An hour after Cleveland suffered its worst defeat of the season, a 29-point blowout to Atlanta on Wednesday night, LeBron James sat in a chair on the baseline with a cold drink in his hand and watched his young teammate, point guard Kyrie Irving, work on his craft.
The cameras caught James looking on admiringly as the 22-year-old Irving went through shooting drills with the Cavaliers’ assistant coaches. When it was over, Irving and James shared a moment, the two of them nodding and smiling.
James and the Cavaliers are nearly one-third of the way into the season, and so far he has been a patient instructor to his teammates, who view the four-time NBA most valuable player as their sage.
“He’s been doing that every day,” Cleveland assistant coach Larry Drew said. “It’s not just in games, but in our practices, our shoot-arounds, our film sessions. For LeBron, because he’s won championships, he’s teaching these guys what it takes to get there.”
“I think we can compete against anybody when we’re playing at our best,” James said after the Atlanta game. “But it’s going to take us maintaining our focus every single day because we cannot afford to take a step backward.”
So James talks to his teammates about practicing hard, being selfless, how to cope with adversity, about living and playing in a media bubble and dealing with the high expectations placed on the Cavaliers this season.
“He definitely had to be patient because we have some great pieces and some great players, but four of our top six players have never been to the playoffs,” said Tyronn Lue, Cleveland’s associate head coach.
Two of those players are All-Stars Irving and Kevin Love, who missed the postseason in his six seasons with Minnesota. The other two players are key reserves Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson.
Lue said that James has grown as a player after spending the last four seasons living under the microscope in Miami, where he won two NBA championships and went to four consecutive NBA Finals.
It’s that maturity, Lue said, that has helped James push his teammates the right way.
“It’s also a situation where LeBron has to be patient but also demand a lot,” Lue said. “It’s a fine line because he has a team that’s real good and he can see the talent and the potential.”
James, who turns 30 on Dec. 30, is in his 12th season in the NBA, and there have been some rumblings that he has peaked as a player.
In his first 23 games this season with Cleveland, James’ numbers have declined slightly from last season in Miami. He’s shooting 49.4% from the field (56.7% last season), while averaging 25.4 points (27.1), 5.4 rebounds (6.9) and 3.7 turnovers (3.5).
James lost some weight over the summer, dropping to a listed 250 pounds, considerably less than his rumored weight of 270 pounds last season in Miami.
“I don’t see that much of a loss of step at all,” said an Eastern Conference scout about James. The scout, who is not authorized to speak publicly, sees only a slight decline in James’ athleticism. “I think it’s an adjustment of playing at a new weight. Maybe his vertical isn’t as high, but it’s still really, really high.”
Whenever James does show his age on the court, Lue expects him to duplicate the approach taken by Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan.
“When Jordan slowed down and when Kobe slowed down, they became more mid-range game players,” Lue said. “I think LeBron will be the same way.
“He’s so fast and so strong. You continue to play to your strength. When he slows down, he’ll be a better post-up guy, better mid-range guy, instead of going to the hole and getting beat up.”
Meanwhile, the immediate challenge for James and the Cavaliers is to keep improving and become the best team in the East.
Charles Barkley, the Hall of Famer who is an analyst for TNT, complains that James has been “a little too passive.”
Barkley recalled how James deferred to Dwyane Wade in their first season together in Miami in 2010-11. Barkley also recalled that when he was traded to the Phoenix Suns in 1992 that he initially deferred to Kevin Johnson and Dan Majerle.
At some point, Barkley said, James has to tell all the Cavaliers, “It’s my team.”
“Hey, listen. I like Kyrie and I like Kevin, but if I’m LeBron, I tell them, ‘I’m going this way. Y’all follow me,’ ” Barkley said. “He went through the exact same thing in Miami, so that’s why I’d like to see LeBron be a little more aggressive.
“The best player has to be the best player. The best player can’t let other guys get off. And look, LeBron James is still the best player in the world. No question.”