2018-04-25 09:09:09
On Pro Basketball: LeBron James Is a One-Man Show. That Is the Problem.

09:09, April 25 34 0

CLEVELAND — Kyle Korver was explaining one of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ core philosophies this season: The job of everyone on the team not named LeBron James is to put LeBron James in position to do the things LeBron James does as the best basketball player in the planet.

“We all know the narrative around us: It’s ’Bron, and we’re all trying to make it work for him,” Korver, a shooting guard, said on Tuesday. “But I don’t want to make too much of it, because we don’t need to overthink it. We need to go out there and play basketball.”

If only it were that simple in the playoffs.

It has always seemed to be about more than just basketball with these Cavaliers, who have overhauled their roster (more than once), dealt with the temporary absence of their head coach and coped with the prying eyes of TMZ. They have done all these things while trying to navigate their way to a fourth straight appearance in the N.B.A. finals, even as James’s future hangs like smog over the franchise.

For now, the Cavaliers would settle for a victory against the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday night in Game 5 of their first-round series, which is tied at two games apiece. It seems a modest goal for a team that, not so long ago, spoke of outsize ambitions. But the Pacers are a problem, and so is James’s supporting cast.

The first four games of the series have been a struggle for the many Cavaliers not named LeBron James. The group has, at times, looked close to buckling under the weight of expectations.

No one knows for certain what a premature postseason exit would mean for this team, but there would be fallout.

James, of course, could decline his player option and become a free agent. You may have heard this before. Cue the Cleveland agita.

The issue, or at least one of them, is that James has been playing to his usual all-universe standards against the Pacers — and Cleveland is still in trouble. So far in the series, James has averaged 32.5 points, 11.8 rebounds and 8 assists a game while shooting 54.1 percent from the field. The Cavaliers not named LeBron James are shooting 40.7 percent.

Korver provided some hope with his late-game shooting in Game 4, which helped nudge the Cavaliers to a 104-100 victory. But James had to play 46 minutes for them to even have a chance, and his workload at age 33 is equal parts mystifying, amazing and concerning. He appeared in all 82 games this season and led the league in minutes played.

“You feel like he just keeps getting better,” Brett Brown, the coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, said before the start of the playoffs, adding, “ I think he’s playing arguably his best basketball.”

Brown really likes James, who could — could — consider Philadelphia as a possible destination if he wants out of Cleveland, where he is both beloved and revered.

It would be hard to argue that James has ever been a more complete player — he set a career-high this season by averaging 9.1 assists a game — and a deep postseason run with this hodgepodge roster would be one of his most dazzling feats to date. It just seems so unlikely.

James used to have more help. He had Kyrie Irving — until Irving demanded a trade last summer. And back when he was with the Miami Heat, James shared the court with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, a superfriends collective that won two N.B.A. championships. As his latest act, James has essentially gone solo. Not entirely by choice.

“There’s a lot on his shoulders,” Korver said. “But this is a team sport, and you’ve got to have everyone playing well. You’ve got to have everyone executing, and when we have our opportunities, we have to take advantage of them.”

The organization spared James the ritual of answering reporters’ questions after Tuesday’s practice. He left those responsibilities to Coach Tyronn Lue and a couple of teammates, who dusted off the usual postseason tropes about playing hard and playing together and how good it feels to play at home.

But Kevin Love has been laboring with a thumb injury. Tristan Thompson has been collecting dust at the end of the bench. George Hill is questionable for Game 5 with back spasms. And the Cavaliers, as a team, are shooting 32 percent from 3-point range. There is room for improvement.

The Pacers are testing the Cavaliers — punishing them, even. Yet Lue spun the series in the most positive way.

“I think it’s good for us,” he said.

Good for the Cavaliers if they manage to advance, that is. Even then, they seem to be tiptoeing down an uncertain path.

Only James knows where it leads.