NBA AM: The Cavs and Their Artificial Pressure

The Cleveland Cavaliers understand the clock is ticking, and it’s why they have been so inconsistent… The L.A. Lakers have won some games, but that might not be a bad thing.

Steve Kyler profile picture
Updated 1 year ago on

6 min read

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Tick Tock

There is no greater motivation than a clock that is winding down – whether it is the game clock, the shot clock or the internal clock on a player’s career.

One of those clocks is present in everything the Cleveland Cavaliers are enduring, and it is not one of the game clocks. It’s the internal career clock of LeBron James’ career.

There are only so many NBA miles a body can take and while James has avoided huge injuries for the bulk of his career, the 31-year-old James is not getting any younger and his patience with the learning process of his Cavaliers teammates is beginning to wear thin.

Let’s be clear on a couple of fronts. Despite outbursts of frustration from time to time, James genuinely loves playing with point guard Kyrie Irving, forward Kevin Love and forward Tristan Thompson. James loves his teammates and they all know that for the most part, but there is no questioning that James is feeling the pressure. He is feeling the pressure of expectations to bring a championship to Cleveland, to validate his own choice to leave Miami, to prove to himself and the naysayers that doubt he can win a championship on his own terms.

But time is brutally unforgiving and while James never promised a championship this quickly, he has had a season-long expectation that the Cavaliers over the course of this year would grow into a consistent team capable of winning a championship this postseason, even in the face of what seems to be an insurmountable obstacle in the Golden State Warriors.

The expectations to win this year have created an artificial pressure, and that pressure has surrounded the Cavaliers since training camp. It’s one of the main reasons the Cavaliers fired former head coach David Blatt. It’s the reason they traded for Channing Frye at the expense of long-time Cavalier and heart-and-soul guy Anderson Varejao.

That artificial pressure manifests itself on the court too. There is an impatience with the growth process, there is visible frustration when things don’t go right and of course there is the narrative that people, namely James, are unhappy.

The unhappiness people talk about stems from that expectations and pressure. The Cavaliers are the best team in the Eastern Conference and barring an injury or another team playing way above their current level, the Cavaliers should be back in the NBA Finals, but just getting there isn’t good enough. Getting there a second time won’t validate James’ jump back to Cleveland, it won’t answer the question of whether James can win without the tools and structure he had in Miami.

The fact that nothing short of a championship has been the message in Cleveland all year has been the fuel for the fire that has burned around the Cavs at every turn – win or lose. It’s also why there is a sense that failing to reach a championship this year could result in pretty significant roster changes, not because the pieces don’t fit, but because time is running out on the prime years of James’ career and no one in Cleveland or in James’ inner circle is ready to give any minute of the time frame away.

Believing you can win as a franchise is important; expecting to play at a high level and compete is equally important. But having this much artificial pressure may not be a good thing. It may not be a good thing for the younger players who are still trying to learn to play with James. It’s not a good thing for a younger head coach that’s trying to justify his place in the future.

Time is brutally unforgiving. The Cavaliers understand that. James is feeling it and the pressure that has resulted from it is what’s created the inconsistencies.

And given where things stand, it may not change any time soon.

Winning Is Ok

The Los Angeles Lakers have won two straight games and have started to look like a better team as of late. Rookie D’Angelo Russell has been given a much wider role and he and second-year forward Julius Randle are starting to look like the franchise cornerstones the Lakers had hoped they would become.

The problem for the Lakers is they are winning games.

But is that really a problem?

On the surface, the belief is that the Lakers should tank the rest of the season and ensure they retain their 2016 draft pick. If it falls outside the top three selections, the pick is headed to the Philadelphia 76ers, so winning games could prove to be bad for that cause.

There is little doubt that the Lakers in the grand scheme would be better with another infusion of talent via the draft, especially if it were LSU’s Ben Simmons or Duke’s Brandon Ingram, but if it’s not one of those two players, is tanking out the season the best look for a franchise hoping to add serious talent in free agency?

The other part is the draft lottery process is wildly unpredictable. The worst overall team has gotten the top overall pick three times since 2003. Even if the Lakers finish in the bottom three in the standings, that does not ensure they keep the pick, although the odds are in their favor.

So if the draft lottery is a crap shoot and the Lakers may not get one of the two gems of the 2016 class, wouldn’t having a handful of games showing the promise and future of the Lakers be more meaningful than the third guy in a fairly weak draft class?

Wouldn’t it be more meaningful to walk into a free agency meeting pointing to a string of really strong games from the young guys as a means to get a real free agent to believe in the brighter future?

The best of both worlds would be landing the pick and the free agent, but panicking because the young guys are winning isn’t a good thing.

Letting the young guys taste a little success gives them a reason to get into the gym early in the offseason and work hard to improve. Losing out can take the air out of the balloon. A new face from the draft is always welcomed, but the truth of the matter is if the Lakers don’t get their pick this season, it’s likely because they win games and winning games could yield a better talent in free agency and that might mean more in the medium-term than a rookie that will need a year or more to find his way.

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Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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