As great as it is to take in a LeBron James performance, there’s one habit of his which is incredibly frustrating to watch. I’m referring to when he appears as though he’s just not engaged in the game.
Now, sure, we all have moments where we’re just not there mentally, seemingly unable to dig in to the day ahead. The problem is, with James, it always seems intentional, as if he’s checked out for a reason.
He sure seemed this way in Cleveland’s putrid playoff opener against the Indiana Pacers. If what we saw from James in Sunday’s 98-80 loss is a sign of what’s to come, the Cavs are essentially screwed.
While he notched a triple-double, it was certainly a quiet one. James didn’t attempt his first shot until there were just under two minutes left in the first quarter, and only so often drove to the rim. A few post-game reports hinted some within the organization were perplexed as to why James didn’t seem like he was all there.
What makes these efforts – or lack thereof – so frustrating is how quickly you can tell he’s playing this way. As each minute ticked by in the first quarter of Game 1, his lack of shot attempts became more noticeable. That this was occurring while Indiana started running away with the contest only increased the concern.
Suddenly, it became very apparent what we were watching.
The fact is James has played games this way before. We’ve seen a handful of nights where he seems to purposefully disengage, mainly to see what his supporting cast can do without him. He looks to get others involved, and continues to do so even if shots aren’t falling.
During these games, it appears James is hoping someone else can pick up the slack during his minimal offensive output. The problem is there’s nobody who can be counted on to do that.
There’s no more Kyrie Irving on this team. Nobody on the roster can take the game over, create their own shot and provide instant offense all on their own. There are plenty of spot-up shooters, and Kevin Love can certainly try and generate scoring in post possessions. However, in terms of players who can take over and provide individual offense, Cleveland is fresh out.
This, of course, is a big issue. Especially, when the best player on the team disengages.
What happens then is exactly what we saw on Sunday. The opponent starts to run away with the game while James continues deferring to those same players who can’t hit any of their open looks. Before you know it, his endless attempt to get his teammates involved results in the Cavs getting run out of the gym.
This is why Cleveland simply can’t afford James falling back into this routine anymore. This team is built to rely on shooters hitting open looks he can provide them when driving to the lane. When said shooters are constantly missing, the Cavs are down to two options. Either James takes over, or Cleveland accepts a loss.
What’s worth noting is, typically when he deliberately takes on the role of facilitator, it feels as though it’s done as an attempt to prove a point. It’s as if James is telling the front office “let’s see if the help you gave me can get the job done.” He’s done this before, specifically in his final days with the Miami Heat, as well as his first tour with Cleveland.
If this is indeed the case, fine, point proven. The rest of the Cavs can’t win on their own when the team’s best player checks out.
If James continues to do so, said point will be hammered home in the form of Cleveland’s postseason ending far earlier than anyone expected.