Cavs Say 'Whole Team' Is LeBron's Best Sidekick Now, but Who Is It Really?

Scott Sargent@WFNYScottFeatured Columnist IFebruary 23, 2018

CLEVELAND, OH - FEBRUARY 22: Tristan Thompson #13 JR Smith #5 and LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers exchange high fives during the game against the Washington Wizards on February 22, 2018 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

CLEVELAND — Kyrie Irving isn't walking through that door, and the Cleveland Cavaliers all but changed the locks after trading Isaiah Thomas to Los Angeles. But with neither guard wearing wine and gold and All-Star power forward Kevin Love out for at least the next month, the Cavs find themselves without a true second scoring option behind LeBron James.

Behind the scenes, the team believes its lack of a true second option is a blessing in disguise. While a ball-dominant Big Three is no longer in the cards, the team has upward of six players—four of whom are new—who could be counted on at any point to strike with ninja-like levels of surprise. Without a true second option to key on defensively, the team as a whole is theoretically tougher to plan for. It now features a handful of similarly sized players who can be deployed in a variety of ways, switch defensively and each pick their spots on the offensive side of the ball, capitalizing on James' ability to suck defenders into the wrong side of a highlight reel.

But what happens on a night when those four new players combine to shoot 11-of-28 (and 2-of-12 from three-point range) in their maiden voyage in front of home fans? They're handed a seven-point loss in a game where James was one of just three Cavaliers players to hit more than half of his field-goal attempts, the defending Eastern Conference champions just a half-game shy from falling to the fourth seed.

LeBron James driving on Otto Porter Jr.
LeBron James driving on Otto Porter Jr.David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

Certainly, there is plenty to appease Cleveland when James is leading your team. The four-time MVP recorded a game-high 32 points on 13-of-18 shooting (becoming just the seventh player in NBA history to hit 11,000 field goals along the way), doing so with a dazzling array of dribble-drive dunks and using impossible angles off of the glass to earn two the hard way.

The team's lack of a true second option, however, became more clear as the game progressed as missed shots ranged from balls that were halfway through the rim and popped out all the way to one that met directly with the side of the backboard. On Thursday night, James was the only Cavalier to score in the final 9:30, while the team's key wing players—Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Rodney Hood and JR Smith—combined to go 0-of-10.

"The whole team [is the second option]," Cavs head coach Ty Lue told Bleacher Report. "Whoever has it going. It's going to be different players on different nights. The way we're set up right now, it could be Rodney, it could be JR, it could be Korver, it could be Clarkson or Jeff Green. All of our guys are live. Depending how the night goes and the flow of the game goes, it will depend who our second scorer is going to be."

Consistency, however, is the main variable. As currently constructed, the Cavaliers starting five includes a rookie (Cedi Osman), a two-way, creating point guard (George Hill) and a big man who scores purely by happenstance (Tristan Thompson). So who else can carry the load? While it can be argued that a team full of role players is the ideal composition for a team with LeBron James, who else can provide relief for a 33-year old star who is already testing father time?


Can It Be JR Smith?

JR Smith defending Bradley Beal.
JR Smith defending Bradley Beal.Tony Dejak/Associated Press

It wasn't all that long ago when Smith was dangled on the trading block, told there was a chance he could be dealt prior to the February 8 deadline. Moved to the bench during the early stretch of the season, Smith had failed to find much of a role within the team following the additions of Thomas and Dwyane Wade to the backcourt, averaging the fewest amount of shots since his 2005-06 season with New Orleans. His nights traversed between disengaged and inefficient, the spark he provided during the team's championship running becoming a distant memory with each additional missed shot.

Fast-forward to the present, and Smith is still a Cavalier. He scored 15 points on 12 shots in Thursday's loss but has looked like a new player since Love's injury, shooting 56.1 percent from three-point range (79.1 true shooting percentage) over his last six games. His increased confidence is palpable, and his engagement—especially with new teammate Jordan Clarkson—has been immediate.

While he has continued to draw the toughest matchup on the defensive side of the ball, Smith has been an offensive focal point earlier in games, benefiting from a team that has gotten younger and quicker as it pertains to the pace Lue has been looking to achieve throughout the season.

"When we guard and play faster in transition, he's going to get shots," Lue said of Smith. "JR, when he's playing well, we're tough to stop. He hasn't been putting the ball on the floor a lot, trying to create. He's taking his open shots, and that's what we need him to do. When he's making shots, we're a difficult team."

Six games, however, is a much smaller sample size than the 50 games that preceded it. Can the team count on Smith to play at these rejuvenated levels, or does it risk having the veteran revert to the ways of much of the last two seasons? And if the 2015 NBA Finals showed anything, an effective Smith is an ideal third option with someone else effectively filling the role of No. 2.


Could It Be Rodney Hood?

Rodney Hood defending Tomas Satoransky.
Rodney Hood defending Tomas Satoransky.Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Before the All-Star break, Rodney Hood was one of a handful of players to provide a scoring punch off the bench. Morphing from a high-usage player in Utah into a catch-and-shoot specialist in Cleveland, Hood has gone from a player with a ton of responsibility to one who can be more selective.

Hood is taking his fewest shots per game since his rookie season and has taken more three-pointers than two pointers. His usage may have dropped, but his efficiency through the first three games with his new team has jumped to career-best levels. Like many before him—Smith and Korver, specifically—Hood has gone from attempting to stop James to now benefiting from his ability to suck defenders into the lane, allowing for wide-open attempts. On the season, only 40.6 percent of Hood's shots have been taken in "open" or "wide open" situations. Since coming to Cleveland, that number has skyrocketed to 62.9.

"I think in Utah, there was a lot of pressure on me to score—especially this year," Hood told Bleacher Report. "Now I can just focus on playing. Now I can run the court, defend and play off of other guys. All I have to do is be locked and loaded. It's actually been refreshing for me, now I'm just learning as I go along."

When asked directly if there is any pressure to potentially morph back to his old ways and shoulder more of the load in the absence of Love, Hood quickly shot down any notion of dominating the ball.

"We have to do it by committee," Hood said. "Kevin's an All-Star player. We're excited to have him back in a few weeks, but it's just going out there any playing. I'm not worried about points. I just want to get acclimated so I can be at my best come playoff time."


The Best of the Rest

Jordan Clarkson defending Otto Porter Jr.
Jordan Clarkson defending Otto Porter Jr.David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

Like Hood, Jordan Clarkson has also seen a dip in his usage, averaging a career-low in field-goal attempts since joining the Cavs. Also like Hood, the new Cavaliers guard has seen a spike in his efficiency, producing a career-high true shooting and offensive rating, taking nearly one-third of his shots in a "wide open" environment. Clarkson came into Thursday night's game averaging 15.5 points off of the bench for the Cavaliers since being acquired, playing in the role previously owned by Dwyane Wade, but doing it in a much faster, much younger way.

But also like Hood, Clarkson isn't looking to be the hero on his new team. Instead, he is simply going to do what he's asked—push the pace, take open shots and find slashing teammates within the pick-and-roll, occasionally breaking out one of his famous celebratory routines. 

"There's no pressure," Clarkson told Bleacher Report of potentially being that second option. "If I'm on the floor, I'm going to take shots I feel comfortable with. LeBron gets everyone involved. We put our trust in him and that's how it goes."

While Irving and Thomas could both be considered score-first point guards, Hill provides the Cavaliers with a much different look than they have seen from the position since James' return in 2014. Brought to Cleveland for his wingspan, willingness to defend and ability to create, Hill will be counted on to play a lot of minutes and work a two-man game with James.

Contrary to Hood and Clarkson, however, Hill's usage has ticked up in comparison to his play in Sacramento earlier this season, including the fastest pace he's played at since the 2015-16 season in Indiana. But even with these upticks, Hill is still taking fewer than 10 shots per game, far fewer than any team would require from a true second option, and he has no plans to change those ways.

"We just have to let the game come to us," Hill told Bleacher Report. "It's not just me. We have to be aggressive, but we have to play the right way."

Kyle Korver driving on the Atlanta Hawks' John Collins.
Kyle Korver driving on the Atlanta Hawks' John Collins.John Bazemore/Associated Press

Much like Smith, Kyle Korver and Jeff Green provide Ty Lue's Cavaliers with a pair of high-impact veterans off the bench. Korver has played shooting guard and small forward in various lineups with Green playing anywhere from the small forward all the way to center when needed. Both players, while being key members of one of the best bench units in the NBA, do not have the makeup of what would be needed from a consistent No. 2 option.

For all of the question marks surrounding each of these players, James has, by multiple accounts, been supportive of his new teammates, encouraging them to be aggressive. Push the pace and shoot the ball when open. While this could easily devolve into a narrative that equates a lack of a third All-Star to a lack of help for James, two wins against two top-tier teams cannot be erased by one tough loss.

If there's any silver lining, it's that Love will in fact be back. The Cavaliers, while barely hanging on to the third seed in the East, will play Brooklyn, New York and Phoenix twice in their final 25 games of the season. There may not be a true second option in the interim, but any one of their several scoring options can be the man on any given night. The trick, of course, is not having a night when they all go cold.


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