Season of Chaos Has LeBron Stuck Doing What He Didn't Want to in Cavs Return

Ken Berger@@KBergNBAFeatured Columnist IApril 20, 2018

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 18: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers handles the ball against the Indiana Pacers in Game Two of Round One during the 2018 NBA Playoffs on April 18, 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

Aside from barely escaping their home floor with the series tied 1-1, not much has gone right for LeBron James and the Cavaliers as they venture to Indiana on Friday for Game 3 of their first-round series.

They scored one point less than Kobe Bryant's career high in Game 1, shooting a queasy 39 percent from the field (including 8-of-34 from three-point range). Coach Tyronn Lue shuffled the starting lineup for Game 2, inserting Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith in the hopes that familiarity would lead to productivity. And it did, but only for one guy.

LeBron James' 46 points on 71 percent shooting were barely enough, as the Cavs nearly blew an 18-point lead and only just survived with a 100-97 victory. Which begs the question: How much more can James do?

"He'll put them on his back," a rival Eastern Conference head coach told Bleacher Report. "It's just a matter of whether he runs out of gas from carrying them."

Whatever the outcome of this series, you need all 10 fingers to count the ways that James' second tour of duty in Cleveland has gone unexpectedly wrong this season.

Despite the hyperbole about "coming home," one of the main purposes of rejoining the Cavs was for James to not have to carry a team all by himself as he got older. He was attracted to the idea of playing alongside Kyrie Irving, a young, emerging star who could take on much of the playmaking responsibility and limit wear and tear on James' body.

So much for that. Owner Dan Gilbert decided to cave to Irving's trade request this past summer, sending him to the Celtics barely a month before training camp opened. As outlined here, this was a defining moment that set off a chain of events and landed the Cavs in their current predicament.

First, it gave them an old, slow, dysfunctional team that only got worse when Gilbert's main target in the deal, Isaiah Thomas, returned from a hip injury and started rubbing everyonemost notably LeBronthe wrong way. It's a classic example of how one hastily arranged trade often leads to more moves down the road to unravel the mess.

At the February trade deadline, the Cavs had no choice but to remove Thomas from the equation and get younger and more athletic. The moves pulled off by GM Koby Altman were universally praised. The addition of Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and George Hill gave James some younger, more agile bodies around him. At the same time, dead weight and bad karma were removed.

Jordan Clarkson has shot only 30 percent from the field and has yet to hit a three-pointer in the first two games against the Pacers.
Jordan Clarkson has shot only 30 percent from the field and has yet to hit a three-pointer in the first two games against the Pacers.Jason Miller/Getty Images

A few weeks into the experiment, with the Cavs in the process of finishing the regular season 19-10 with their remade roster, James noted, "We still have some time." But what we've seen in the first two games of James' pursuit of an eighth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals is a product of just how little time they had.

And why major roster overhauls at the trade deadline are so precarious.

"The Cavs had no choice," a Western Conference executive told B/R. "But making changes at the deadlineespecially big ones—are hard on any team."

While the All-Star break and trade deadline are commonly viewed as a midpoint of the NBA season, the Cavs only had 29 games left before the postseason began to integrate all the new pieces and learn how to play together. This is why examples of championship contenders making major additions at the deadlinethe Pistons with Rasheed Wallace in 2004, or the Rockets with Clyde Drexler in 1995are so rare.

"Youthful talent doesn't always translate at playoff time," the rival coach said. "Even if you're trading for vets, you don't know if the chemistry will click."

Hood and Clarkson in particular, struggled in Game 1, prompting Lue to go to a starting lineup that actually has logged some miles together. The results were mixed. The Cavs only got 16 points from their bench in Game 2, and LeBron had to score nearly half their points.

Oh, and by the way: Despite getting younger, the Cavs are still the oldest team in the playoffs.

This is not what James signed up for when he returned to Cleveland in 2014, and it's certainly not what he was hoping for when the Cavs reshuffled their roster in February.

So why have the moves fizzled at the worst possible time?

"The new guys are pressing," another Western Conference executive said. "Those guys are trying so hard because they want to prove themselves to LeBron."

So far, all that's been proven is that LeBron has to do everything or the Cavs have no chance.

Without Kyrie Irving and working with a roster that has changed often this season, LeBron James has seen the demands on him as heavy as it has ever been in his return to Cleveland.
Without Kyrie Irving and working with a roster that has changed often this season, LeBron James has seen the demands on him as heavy as it has ever been in his return to Cleveland.Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Maybe James, in the midst of his 15th seasona brilliant one, at thatcan play Hercules long enough to buy time for the new additions to achieve the comfort and chemistry necessary to win at playoff time.

"Don't count him out," the rival Eastern Conference coach said.

I won't, and neither should the Pacers. But it's worth noting that what we're seeing from the Cavs is a cautionary tale about the fool's gold of the trade deadline. Chemistry, the Cavs are learning, has to be builtnot bought.

                   

Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KBergNBA.

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