The Cleveland Cavaliers are 1-2 after getting blown out 101-82 in Portland on Tuesday night.
LeBron James had a quiet game. He scored 11 point on 12 shots, going scoreless in the second half while only taking one free throw.
As strange as it sounds, this passive performance appears to have been by design.
ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, who’s probably the best, most well-sourced LeBron reporter out there, wrote after the game that LeBron is letting his young Cavs teammates struggle early in the season so they eventually buy into his plan.
“In recent days there have been growing questions as to whether James might be hurt — he has dealt with some minor back soreness — or in some way suddenly physically diminished because at times he has looked lackluster.
“That is not the case at all.
“This is a conscious decision on how he plans to operate in a passive-aggressive mission to yank some teammates toward his way of thinking. Let some of them fail at their way so they will be open to new ideas, is what it looks and sounds like.”
After the game LeBron blamed the loss on his teammates’ “bad habits.”
“There’s been a lot of losing basketball around here for a few years,” he told SI’s Ben Golliver. “A lot of bad habits have been built over the last couple of years. When you play that style of basketball it takes a lot to get it up out of you. But I’m here to help.”
That appears to be a shot at Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, and Tristan Thompson — the three young players who played meaningful minutes for last year’s Cavs team.
It’s undeniable that LeBron took a backseat on Tuesday. He has a career usage rate (an advanced metric that measures the percentage of a team’s plays that a player uses) of 31.6. On Tuesday he had a usage rate of 19.7.
He took four shots in the second half, and mostly just stood around:
In LeBron’s voluntary absence, Irving and Waiters ate up most of the possessions. That went terribly. They were a combined 6-for-28 from the field. Waiters played 28 minutes and somehow managed to not record a single rebound or assist while shooting 3-for-11 and scoring six points.
Irving’s shot chart looked like this:
Golliver gave a brutal assessment of LeBron’s performance after the game:
“The plan, it seems, was for James to avoid overexerting his four-time MVP influence so that his teammates can learn to play the right way on their own. That’s a bad plan. Cleveland’s younger players followed James’ detached lead right off the cliff. James deferred, and his teammates compensated by pounding the basketball. James floated on the perimeter, and his teammates enthusiastically chucked low-percentage shots. James never set the tone defensively in the second half, and his teammates allowed clean look after clean look for Portland’s sharpshooting guards.”
In his first stint in Cleveland, LeBron was a one-man show with some really shaky role players around him.
The second time around his plan appears to be this: Let Waiters and Irving see what happens if all they try to do is score. When that backfires, don’t be a safety net. Once they realise that they have to play within the system and buy-in on defence, start taking a more active role within the offence.
He’s basically pushing the baby birds out of the nest here and watching them flap around on the ground below.
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