'I'm Still in Win Mode': Why LeBron Is Unstoppable—but the Cavs Are in Trouble
Beyond the memes, the Sultan of Subtweets tells B/R Mag that this year is different. But is it Cleveland's twilight, or just a sluggish start? We hit the road with a struggling squad to find outNovember 14, 2017
It was 10:30 a.m., Texas time, when LeBron James strolled into the Dallas Mavericks' arena for a recent shootaround. In his mouth was a black plastic spoon.
But the King was not eating.
No, his teeth were clenched firmly around the handle, leaving the round end an impractical distance from his mouth.
What could it all mean?
Was LeBron angry? Frustrated? Concerned? Was the empty spoon a symbolic plea? Dear basketball gods, please deliver a second helping of All-Star playmaking.
Or, you know, maybe he'd just polished off a strawberry yogurt parfait on the team bus. It's possible.
But this is LeBron, the NBA's Sultan of Subtweets, and these are the drama-loving Cleveland Cavaliers—who had the league's sixth-worst record at the time of their Dallas stopover last Saturday—and so we must parse every gesture, quip and sideways glance, every tweet and Instagram story and every last utensil.
Everything must mean something.
The Cavs were 4-6 when James posted a cartoon fist (caption: "Mood...") to his Instagram account, sending the basketball world into a speculative tizzy. Then came a collage of fist photos ("Mood Forever..."), heightening the intrigue.
Four days, one win and one loss later came a video post: LeBron, puffing on a cigar, a goblet of red wine in front of him, bobbing his head along to SZA and pumping his fist—happily.
And there he was Monday morning, merrily leading the entire Cavs squad onto a New York subway train, to return to the team hotel after a morning shootaround at Madison Square Garden.
And later Monday, there was LeBron again, this time rejecting Kristaps Porzingis shots, going jaw to jaw with Enes Kanter and slapping his biceps after powering through a body blow for a layup, all part of an exhilarating 104-101 comeback victory over the Knicks (followed by a taunting Instagram post, which told New York, "You're welcome.")
So, yeah: Maybe the King is not so angry, or frustrated, or concerned—the Cavs' ho-hum record (7-7) notwithstanding.
Sure, Kyrie Irving is gone, Isaiah Thomas is out, Tristan Thompson and Derrick Rose are ailing and Dwyane Wade is slow. But LeBron is still LeBron—averaging 28.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and 8.8 assists—and that's enough to sustain the optimism for now.
"I'm in win mode still," a smiling James told B/R Mag on his way to the team bus late Saturday in Dallas.
Meaning: Even now, after seven straight Finals appearances and three championships mixed in, James wants more—and is determined to get it.
It's generally foolish to disregard a LeBron-led team, no matter how listless or out of whack it might appear between November and April. For seven seasons, in Miami and then Cleveland, James has found a way to rally his teams, through injuries and aging, distractions and upheaval.
But as James himself said last week, "This is a different challenge." Indeed, for the first time since LeBron started this run, there is reason to wonder if he'll make it back to the Finals.
This Cavaliers roster is demonstrably weaker than the one that lost to the Golden State Warriors in the Finals in June. At the moment, it's the worst surrounding cast he's had in eight seasons.
Irving, the scoring virtuoso, forced a trade to Boston in August. Thomas, acquired from the Celtics to fill the same role, is recovering from a serious hip injury. He has not played since May and is still weeks from returning. There is no telling how effective or durable he will be when he does.
The roster is peppered with past-their-prime vets, from Wade (35) to Rose (an old 29), to Kyle Korver (36), to Channing Frye (34), to JR Smith (32), to Jeff Green (31), to Jose Calderon (36).
For seven years, James had co-stars who could score and create at an elite level—a younger Wade in Miami, then Irving in Cleveland—and share the workload. No longer. Or at least, not until Thomas (fingers crossed) returns.
James is loathe to place that burden on Thomas ("We can't rely on just one person."). Yet he knows, better than anyone, how badly he needs him.
"It's been a while since I've had that clear-cut guy who can get guys involved but also score at the same time," James told B/R Mag. "But it's fine. It's something that our team will make an adjustment to."
It's been a while since I've had that clear-cut guy who can get guys involved but also score at the same time. But it's fine.
— LeBron James
The workload is OK, James insisted. He's not worried about wearing down, even in this, his 15th season. But he noted, "I look forward to when IT returns, whenever that happens, to give me a break here and there, where I know he can run the offense and control a quarter or two, or a game if need be."
Needs? Yes, the Cavs have needs: defense, energy, athleticism, healthy point guards, to name a few.
They have already dropped games to the Rebuilding Division of the Eastern Conference, with losses to New York, Brooklyn, Indiana, Orlando and Atlanta. They were dismembered by the New Orleans Pelicans, another likely lottery team. They strained just to put away the lowly Mavericks.
And yet the Cavs have also beaten Boston, Milwaukee and Washington, three of the East's best, reinforcing the notion that James and Co. are merely battling early-season doldrums and can summon their best when properly motivated.
Also worth noting: The roster includes eight new players. And one of their most important holdovers, Thompson, is out because of a strained calf.
"It's just so much—is unfamiliarity a word?" Kevin Love told B/R Mag. "I think we're all unfamiliar."
Familiarity will presumably come, along with better health.
Yet the warning signs remain. Cleveland ranks last in defensive efficiency, per ESPN.com—a potential death knell to any title chase—and every win takes maximum effort. Though the comeback Monday night was impressive, it was still stunning to see the Cavs fall behind by 23 points to the decidedly lackluster Knicks.
"They don't even look like a real basketball team," Brian Scalabrine, the former NBA forward and current Celtics analyst, watching from the press box, remarked in the third quarter Monday.
Scalabrine, for one, still believes the Cavaliers will make the Finals anyway—"because they have LeBron"—but other experts have their doubts.
"They could be a team that gets beat early in the playoffs," said one longtime scout, citing the Cavaliers' aging rotation and lack of athleticism. "I think we're seeing the twilight of that group."
They could be a team that gets beat early in the playoffs. I think we're seeing the twilight of that group.
— NBA scout
It's admittedly a confusing picture. The core of the team that made three straight Finals is still there, and the roster is dotted with marquee names. But Wade isn't Wade anymore, and Rose—who's missed seven games because of injury—hasn't been an elite player in six years.
"Age ails them—which is not fixable," said the scout.
Maybe one player changes everything.
Isaiah Thomas was among the last to leave the visiting locker room last Thursday in Houston, following a 117-113 loss that the Cavaliers spun as a sign of progress.
James was lively, at one point dunking so hard that the impact echoed across the arena. On the bench, Thomas was the team's most emphatic cheerleader, contributing what he could.
The rest of the league is cheering for Thomas to get healthy. Rival stars greet him in every arena, offering daps and well wishes. On Thursday, James Harden gave Thomas a warm embrace and words of encouragement on the way to the loading dock.
Before leaving, Thomas consented to a brief interview, with one caveat: "No hip questions."
He agreed with the premise that the Cavaliers can't be the team they're meant to be until he's in the lineup—and playing at the level that made him an All-NBA selection last season.
"You're exactly right," Thomas told B/R Mag. "We won't know how good we're really gonna be, or who we're gonna be, until everybody is fully healthy."
The trade with Boston netted the Cavaliers two other key pieces: the Brooklyn Nets' unprotected first-round pick and defensive specialist Jae Crowder, who has so far struggled in Cleveland.
The pick was the linchpin of the deal—a golden ticket that could bring Cleveland its next franchise star in June, or could be flipped in a trade.
But as of Tuesday, it's as if the Cavaliers traded Irving for Crowder, an All-Star for a journeyman. Is it any wonder they're worse off?
"You lost somebody that was a really big piece of the success here," Thomas says of Irving, "and then you get [me], but I'm not able to play and fill that void, so it's tough."
It's not just that Irving took a ton of points, assists and clutch shots with him to Boston. It's that the Cavs have no one else who can remotely replicate those skills. It's forced James to play more point guard than ever, a possibly unsustainable formula.
"I'm a student of the game, so I know everywhere I can help, man," Thomas told B/R Mag. "I can help, first off with my aggressiveness and my scoring ability. But just putting pressure on the defense every time down. Being able to get in the paint and make the defense pick and choose what they want to stop. Being able to get to the free-throw line. Little things like that that I see nobody's really doing but Bron."
The James-Thomas pairing should be just as dynamic as the James-Irving partnership. And with a smoother offense—and Thompson's return—the defense should stabilize, too.
There's a growing sense around the team that Thomas might be ready by mid-December, beating the team's initial projection of a January 1 return. That alone will infuse the Cavs with a renewed optimism, or at minimum, some clarity.
"Nobody thought it would be a struggle like this," Thomas said, before adding, "It can't storm forever. At some point, it's gonna click. And then when it does, we'll be a really good team."
Nobody thought it would be a struggle like this. It can't storm forever.
— Isaiah Thomas
If you wanted Playful LeBron, he was there last week in Houston, teasing local reporters who asked about his close friend and new Rockets star Chris Paul. "CP stinks! Tell him I said it," James said, laughing as the cameras rolled.
If you wanted Vintage LeBron, he was there Saturday night in Dallas, faking out and flying by Dirk Nowitzki for a thunderous dunk that helped seal the win.
If you wanted Angry LeBron, Determined LeBron or Dominant LeBron, they were all there Monday at the Garden, as James made every play necessary to fuel the comeback.
He can do that, still, even while approaching his 33rd birthday. But how often? And for how long? James is averaging a staggering 38.1 minutes per game, the most in the league, and his highest average since 2010-11.
It seems unsustainable, or at least inadvisable.
"I'm not concerned at all, especially as far as me wearing down," James told B/R Mag. "I'm not concerned with that, because I take care of my body."
But Wade, his longtime friend, does worry, telling B/R Mag, "You don't want to wear on him—obviously physically, but mentally neither."
It's rare for a team in this era to make the Finals without multiple stars. James knows it. It's what drove him to leave Cleveland for Miami in 2010, and to leave Miami for Cleveland in 2014.
Squint a little, and this Cavs team resembles the 2009-10 Cavs, who surrounded James with an aging Shaquille O'Neal and Antawn Jamison, only to flame out in the second round of the playoffs.
Squint a little harder, and this Cavs team has a bit in common with the 2013-14 Heat, a talented group that got old and frail seemingly overnight, and collapsed in the Finals.
Each time, James left for a better roster.
All of which underscores what is really at stake.
James will be a free agent next summer and is noncommittal about his future. Team executives across the league believe he's leaving—though there's a palpable gap between belief and actual knowledge. The reality is, no one knows.
It leaves the Cavaliers franchise in a profound pickle: Do everything possible to win a championship now, trading draft picks for immediate help? Or retain all assets and plan for a post-LeBron future?
Cavs officials are determined to keep the Nets pick, easily their most valuable trading chip. They could perhaps trade their own, lower pick. They cannot summarily rule out anything.
What if the struggles continue? What if Thomas' comeback sputters? Would the Cavaliers give up on what might be James' final season in Cleveland? Or would the Nets pick suddenly be in play?
"I think the pressure gets pretty high," said a rival team executive. "If it's not working, they should either move the [Nets] pick or Love or LeBron. Those should all be on the table."
If it's not working, they should either move the [Nets] pick or Love or LeBron. Those should all be on the table.
— Rival NBA executive
The pressure to make a deal only intensifies if it's LeBron James who's calling for reinforcements, as he has done (both publicly and privately) in the past.
It's too soon for that discussion, of course. The Cavs have won three of their last four games and have found a measure of stability. At present, there is no hint of panic to be found.
But if the time comes, if the next crisis is more dire, if James believes the Cavs need a jolt, he will not hesitate to knock on general manager Koby Altman's door.
"I think Koby has kind of opened that door for me," James told B/R Mag. "I'm all about what's best for the franchise. That's what's best for me, because I want to win."
"I feel great, I'm playing great, so I'm still in win mode," James continued. "So if I feel like it's something that can help the franchise be successful, then I'll voice my opinion."
With that, James smiles and parts company and heads for the bus.
Mood: to be determined.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and BR Mag. He also hosts the Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.