This is the worst stretch of basketball LeBron James has ever suffered through in his career.
The Cleveland Cavaliers just lost four games in a row — something a team with James isn’t supposed to do. If that wasn’t bad enough, the losses didn’t exactly come against the cream of the crop.
One thing that everyone can agree on, for the most part: this is not the least talented team James has ever played on. This team is clearly better than every team he played for in Cleveland before his departure to Miami, even the 2007 team James dragged kicking and screaming to the NBA Finals.
The question, then, if this team is objectively better than those teams, why are they playing so much worse?
It’s a complicated answer, one that certainly has ties to the place James’ career is in now compared to where it was back then.
But Cleveland’s early season struggles can also be traced directly back to one clear decision the Cavs made during the offseason.
After being ran out of town by the Golden State Warriors in five games in last year’s NBA Finals, it was clear the Cavs needed retooling. When the free agency period started, Dan Gilbert and the Cavs leadership didn’t yet know their young star point guard, Kyrie Irving, would be wearing a different jersey by the time game one rolled around.
So despite flirting around trades for Jimmy Butler and Paul George, the Cavs ultimately had to settle for filling out their supporting cast with the best players they could find for virtually no money. That’s where the key decision was made: the Cavs made a clear choice to prioritize experience over fit, youth, and even ability. They brought in former teammates of James and players he has a clear respect for.
Nine games into the season, that choice couldn’t look more misguided.
The youngest player in the Cavs rotation is Tristan Thompson, the center who played a key role in Cleveland’s triumphant 2016 championship. Through nine games, he has been shifted in and out of the starting lineup, and put up the worst numbers of his career. If that wasn’t bad enough, he is now injured and will miss the next month.
Nine players in Cleveland’s rotation are 29 or older. In related news, the Cavs have the worst defense in the league, with a defensive rating of 111.9. Their defense last year — which was unacceptably bad — had a rating of 108.
In order to understand where things went wrong for Cleveland, compare them to the team for whom everything seems to go right: the Warriors.
These guys have no MVPs between them, no Finals appearances, not even an All-Star selection. But they fit in the Warriors’ system perfectly, and they still have gas in the tank. Bell protects the rim and rolls to the basket, Casspi and Young knock down wide-open threes; Casspi even competes on defense.
Cleveland brought in Derrick Rose — the 2011 MVP, Dwyane Wade — a three-time NBA champion, and Jeff Green — who has also been in the NBA a long time. On paper, this looks great. They added a former MVP, one of the greatest shooting guards of all-time, and another person.
Only when you watch these guys try to fit into the Cavs’ system do you realize the problem.
The Cavs are now a team made of guys who have spent most of their careers being the best player on the floor — LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Dwyane Wade. They’re complemented by guys who play like they’re the best guy on the floor even though they haven’t been for years, or never were in the first place — Derrick Rose and J.R. Smith. Jeff Green certainly understands his role, but he has actively hurt every team he has been on since his tragic heart surgery. Beyond that, they’re forced to give minutes to guys who simply don’t have it anymore, like Jose Calderon, Channing Frye, and Kyle Korver.
This team is slow, they’re old, and they’re not trying that hard right now. But they’re also absurdly miscast and are unlikely to ever have chemistry, even when their real point guard comes back.
At this point in his career, following seven straight Finals appearances and 14 years of carrying teams, James needed guys to reduce his load, not the slowest, oldest roster he has ever played with.
The Warriors have made a habit of taking players like JaVale McGee and putting them in the best situation they’ve ever been in. This year, the Cavs took over-the-hill veterans and put them in no sort of situation at all. It’s unclear what these guys are supposed to be doing, or how they’re going to get notably better.
If Cleveland had different priorities, they could have a much better team right now; and it didn’t just happen this offseason. This has been an issue for all of James’ second tenure in Ohio. The Cavs have consistently traded off picks for veterans, and let young guys like Joe Harris, DeAndre Liggins, and Kay Felder walk away.
It would be appropriate if this year was the King’s last with the Cavs, because this past offseason was when Cleveland’s biggest team-building flaw was the most apparent. Even considering their past mistakes, Gilbert and co. could have taken a lot of positive steps last summer by bringing in interesting, cheap pieces like Ian Clark, Dewayne Dedmon, or Hollis Thompson.
It’s safe to say they chose the guys they did specifically to appease James, whether he requested them directly or not. But what would have really appeased James is giving him some guys who can help him play. Some guys he can kick the ball to after he gets penetration, some guys who can reduce his load on defense.
Instead he got Derrick Rose and an ageing Dwyane Wade.
It’s going to be a long, slow season in Cleveland.