Although some opposing coaches would nominate Houston’s James Harden, Rick Carlisle of the Mavericks contends that Cleveland’s James, at nearly 33 years old, remains the hardest singular force to game-plan against and “is still in his prime.”
“And he’s playing virtually every position on the floor for them right now, which is pretty unprecedented if you really think about it,” Carlisle said.
The cynic, however, would undoubtedly retort that James, four times the league’s most valuable player, has to do that much for the Cavaliers as they’re currently constituted because they have so many holes. Even if you buy James’s contention that his club’s focus isn’t nearly as shoddy as outsiders suggest, there’s no counter to the fact that the Cavaliers will wake up Monday in Manhattan for their maiden visit of the season to Madison Square Garden ranked last in the league in defensive efficiency (112 points allowed per 100 possessions).
The Cavs have foot-speed issues. They have continuity issues, in the wake of trading Kyrie Irving, with more new faces on the roster than returnees. They have injury issues, with the recent setbacks that have sidelined Tristan Thompson (calf) and Derrick Rose (ankle) — on top of the lingering hip trouble that has prevented Isaiah Thomas from logging a single second as James’s new All-Star sidekick.
“It’s real — we are having struggles on both ends of the floor,” Thomas said. “But I think it has a lot to do with, they’ve had a guy for the last three or four years — that guy’s been Kyrie — able to create off the dribble, get in the paint, get to the foul line. It’s hard to adjust to not having that, with me being injured as well and then having seven or eight new guys.
“All those little things, on top of little things, are what’s making us struggle right now. But it’s a process. It’s going to take time for everybody. We know, at the end of the day, everything will be all right.”
You can understand why Thomas is so presumptuous after watching James’s teams represent the Eastern Conference in seven successive N.B.A. finals. Even with the newcomers Jae Crowder and Dwyane Wade struggling to have an influence and the absence of a trusty rim protector, one nagging question in the East hasn’t changed: Who can actually exploit Cleveland’s frailties four times in a seven-game series?
The Irving-led Celtics have been the surprise of the season to date, reeling off 12 consecutive victories and surging to the top of the defensive charts in the wake of an 0-2 start and Gordon Hayward’s horrific leg injury. But who else is truly worthy of pre-Thanksgiving fawning? Would you really have the gumption to pick the Hayward-less Celtics over the Cavaliers in the East finals? It’s worth remembering that Cleveland sported the same 5-7 record after 12 games in 2014-15 — James’s first season back in northern Ohio, with Irving and Kevin Love as his wingmen — that it took onto the Mavericks’ floor on Saturday.
That team wound up pushing mighty Golden State to six games in the 2015 championship round despite the absence of the injured Love and the loss of Irving in the series opener.
“There has been a lot of turnover,” Cavaliers guard Kyle Korver said. “There has been a lot of lineup changes. There has been a lot of ‘new.’ LeBron was hurt for the whole preseason, so the new guys didn’t really have a chance to play with him. There’s a lot of excuses if you want to go that route.
“But we’re still a confident team. We know what we’re capable of. We know pieces are going to keep coming in. Our team is going to evolve two or three more times over the course of the season — I think everyone here knows that.”
Scary thought. Maybe not as frightening as the way the Warriors are rolling — six wins in a row by at least 17 points to tie a league record — but sufficiently haunting for everyone else on Cleveland’s side of the conference divide.
For Dallas, meanwhile, its rare treat of two full practice days before LeBron’s annual visit to town did come with a downside. All that extra prep time forced Carlisle to field questions from pesky reporters about the Cavaliers’ bumpy launch on no fewer than four occasions.
Preoccupied with his own team’s 2-11 start, Carlisle made it clear through his words that he was ready to steer the conversation elsewhere by the third such interrogation.
“A lot of people would like to have their struggles,” he said of the Cavs.
You can safely assume that includes Cleveland’s Monday night opponents, even as Kristaps Porzingis Fever justifiably spreads throughout Gotham.