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The Grind Is Getting to LeBron

When the playoffs roll around, the Cavs star can handle the playmaking load. But he could use some help on the road there.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The Cavaliers are losers of five of their last seven games, including Monday’s 124–122 loss to a Pelicans team playing without Anthony Davis. LeBron James was not happy after the game. “It’s like when you don’t have bodies. It’s tough,” James said following the game. “The fucking grind of the regular season. We’re a top-heavy team. We have a top-heavy team. We top-heavy as shit. It’s me, [Kyrie Irving], [Kevin Love]. It’s top-heavy.”

LeBron isn’t satisfied with three titles. The favorite championship is always the next one. And while it’s not yet time to panic — at this time last year they fired David Blatt! — LeBron is going to apply pressure wherever he can to make sure the team improves. James has evolved as a leader and media presence over the years. After voicing his concerns about the Cavs to the media on Monday, James made further comments about the state of the team on Twitter, on Tuesday.

This is something straight out of reality television or WWE. It sends a message to everyone in the organization. It can be easy to fall into a state of complacency when you experience success. By creating an uneasy feeling, or a sense of fear, James also produced a sense of urgency around the team.

Maybe James isn’t cognitively making these choices, but from the outside looking in, it seems that he wants an atmosphere where everyone is on edge — even if what the Cavs have is enough to win another title. He sounds like he could use a boost, himself. James leads the NBA in minutes per game. For a player who has appeared in six straight Finals and has logged more minutes than any other player in league history through age 32, playing 44 minutes against the lottery-bound Pelicans is less than ideal.

Kyrie Irving has the “point guard” label, but for all intents and purposes, LeBron is the team’s primary playmaker. There’s no one else on the team that can handle the load; that’s why coach Tyronn Lue runs his star duo into the ground. LeBron is drawing attention to the need for a backup playmaker — point guard or otherwise — not because the Cavs will need that player in a Finals matchup against the Warriors, but because it would make the road there that much smoother. Matthew Dellavedova excelled in that role last year, averaging 24.6 minutes during the regular season. In the playoffs, his minutes dropped in each successive round (from 18.1 per in the first round, to 7.6 in the Finals).

Cleveland’s options are limited. They’re over the cap and a trade for point guards like Rajon Rondo or Deron Williams would require giving up a contributing role player like Iman Shumpert or Channing Frye to make the trade work. If those players interest Cleveland, the Cavs’ best hope is that their respective teams waive them so they could be signed using the veteran minimum. Mario Chalmers is floating around, as are veteran free agents Jordan Crawford and Nate Robinson, who have both expressed a desire to join the Cavs on social media, but they are more last resorts than anything else.

The most viable path for the Cavs is to use one of their traded-player exceptions, worth just over $4.8 million, which would allow them to absorb a player making less money into their open 15th roster spot. Nuggets point guard Jameer Nelson is by far the most appealing option — he’s a reliable veteran with playoff experience. Nelson shoots 43.7 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s, per SportVU, which would allow him to comfortably play even when the ball isn’t in his hands.

Nelson’s teammate Will Barton could be an under-the-radar target if the Cavs are willing to give up assets in return. Barton hasn’t played as much point guard this season due to Denver’s loaded backcourt, but he’s flashed playmaking skills throughout his career. Indiana’s Aaron Brooks, Orlando’s C.J. Wilcox, and Dallas’s Devin Harris could be solid targets as well.

The Cavaliers will be fine no matter what they do the rest of the regular season, but the margin for error in the playoffs is thin. One missed game due to injury or suspension could lead to a team’s demise, no matter how loaded they are. (Just ask Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut.) “For the most part, all championship-contending teams have got guys that are ready to step in,” James said Monday. “Knock on wood, what if Ky goes down? For two weeks. Let’s say two. What if I went down for three weeks?”

James is a hypercompetitive athlete who’s experienced success and failure on the grandest stage. By going public with his apprehensions about the state of the Cavaliers, it puts the franchise on edge and applies pressure to the front office to make moves. He has power, and he knows how to use it.