The Cavs did well at the trade deadline, shipping off several of their worst defensive players and returning a group of guys who seem better suited to playing alongside LeBron, for however long he’ll be around. LeBron himself said the changes “should be fun,” which probably means nothing but certainly is better than him picking Isaiah Thomas up by the feet and using him as a cudgel to savagely attack Dan Gilbert.
The moves hopefully strengthen the Cavs for the remainder of this season, and they almost certainly make the Cavs more interesting, as a rebuilding squad, should LeBron leave this summer. In the meantime, though, they also left the Cavs with a hilariously underwhelming 10-man roster for Friday night’s road game in Atlanta. Trades and Kevin Love’s broken hand left the Cavs without three of their top seven players in total minutes this season, and four of their top five players by usage. They also had just one active player listed as taller than LeBron James: Tristan Thompson, a capable but undersized center. The second tallest non-LeBron Cavalier active Friday night was Cedi Osman, who started at forward. Jose Calderon started at point guard, Kyle Korver played 32 minutes, and someone named John Holland was pressed into rotation minutes. It’s a good thing they were playing the Hawks!
But don’t let Atlanta’s ghastly Tron uniforms distract you from what LeBron did Friday night, posting 22 points, 12 rebounds, and 19 assists against just three turnovers, in 40 minutes of absolute ball dominance. LeBron tallied 109 offensive touches Friday night; for point of reference, in 48 minutes against the Wolves Wednesday night, LeBron had 108 touches, the most he’d had in a game this season. LeBron has averaged 88 touches per game during this campaign, the fourth-most in the NBA. That’s a lot of touches, but then you remember that LeBron is probably the best playmaker any living person has ever watched play basketball. Still, the number made some sense during the part of the year when it was possible to believe that touches shaved off and given to the likes of Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, and Isaiah Thomas would eventually accrue in vague, possibly alchemical ways in the Cavs favor. Those days, of course, are now long behind us.
Plenty of less-talented shot-creators would take the dearth of scoring talent around LeBron Friday night as an impetus to get up a hundred shots and gun for 50; LeBron, with friggin’ Jeff Green as arguably his team’s next-best playmaker, got up just 20 shots—less than two more than he averages per game this season—and set a new personal high for assists in a game:
This was the second game in a row in which LeBron posted a triple-double with at least 15 assists, following his insane heroics against the Wolves. It’s an achievement that puts him, once again, in rare company:
The Cavs will apparently have all their new guys available for Sunday’s big tilt in Boston, but it’ll be their first time playing together, and probably that means they’ll go right back to looking like a bunch of bozos out there. In the meantime, it was fun to have one night when a thin and undermanned Cavs team could once again just be the LeBron Show, without any ugly Dwyane Wade “playmaking,” without the offense being shifted to accommodate a busted Isaiah Thomas, certainly without whatever the hell it was Derrick Rose thought he was doing out there. Part of what makes the new pieces tantalizing is that none of them are all that suited to primary ball-handling duties, and none of them are big alpha-scorers—if this is the year when LeBron’s Cavs go into the toilet, at least now they’ll be doing it with the ball in the hands of this generation’s greatest player.
Watching the Cavs do literally everything through LeBron last night was almost disorienting, like oh, right, they’ve got LeBron! I’ve gotten so used to watching the Cavs spend possessions on Kyrie Irving isolations and elbow action to get Kevin Love some touches, and meandering Dwyane Wade pick-and-rolls, and Isaiah Thomas dribble-hand-offs, and flailing Derrick Rose drives. It’s never been possible to forget about LeBron, but maybe it has been possible to forget that all of that other stuff is designed to produce outcomes that are only adjacent to the goals of a basketball team; things like team chemistry and workload distribution and rotation management. But on any possession where LeBron is on the floor, the best pure basketball outcome is most likely to arise from putting the damn ball in LeBron’s hands. If the primary lesson from this ugly half-season has been the perils of stacking your roster with bad defensive players, maybe a slightly less obvious one has been the stupidity of letting second-tier offensive players dictate the shape and mechanics of your offense. Shitheads! You’ve got LeBron James! Shut up and be ready to catch and shoot.
The Cavs have 28 regular season games left to get themselves tuned up. Hopefully what this means is less pain-in-the-ass deferring to lesser playmakers so this or that off-brand superstar can find a groove, and more getting guys situated around the floor so that LeBron can throw dazzling half-spin no-look skip passes in semi-transition. Addition by subtraction should make them a better defensive team. Putting the damn ball in LeBron’s hands and exiling usurpers to Los Angeles and Miami should make them incredibly more telegenic on offense. Friday night was a fun reminder.