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If LeBron Wants This Cavs Team to Thrive, He’ll Have to Do the Dirty Work Himself

Cleveland may have constructed one of the deepest teams of the LeBron era, but it isn’t without glaring issues—weaknesses that only one player on the team can address

LeBron James USA Today/Ringer illustration

One of the craziest offseasons in recent history has not only shaken up the league’s hierarchy, it’s altered the path for several prominent teams and players heading into the 2017-18 season. For Golden Opportunity Week, the third of four weeklong series leading up to the tipoff of a new NBA year, we’re taking long, hard looks at the most intriguing situations in the league—and what comes next for everyone involved.

LeBron James lived his best life last season. Cleveland put as much 3-point shooting around him as possible, forcing the defense to cover so much ground that something was always open. LeBron was the sun, and everyone else revolved around him. Not even Kyrie Irving could escape his shadow. While Kyrie’s trade demand was a long time coming, the team had to adjust on the fly since it happened so late in the offseason. The Cavs will look a lot different this season, but how exactly they will play is unclear. There are a lot of new faces in Cleveland, while many returning players have new roles. The big difference is the Cavs’ new additions have gravity of their own. They aren’t just extensions of LeBron on the court. He has to adjust to them.

NBA Preview 2017 Golden Opportunity Week

Cleveland’s offense last season was simple. Either LeBron finished at the rim or he collapsed the defense and kicked the ball out to an open shooter. The Cavs were second in the league in 3s per game (33.9) and second in 3-point percentage (38.4). LeBron was third in the league in shots at the rim (8.6 per game) and field goal percentage on those shots (75.4 percent). The most efficient shots in the game are dunks and 3s, and Cleveland created a high-percentage look at one or the other on almost every possession. Everyone knew their roles. The Cavs’ Big Three were the only players in the rotation with a usage rating above 20, while Tristan Thompson was the only one who didn’t shoot 3s.

The downside of making their offense so dependent on LeBron is that it collapsed when he wasn’t in:

Cavaliers Net Rating (2016-17)

Segment With LeBron Without LeBron Difference
Segment With LeBron Without LeBron Difference
Regular season Plus-7.7 Minus-8.5 Plus-15.2
Playoffs Plus-13.6 Minus-13.8 Plus-27.4
NBA Finals Minus-1.8 Minus-37.4 Plus-35.6

The Cavs essentially played the Warriors to a draw in the 212 minutes he played in the Finals. However, they couldn’t hold it together even in the 28 minutes he sat out over the course of five games.

Getting players who didn’t need LeBron to create for them was a priority for Cleveland this offseason. Derrick Rose is starting at point, at least until Isaiah Thomas returns, and the only thing he can even do at a high level anymore is put his head down and attack the rim. They didn’t have a traditional sixth man last season, a role Dwyane Wade will fill. Even Jeff Green, whom the Cavs signed to a one-year contract at the veteran minimum, can handle some of the shot-creating load. Getting up shots is the one thing he has been able to do consistently over the course of his career. If head coach Tyronn Lue decides to give some of the younger players a chance to earn minutes, Cedi Osman, the no. 31 pick in the 2015 draft, could force his way onto the floor. The 22-year-old was one of the best players at EuroBasket this summer, averaging 16 points and 3.8 assists per game. This is one of the deepest teams LeBron has been on. He should not lead the league in minutes per game again.

The downside is those same players won’t fit nearly as well with LeBron when he is in. Defenses will not respect Wade (31 percent from 3 on 2.4 attempts per game last season), Green (27.5 percent on 2.8 attempts), and Rose (21.7 percent on 0.9 attempts) from the perimeter. LeBron will have an easier time spacing the floor for those guys than they will for him. He has shown he can be a good shooter, though his 3-point percentages have fluctuated wildly. He shot over 37.5 percent in his final two seasons in Miami, a number which dropped all the way to 30.9 percent in his second season after returning to Cleveland. Imagine how difficult LeBron would be to guard if defenses had to close out hard on him. Becoming a better shooter would be the easiest way for him to compensate for declining athleticism as he moves deeper into his 30s.

Playing so many non-shooters on the perimeter almost forced Kevin Love to the 5. Tristan Thompson, the starting center since LeBron returned to Cleveland, can’t score outside of 5 feet. Start him with Rose or Wade, and LeBron would have no driving lanes to work with, while Love would have no room to post up. Love should be much better on offense this season. Playing him at the 5 forces bigger and slower defenders on him, and it’s much easier to take centers off the dribble than the hybrid wings who play at power forward these days. When Love goes in the paint, he will have a lot more room to operate, since Thompson’s man could essentially sit in his lap. Combine a new position with a greater role in the offense, and Minnesota Kevin Love could make a return.

Love needs to rack up stats because moving him to the 5 creates as many problems on defense as it solves on offense. Love is one of the only big men in the NBA who protects the rim less than Thompson does. Rose, Wade, and Green all struggle defensively, and there will be no one behind them at the rim to clean up their mistakes. The Cavs had the 22nd-rated defense in the league last season, and they could be even worse if they aren’t careful. They need LeBron to pick up the slack. Moving Love to the 5 creates more minutes for LeBron at the 4, giving him more defensive responsibility, as well as more responsibility on the boards.

LeBron used to be an elite defensive player, but those days have long since passed. A guy headed into his 15th season in the league can’t go all out on both ends of the floor for 82 games, especially not if he’s expected to be the primary option on offense. Cleveland needed him to hold the ball and conserve energy on defense last season. The team needs him to do the exact opposite this season. The good news is nothing matters for the Cavs until then, so LeBron can go on cruise control in the regular season. When the games count in May and June, though, Cleveland will need his defense just as much as, if not more than, his offense.

LeBron’s greatness stems partly from his versatility. He is as complete a basketball player as we have ever seen. However, just because he can do everything doesn’t mean he wants to. Scoring and passing are a lot more fun than spotting up, cutting off the ball, and sacrificing your body on defense. The Cavs have a lot of mouths to feed on offense. LeBron is the only one of those players who can scale back his number of field goal attempts and still help the team. Cleveland needs him to be a supercharged version of Draymond Green, not Kevin Durant. They need to play an uglier style of basketball to win without Kyrie, and that includes a grittier reboot of their best player. LeBron James has to do just as many things as ever in Cleveland; it’s just not going to be as glamorous this time around.