Still a team in search of its identity, the Cleveland Cavaliers stutter-stepped their way to an 8-4 record through the first month of the season, placing them barely ahead of Milwaukee atop the NBA’s Central Division.
A stinging loss to the Washington Wizards on Wednesday illustrated one of the team’s glaring weaknesses, while an ongoing trend points to a surprising development in their offensive arsenal.
First, the good news: This team, believe it or not, can shoot. Through 12 games, the Cavaliers are nailing an impressive 44.6 percent from the three-point line. It’s early, but that’s clearly a major improvement over last year’s 39 percent success rate.
What happened? Anthony Parker, for one thing. And Daniel Gibson has rediscovered his long-distance touch, something that eluded him for most of the 2008-2009 campaign.
Parker, starting in place of Delonte West, has nailed a sizzling 55.3 percent of his three-pointers (26-for-47), while Gibson has connected on 46.9 percent (23-for-49). Keeping pace is Mo Williams, who has clicked on almost half of his treys (26-for-54, 48.1 percent).
Talk about stretching the defense. Together, the threesome is averaging a cool 50 percent from downtown.
Which begs the question: What is LeBron James doing hanging around the perimeter?
Astonishingly, it is James, not one of his hot-shooting teammates, who leads the Cavs in three-point attempts, with 55. He’s hit 20—a respectable 36.4 percent, better than any single season of his career—but the numbers suggest it’s time for James to live up to his off-season promise to take his game inside.
Instead, the Cavs have often regressed into their old bad habits. There’s James, dribbling and dribbling. There’s James, sizing up the basket. There’s James, firing up another long jumper. Meanwhile, the rest of the team shifts into “let’s-wait-and-see-what-LeBron-does” mode, stymieing the offense and playing into the hands of grateful opponents.
A 17-point lead at Washington dissolved into a 17-point loss, and James was as responsible as anyone, misfiring repeatedly down the stretch as the Wizards delighted in their good fortune. Similar leads were blown in what turned out to be unnecessarily close wins against Utah and Golden State. The Cavaliers have been unable to put away overmatched opponents.
James still scored 34 points in the Washington loss, so it’s not like he’s terrible. But the numbers suggest it’s time for him to take his Karl Malone-like physique into the paint and get physical. This is especially true when Shaquille O’Neal and Anderson Varajeo are on the sidelines, as they have been this week due to injuries.
But even when the team has its full complement of big men, James needs to live down low more often. There’s more room there than people think; remember the way Parrish, McHale and Bird stayed out of each other’s way in Boston? James on the block could—make that should—be an unstoppable force. He just has to want it.
LeBron is not a terrible shooter. But he’s not a great one, either. In past seasons, he’s had to try everything possible to score. For the most part, he’s delivered.
But the early returns indicate that this is a changed Cavaliers team. He should change with it.
In last year’s Eastern Conference finals, the Orlando Magic had the Cavs’ heads spinning with their three-point prowess. Yet their team percentage of 40.8 during that series pales in comparison to Cleveland’s mark this fall.
Think about what their guards are doing: 50 percent from the three-point line? Are you kidding me?
There’s room for LeBron to move on offense as needed, and he remains perhaps the most unstoppable force in the open court that the league has ever seen.
But he’s not the best three-point shooter on the team. In fact, he's not even close. He is, however, an all-league defender, an intimidating shot-blocker, and a strong rebounder—three qualities every team needs in the post.
The jury is still out on Cleveland’s Shaq experiment, and what it will mean over the long haul. But one thing is clear right now: The Cavs have better long-range weapons than James. It’s up to Mike Brown to instill the needed discipline on his team, and his star, so that those weapons can fire on all cylinders.