LeBron James isn’t looking like LeBron James right now.
This may or may not mean anything. The Cleveland Cavaliers — who added LeBron, Kevin Love, Shawn Marion, and Mike Miller in the offseason — are in the embryonic stage of their development. Also, 80% of LeBron is better than pretty much every other player in the NBA.
But LeBron is definitely off. He hasn’t been the overpowering physical force he was in Miami early in his second stint with the Cavaliers.
There are a wide variety of theories for why — age? weight loss? injury? master plan? — but no single explanation that the NBA world can agree on.
1. He’s getting to the basket less and he’s less effective once he gets there. LeBron took 49% of his shots at the rim last year and made 79.2% of those shots. This year he’s taking 35% of his shots at the rim and making 53.8% of them.
2. 11.6% of his shots last year were dunks. This year 4% of his shots are dunks.
3. He got chased down by Gordon Hayward in the open court, somehow:
4. He’s taking possessions off on defence:
The NBA world is noticing.
Is it just me, or does LeBron look, like, 5 per cent less explosive so far? Maybe just back issues/playing his way into peak form. It’s early
— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) November 1, 2014
I think LeBron’s back is still bothering him. Wasn’t aggressive at all in transition that time, missing layups at the rim he’d usually make.
— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) November 5, 2014
We are just not used to seeing LeBron get stone-walled Gordon Hayward at the rim in one-on-one situations:
What is happening?
Bill Simmons went on ESPN Radio on Wednesday and threw out a couple of possible explanations (via Big Lead):
“Anyone who thinks LeBron looks the same is fooling themselves. He doesn’t have the same impulsiveness. He looks 20 pounds lighter physically. Just his general force-of-natureness capacity — whatever you want to say — it’s not there. And he’s driving to the basket, and he’s under the rim now, and I don’t know what that means. I don’t know if he’s hurt, I don’t know if the big weight loss has affected his game or whatever. This is not a jump-to-conclusion thing. I have been watching this Cavs team since the preseason games started, and he does not look the same.”
LeBron lost significant weight this offseason by cutting out sugar, carbs, and dairy for 67-straight days. He said before the season that the weight loss was a mental challenge, and it had “nothing to do with basketball.” A bunch of NBA players have gone on similar paleo-style diets — most notably Ray Allen in Miami before the 2013-14 season. There are no real examples of paleo guys coming out sluggish the next season.
There’s also a theory that LeBron is hurt. He sat out a few preseason games because of a back injury.
ESPN’s Brian Windhorst shot down that rumour after the Trail Blazers game. In doing so, Windhorst presented another theory that would explain LeBron’s lackluster start — he’s purposely letting his team fail in order to teach them a lesson.
Here’s Windhorst on whether LeBron is hiding an injury:
“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.”
LeBron scored 11 points on 12 shots against Portland. In the second half he pulled a 2006 Kobe, refusing to shoot and letting his teammates bury themselves. After the game he reportedly got into a tiff with Kyrie Irving before telling the media that Kyrie and others have “bad habits“.
The idea here is this: LeBron isn’t just going to take over for these guys when the offence isn’t working, he’s going to force them to play team basketball.
One of the dominant narratives of the preseason was LeBron’s newfound interest in being a leader. He spent the summer reading books about leadership styles, and right before the team’s first practice he called a players-only meeting where he went around to each guy and told them what he expected of them. He’s fashioning himself the wise old man of the Cavs, here to show the unlearn’d youth the path to a title.
That’s fine … but where does it leave new head coach David Blatt?
Blatt has decades of international coaching experience and he’s widely regarded as a basketball genius. But he has never coached an NBA team, much less an NBA team with a player who has amassed more power and influence than anyone since Jordan.
After the Cavs’ opening-night loss to the Knicks, Blatt reportedly held a fiery team meeting where he called out various players.
A few nights later, LeBron told Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon-Journal that he doesn’t believe in pep talks:
“Also of note, James seemed to dismiss Blatt’s fire and brimstone speech he brought after the Cavs lost the opener to the Knicks. The Cavs beat the Bulls hours after Blatt laid into them. ‘I think pep talks and things of that nature get overblown,’ James said. ‘There’s a lot of pep talks when you lose, too. They just don’t come up.’ Be prepared: it sounds like another blistering speech is coming Wednesday before the Cavs play the Jazz. Blatt said he didn’t deliver a message after Tuesday’s game because he was saving it for Wednesday.”
The Cavaliers are struggling with Blatt’s offence. Some smart analysts expected this to be one of the best offensive teams ever. Instead, they’re dead last in the NBA in assists per game.
How do you explain the greatest player in the world suddenly looking human?
Is LeBron getting old? Is he weaker now that he lost 20 pounds? Is he hurt? Does he want to take a backseat and let his teammates figure out how to play together? Is it just a four-game sample and he’ll be fine?
LeBron has been so good for so long that seeing him take a small step back, even for a week, is jarring. The Cavaliers are 1-3. They can’t get anywhere near their lofty expectations without a fully-charged LeBron.
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