Despite a three-game winning streak, LeBron and company still have issues
A couple nights ago, the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Chicago Bulls. It was Cleveland’s third straight win. LeBron James is healthy, and telling people he hasn’t felt this good physically in quite a long time. Newcomer J. R. Smith made 6 of his 9 shots beyond the arc. Timofey Mozgov grabbed 15 rebounds—and, more importantly, helped Cleveland to edge Chicago 54-40 in the rebounding department. People on SportsCenter are already saying things like Cleveland is “back in business.” Ready to contend. Hypothesizing that maybe, after all, the Cavs really will be the best team in the East at the end of the year (never mind the fact that the Atlanta Hawks are 27-2 in their last 29 games. Sheesh.).
Well, I am no naysayer. And I believe that LeBron James is still the best player in basketball, and that his immense talent is still potent enough to erase a flood of woes. But at the same time I will warn you, Cavs fans: Even though Cleveland is winning, they still aren’t winning the right way. Here’s why.
Before we get into the bad stuff, though, there are a couple good signs in this three-game winning streak (a tiny sample size, we must admit). First, the rebounding. When this roster was assembled in the offseason, the first thing that popped into my head was how dominant the Cavs might be on the glass—with Kevin Love, LeBron James, Shawn Marion, etc. For whatever reason, they’ve been terrible. They’re 23rd in the league in rebounds per game. But in the last three matchups—i.e., in these three wins—the Cavs have outrebounded their opponent every time. And that includes two great frontcourts—the Griffin/Jordan combo in Los Angeles and Gibson/Gasol in Chicago (Noah was hurt). If the Cavs can consistently outrebound their opponents, it will help ease the pain of not having a shotblocker. (Mozgov is not a shotblocker; don’t even go there.)
So that’s a good sign. We’ll see if they can keep it up. Another good sign: J. R. Smith, who is a ridiculous basketball player, can still be a really good scorer. As he was last night. He probably isn’t as good of a defender as Dion Waiters is, but the Cavs needed firepower. More good news: Iman Shumpert should be making his debut any day now. We’ll see if that works out.
But there is bad news. The Cavs are winning the same way they were winning earlier in the season. Which is to say, they’re playing their best players way too many minutes. In the win against Chicago, James played 37 minutes, Love 30, and Irving 41. Blatt needs to show restraint in playing those three guys, and he needs to show faith in his bench players. In the win against Chicago, only three players played double-digit minutes off the bench. (Compare that to four for the Thunder last night, five for San Antonio.)
More than showing faith in those bench players, Blatt needs to show faith in James/Love/Irving—i.e., he needs to believe that those three guys are the incredible basketball players that they are, and will make everyone else on their team better. No matter who’s on the floor. It’s ridiculous to complain about the talent level of the other players on this roster, when a) they’re all in the NBA in the first place, and b) OKC can make someone like Andre Roberson a key player to their system.
Right now the Cavs are sacrificing the future for immediate success. It may assuage fears in Cleveland today, but come June the teams who’ve preserved their players for the rigorous playoffs will often surge. James isn’t 22 anymore.