LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers will take on his former team, the Miami Heat, on ESPN Friday night. The late game features a rematch of the Western Conference Finals, with the Golden State Warriors facing the Houston Rockets. A panel of Today’s Fastbreak writers got together to discuss some topics from those games.
Jason Patt: To start this off, let’s talk about LeBron James. Is his lingering back injury a concern? Will we see a real regression from him this season?
Nekias Duncan: This is going to sound a lot more harsh than I intend it to, so I’ll just knock out the negative first.
I think Bron’s ailing back is ultimately going to be his downfall. I also feel like last season was probably his last as the “undisputed” best player in the NBA. He’ll only be 31 in December, but once you account for his mileage in the regular and postseason, his workload throughout his career and his play style in general, he’s a lot older in a basketball sense.
As we saw against the Bulls, he wasn’t able to elevate that well relative to what we’re accustomed to, especially on the Pau block to essentially end the game in the opener. His defense has gradually cratered over the last three years. While some of that is due to an increased offensive load, he hasn’t been able to compensate for some faulty mechanics with insane athleticism like he has in the past.
With that said, a declining LeBron is still going to be better than 98 percent of the league, and he can drop 25-7-5 in his sleep. He’ll have his nights where he feels good and he’ll look like Vintage Bron. But he isn’t head-and-shoulders above the pack anymore. He has to have his minutes and body managed this year and moving forward.
Dave Leonardis: LeBron’s back is definitely a concern. As much as he believed he was good to go to start the season, you could tell in his body language during the opener that it was affecting him. It puts the Cavs in a tough spot because the only way for James to fully heal is to rest, but the team is too beat up for him to miss any time.
If Cleveland is serious about competing for a title, they’re going to have to play it smart with LeBron all season. We’ve seen bad backs hinder the careers of guys like Larry Bird, Larry Johnson and Steve Nash. LeBron is bigger and more athletic than those guys, but as a guy whose game is predicated on speed and power, he could cause some serious damage trying to bully through this. I think he’ll find a way to put up his typical LBJ stat line, but sooner rather than later, we’re going to have the conversation about how many transcendent seasons The King has left in him.
Michael Erler: It’s not a concern at all as I see it because James has the luxury of being in the Eastern Conference. He could pull himself out of the lineup for 20 games, Cleveland could get off to a 3-18 start and they’d still be overwhelming favorites to not only make the playoffs but to make it back to the Finals. As long as he’s right physically when it matters, they’re essentially a hockey team in the NBA, their regular season just doesn’t matter. They can punt home-court advantage and shrug it off.
I don’t expect him to regress much this season if any. He’s more comfortable with his teammates and they with him. Whatever he loses physically he can make up for mentally because he’s so much smarter than almost every opponent he’s facing in that conference. I’m expecting better chemistry between he and Kevin Love, more scoring from the bench with Mo Williams on board and he can rest defensively a lot of nights with Iman Shumpert doing the heavy lifting there when he gets back. If anything he should take a month off to rest his back and use that time to refine his jumper. As we’ve seen through James’s career, if he’s hitting from outside there’s not much anyone can do.
Jason: At this point, I don’t think it’s a huge concern, but I’m not brushing it off either. While we like to think of LeBron as an indestructible cyborg, he does have A TON of miles on that body, so it’s not a surprise that he’s starting to break down.
In terms of a regression, I feel like we’re going to see one simply because he’s going to coast through much of the regular season. We saw it the other night against the Grizzlies. 31 minutes and just 4/13 from the field. Of course, it didn’t matter and many times it won’t matter because the Cavaliers are so talented (and just wait until Kyrie is back).
But if LeBron and the Cavaliers do slip up for whatever reason, Friday night’s opponent in the Miami Heat are poised to be one of the top challengers. Is LeBron’s former team a legitimate threat?
Nekias: As much as I want to say yes, I’m a bit reluctant to go all the way out there.
Miami could push Cleveland to six or seven games, sure, so in that context they’re a legitimate threat because anything could happen in a Game 7. In a vacuum though, I still have questions about Miami’s spacing and defense — although both were pretty good the other night against Charlotte.
As hard as Goran Dragic tries and as smart as he is, he couldn’t keep Kemba Walker in front of him. What do you think Kyrie Irving would do?
Despite a strong third quarter, Hassan Whiteside got absolutely worked by Al Jefferson overall, mostly because he fell for just about every fake Al threw at him. Timofey Mozgov isn’t Jefferson, but he’s nifty down low and is sneaky good at drawing fouls. Can Hassan be trusted and smart enough to stay on the floor to neutralize LeBron and Kyrie driving, or Kevin Love, Mozgov or Tristan Thompson on the glass?
And of course, there’s the health issue. I just need to see more.
Dave: Absolutely. There’s obviously some kinks that need to be worked out, as Nekias pointed out, but it’s hard not to like the Heat on paper. They are deep and led by guys who have experience making extended runs in the playoffs in Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Plus, I think getting Justise Winslow at No. 10 was the steal of the draft. That kid will be an immediate contributor as a rookie before becoming a future star in this league.
Hassan Whiteside is their X-factor for me. He’s still raw and he’s not a great passer out of the post, but he’s a two-way threat playing for a new contract next summer. If he makes strides in his first full season as a starter, that rotation is going to be a problem.
The biggest issue I have with Miami is health. D-Wade is a month-long absence waiting to happen. Bosh is coming off a very serious medical condition. If this team is at full strength though, I think talent and coaching makes them the greatest threat to knock off the Cavs in the East, even more so than Chicago.
Jason: You guys both mentioned Whiteside, and it seems like his development will play a key role in all this. Nekias, I saw you on Twitter bemoaning some of Whiteside’s play in the opener. What did you like and not like about how he looked?
Nekias: His mental game just wasn’t there. In the article I wrote about him earlier in the offseason, I mentioned that he isn’t a good post defender yet mostly because he falls for fakes easily. He’s young, and I’ve seen DeAndre Jordan have and grow from the same issues so it isn’t a red flag; he just needs to get better.
The thing that got me was that on top of getting worked by Jefferson, he pretty much checked out. The non-calls offensively bothered him, and that affected his defense. Guarding Al Jefferson is tough enough on it’s own; compounding the issue by getting frustrated made everything worse, hence Spo benching him roughly five minutes into the game.
He’s talented and, as I mentioned earlier, responded with a strong third quarter on both ends in that same game. But he has to keep his composure and anchor the paint on both ends if Miami seriously wants to contend.
Michael: I think there are just too many variables at play to trust Miami.
There isn’t enough shooting on the roster, and the one guy who can shoot, Gerald Green, can’t defend. Whiteside is an emotional powderkeg and you never know when he’s going to go off. I get the impression he’ll grouse and complain if he’s not getting enough touches, and he probably won’t get them as long as everyone is healthy. And then there are Wade’s knees to worry about.
I think the Bulls pose more of a threat to Cleveland because at least they have a bunch of big bodies and Jimmy Butler can make LeBron work. If Rose can ever get back to 80 percent of what he was, there’s nobody on Cleveland who can keep him out of the paint and they don’t really have any rim protection outside of Mozgov.
Jason: The Bulls have looked pretty darn good so far, and (homer alert) I’d say they have the highest ceiling of all the Cavaliers challengers. Will they stay healthy? Who the hell knows.
Anyway, transitioning to the other big game of the night: Rockets/Warriors. This is a rematch of the Western Conference Finals and both teams are title contenders once again. We know how great the Warriors are and can be (and they were awesome in their opener), but what needs to happen for the Rockets to reach the next level?
Nekias: Honestly, Houston just needs to stay healthy and defend.
At full strength and on paper, Houston has a great mixture of scoring, shooting, athleticism, vets and youth. Dwight Howard is one of the NBA’s best rim protectors, and Trevor Ariza is still a solid wing defender. However, how well Ty Lawson, James Harden (who improved last year) and either of Houston’s 4s defend will determine if they can REALLY contend. Of course, Houston could always close games with Patrick Beverley if need be, but Terrence Jones and/or Donatas Motiejunas need to make a leap.
Dave: Shooting better than 34.5 percent from the field as a team (like they did in a blowout loss to Denver) would be a nice start. I think staying healthy is huge for the Rockets, even with the depth they have. Dwight Howard needs to regain his old form or at least something close to it because he’s one of the best defenders in the game when he’s right. Turnovers are another huge problem for the Rockets. They’ve been at the top or near the top of the league in turning the ball over the last three years. In a tough conference and especially against a team like the Warriors, Houston can’t keep making mistakes.
The only thing standing in Houston’s way is itself. I’ve written that I think Harden wins the MVP this year, and I thought he deserved it last year. The more he improves, the higher this team’s ceiling will be.
Michael: I think Houston is actually quite comparable to Miami. They’re the Heat of the Western Conference, with very similar strengths and weaknesses. I’m not sold on them having enough shooting either. They make a lot of threes, but only out of sheer volume of attempts rather than accuracy. I want to see what their chemistry will be like ingratiating Lawson into the mix. Like a lot of people I think they’d be better off starting Beverley and bringing Lawson off the bench for scoring.
Ultimately, I just can’t trust a team led by Harden and Howard. Few people remember how bad Harden was in Game 6 at LA and they made that huge comeback with him on the bench. Howard is a liability down the stretch with his free throw shooting. I just don’t think they’re good enough and wouldn’t be surprised at all if they took a step back and didn’t even make it out of the first round this year. There’s five really good teams in the West, and if you’re gonna play first-round musical chairs I’d probably have to pick them to go.
To answer your question of what it would take for them to make the Finals, outside of huge injury epidemics to their competition, it would take Harden and Howard proving that they’re not the guys they’ve always been.
Jason: I think that’s a BIT harsh on Harden and Howard, although Harden certainly did have his share of blunders in the postseason last year, and even before that. Then again, I’m also not all that sold on them either in relation to the other tier of top West contenders. The talent is there, but Howard has his own injury problems and the Lawson thing is a question mark. I agree with Michael in saying they’re fifth in the West pecking order.