted publicly to the media and privately to friends and associates that this transition to leading a younger, less experienced group of players has been more challenging than he anticipated, even as he warned everyone it wouldn't be easy. 

This respite provides an opportunity to return refreshed. Remember him racing to the floor in a sand-colored sport coat to chest-bump Bosh after a big shot in December 2013 in Portland and then, with the road win secured, race out again to bump him some more? It'd be a significant boost for the Cavaliers' camaraderie if one of his new teammates did something, anything, that got him that excited. 

5. Blatt may alter his minutes mindset

NEW YORK, NY- DECEMBER 7:  David Blatt and LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers talk during practice on December 7, 2014 at Baruch College in New York, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using
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It's incorrect to assert that no one on the Cavaliers has shown a defensive disposition this season.

The coach sure has.

He's been extremely defensive about how he's allotted time. 

After James took the unusual step of speaking in favor of a reduced minute load for the stars, Blatt has cut back some, though Kyrie Irving still ranks tied for second in the NBA and James is fourth. Whenever Blatt is asked, however, he makes sure to point out that James' burden (37.5) is below his career average (39.5) and even below where it was in Miami (38.0). 

That's not the point. 

James was a younger man then, without all of the wear. He's played 34,364 regular-season minutes and 6,717 playoff minutes, not including time logged in exhibitions and the Olympics. 

And here's the thing of most import for Blatt: James knows those numbers, enough to cite them on cue.

"I've got 41,000 minutes on me, including the playoffs," he told reporters prior to missing Wednesday's game. "You drive that car in the winter time."

Blatt must get the message and manage the next four months, at least until the playoffs, much more judiciously.

6. He'll be back, and maybe better

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 21: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers dunks during the first half against the Memphis Grizzlies at Quicken Loans Arena on December 21, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, b
Jason Miller/Getty Images

James doesn't typically reveal all of his ailments upon their occurrence, or even in the immediate aftermath. We tend to find out as we did this time, that his knee and back have been bothering him for a while. 

It's hard to say how much this has impacted some of his percentages, especially at the rim; it's just as likely that his new surroundings, learning to coordinate with new teammates, have contributed to some of the declines as well.

Still, his offensive statistics have tended to tick up in late winter and into the spring, and if he can get his body feeling better, the same may now occur again.

Further, if the Cavaliers can sustain some success without him, he'll be even more motivated to build on that upon his return. And if they really struggle, maybe they'll be a little more inclined to follow his lead and heed a little more of his advice. 

And if they still don't, at least he'll know, once and for all, what he's up against. 

Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.


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