You might recognize some of the players surrounding LeBron James on the Cleveland Cavaliers' playoff roster, but that doesn't mean they're playing high-quality basketball. With his team down two games to none in an Eastern Conference Finals against the upstart Boston Celtics, he's getting less help than ever.
Yes, that includes the 2007 squad he dragged to an NBA Finals showdown with the San Antonio Spurs, which featured Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Sasha Pavlovic as starters for most of the playoff run. It takes his Miami Heat years into account, though any team with vintage Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the books didn't leave James operating as a one-man army.
Kevin Love is a big name, even boasting a handful of All-Star selections throughout an impressive career, including one this year. But the regular season is irrelevant—for James, for Love, for everyone else in Cleveland. And during the playoffs, the power forward has apparently forgotten he's supposed to play like he deserved that nod to the midseason classic, averaging 15.5 points, 10.3 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.6 steals and 0.5 blocks per game while slashing a lackluster 40.2/37.1/90.5.
And when Love isn't connecting, where is James supposed to turn?
Kyle Korver, the team's third-leading scorer in the postseason, has served as a steady source of treys. He's not useful anywhere else, though, as the Cavs haven't taken advantage of his underrated passing skills and have been forced to cover for his defensive deficiencies. JR Smith and George Hill have endured extended stretches of cold shooting. Tristan Thompson bounces in and out of the lineup. Midseason additions Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood and Larry Nance Jr. have struggled to put their stamps on any contests.
The names belie the production, and you can see that most clearly by looking at points scored.
One-Man Scoring Crew
There's far more to basketball than the mere accumulation of buckets. Efficiency matters. Setting up teammates is important. Defense can't be overlooked. But on the most basic level, James' teammates are letting him down by their overwhelming failures to support his scoring.
Take a gander at the dozen highest single-game tallies by Cavaliers during the 2018 playoffs:
- LeBron James: 46 points against the Indiana Pacers
- LeBron James: 45 points against the Indiana Pacers
- LeBron James: 44 points against the Indiana Pacers
- LeBron James: 43 points against the Toronto Raptors
- LeBron James: 42 points against the Boston Celtics
- LeBron James: 38 points against the Toronto Raptors
- LeBron James: 32 points against the Indiana Pacers
- Kevin Love: 31 points against the Toronto Raptors
- LeBron James: 29 points against the Toronto Raptors
- LeBron James: 28 points against the Indiana Pacers
- LeBron James: 26 points against the Toronto Raptors
- LeBron James: 24 points against the Indiana Pacers
Seventeen times this postseason, a Cleveland contributor has reached the 20-point threshold. Twelve of those performances belong to James, leaving four for Love and one for Smith. And though we might expect such heroics from the best player in basketball history (note: I didn't say "greatest"), it's worth remembering James has never liked operating with a score-first mentality.
As he told Bleacher Report's Howard Beck during last year's Finals run. "I'm not a scorer, man. I've worked too hard in my career to have that label, from the beginning. I want the right play, I've always loved the success of my teammates—and so, I'm not a scorer. I'm fortunate to be No. 1 in all-time playoff points. But I think that's just a byproduct of me just playing the game the right way."
"I think he had to become—'selfish' is the wrong word—he had to become a scorer," P.J. Carlesimo, who coached against James as an assistant for the San Antonio Spurs during the 2007 Finals, explained to Beck. "I don't think it's ever been his nature. He doesn't mind scoring. I think he prefers and loves the passing and the handling and the other aspects of the game. He's always been like that."
That's what makes this workload so staggering. Not that James is 33 years old and, between his health throughout nearly every regular season, the perpetually deep playoff ventures and the international outings, has racked up mileage other players can't contemplate. Not that he's putting up gaudy point totals every night. Not even that we're starting to see tinges of gray in the back corners of his beard.
It's that he's carrying a disproportionate amount of the scoring load compared to previous adventures with subpar supporting casts:
James has always scored a large percentage of his team's playoff points, but this is different. We have to hearken back to his initial tenure with Cleveland, when he was a different player than this fully realized version. Though he was still putting up well-rounded lines, he was also competing for scoring titles (he won in 2007-08) and calling his own number much more frequently.
This scoring binge comes out of necessity. And even that's not as telling as a look at his teammates' overall value.
When Saturday Night Live is spoofing LeBron's teammates, you know things have gotten rough. The best jokes, after all, are rooted in truth.
To his credit, James isn't participating in the criticism. Asked about what he could do to improve his teammates' play after the opening-round Game 3 loss, he took the high road, per USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt:
"What are you guys looking for? You think I'm going to throw my teammates under the bus. I'm not about that. Guys have just got to play better, including myself. I had six turnovers tonight. I was horrible in the third quarter. Couldn't make a shot. If I make some better plays in the third quarter, then the lead don't slip. We know we've all got to play better as a collective group."
Maybe the four-time MVP believes that. Maybe it's lip service.
Either way, the lackluster play of these running mates has forced him into doing far too much of the heavy lifting, making it impossible to overcome even one rough quarter. If he has six turnovers, it feels as if the Cavs might be doomed. They need near-perfection from their superstar.
James has been tasked with shouldering heavy loads before, though that doesn't make the challenge any easier. Four times prior to this season, his teammates have combined to produce a negative score in NBA Math's total points added (TPA), a volume/efficiency metric for which a mark of zero indicates league-average play.
During each of his first two postseason appearances, his teammates wound up in the red. Donyell Marshall, Anderson Varejao and Ira Newble were the only positive finishers back in 2006, while Daniel Gibson, Varejao and Zydrunas Ilgauskas submitted the only above-average numbers for the 2007 squad routinely deemed one of the worst ever to make the Finals. The score dipped back below the break-even point in 2010—only Jamario Moon, Anthony Parker and Ilgauskas were in the green—prompting James' departure to the Miami Heat with his infamous decision.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, the 2014 playoffs were the only other go-around before the current one in which the non-LeBrons finished below zero. This time, Bosh, Ray Allen, Wade, James Jones and Greg Oden were positives, but they couldn't cancel out the other roster members' lackluster work. James departed South Beach after that season, choosing to boomerang his talents back to Cleveland.
Are we predicting a departure this offseason in a continuation of this trend? That's a topic for another time. But a precedent has been set, and this is easily the most negative score yet for James' teammates:
The team's other-than-James portion is still faring similarly to previous ventures on defense, but the offensive production has fallen off a cliff. Eliminate the leader from the equation, and the Cavaliers are shooting 42.5 percent from the field, 34.5 percent from beyond the rainbow and 77.8 percent from the stripe—rather comparable to the regular-season efforts of Royce O'Neale (42.3/35.6/80.3) or Andrew Harrison (42.2/33.1/78.0).
If that's not enough, how about 133 assists to 103 turnovers?
As you can see below in a contrast with all the other teammates (black) who have suited up next to James over the years, only two non-James members of the current Cavs (red) have positive scores in the offensive component of TPA: Korver (10.1) and Thompson (0.67).
This team doesn't have a prime Wade ready to serve as a convincing Robin to James' Batman. It doesn't even have an Alfred Pennyworth, for that matter. Kyrie Irving isn't walking onto the hardwood, ready to save the day with some crunch-time buckets. The great role players of the past such as Shane Battier, Chris Andersen, Mario Chalmers and Daniel Gibson? They've disappeared, as well.
All that remain are recognizable names, though the current versions are merely knockoffs of their former selves.
Limiting the James Effect
Perhaps that's why we're seeing on/off splits that run counter to what we've come to expect from James.
During his 2016 route to a title, which included the legendary erasure of the Golden State Warriors' 3-1 NBA Finals advantage, James helped boost Cleveland's net rating from minus-7.2 to 13.9 when he was on the floor—a staggering swing of 21.1 points per 100 possessions. Last postseason, he hoisted the Cavaliers' net rating by 30.7 points over the same average stretch.
This year, it isn't the same story.
When James is riding the pine—something that doesn't happen frequently this time of year—opponents have outscored the Cavaliers by 7.9 points per 100 possessions. But his appearance only lifts the net rating to minus-0.6. His teammates have been impervious to the presence that has elevated his running mates' play for well over a decade, which might be the most telling sign of all.
Reasonable counterarguments exist. After so much midseason shuffling, the roster is still seeking continuity and comfort on a stage that doesn't typically allow for such experimentation. James is taking more possessions off defensively (perhaps out of necessity, given his Sisyphean burden on offense), and that could be having an ill effect on his teammates. His tendency to commandeer possessions for the vast majority of the shot clock doesn't help.
Regardless of the underlying explanation, these teammates aren't performing. That's what matters more than anything, since James has functioned as a one-man wrecking ball capable of single-handedly swaying one contest after another.
With a minimum of two games remaining against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, the rest of the Cavaliers roster still has a chance to turn this around. Love, Korver, Smith and Thompson have the playoff pedigree necessary to engender some type of belief, while the trade-deadline acquisitions haven't yet lived up to the expectations accompanying them on their midseason journeys to Northeast Ohio.
But if nothing changes—hell, even if his teammates do experience a bit of positive regression—this will easily be the heaviest collective anchor James has attempted to drag all the way to the NBA's biggest stage.