LeBron James has never had more fun than playing with this version of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
This group may not end up with more victories than the 2008-09 team that won 66 games or the 2012-13 Miami Heat that won the same. It may not end up winning James his fourth ring. But after 14 years of stumbles, hard lessons and a long separation, the Cavs have finally built the team of James’ dreams.
Loaded with shooters who give him an array of options, stocked with veterans who have learned the nuances of sharing the floor with him and playing alongside what looks like a future Hall of Famer entering his prime, James is reveling in it. It can all be encapsulated in one line: James is averaging the fewest shots (17.2) and the most assists (9.7) per game in his career.
This is how he has always wanted to play. He has had flashes of it in the past. But never has he had a roster that so suits his talents and desires, which is to be a conductor, not a solo act.
For the first time in his career, he’s not leading his team in scoring. Kyrie Irvingis averaging about a point more than him, Kevin Love is averaging just two points less.
James has 37 assists in just the past three games; 22 of them set up 3-pointers and 13 of them set up layups or dunks. In none of the three games has James led the team in scoring. He has three triple-doubles in 14 games this season, the same number he had in 76 games last season.
His recent numbers probably would be even stronger, but Channing Frye, the NBA’s leader in 3-point percentage, missed two of the games following the death of his father, and J.R. Smith is in the biggest shooting slump of his career, missing 16 of his past 17 3s.
It’s just about peak efficiency, James picking apart teams with laser focus. There’s a long way to go yet, but this Cavs team is averaging 112 points per 100 possessions, which would be the best offensive efficiency of any James team in history. The 2012-13 Heat scored 110 points per 100 possessions and had a 27-game winning streak along the way.
“This is as impressive as I’ve seen,” Portland Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts said after his team was ripped by the Cavs last week. “You help on LeBron at the rim, and he gets them a corner 3. You help from the weak side, and he finds a guy and you give up a 3. Sometimes you’re in good team defensive position, and the ball zips out of his hands and there’s a 3-pointer. I don’t know how you defend that.”
In the playoffs last season, Cavs coach Ty Lue started experimenting with lineups that featured four outside shooters and James. The result was record-breaking 3-point shooting in the series against the Atlanta Hawks, where the team made 46 3-pointers over a two-game span.
Lue is doubling down this season, playing Love and Frye as his big men at times. It leaves the Cavs vulnerable at the defensive end, but they are wicked at the offensive end with those lineups. With James and Irving as the creators and Smith or Iman Shumpert, who is shooting a career-best 46 percent on 3s, the lineup is relentless.
“LeBron breaks all the passing rules,” said one scout who recently tracked the Cavs. “You’re not supposed to leave your feet and pass, and he uses it as a weapon. You’re not supposed to pass through traffic. He throws backhanded fastballs that buzz the ears of two defenders. He always knows where everyone is going to be.”
James has to be careful with what he says publicly, because it often can be used against him. Those who know him will tell you he believes this style is the way to win a most valuable player award. Whether James will ever win another one is hard to project; he often has to compete with his past resumes.
But right now he’s averaging the fewest points since his rookie season, and his mastery of the game has never been more on display.
“We built a lot from last year, and we just want to continue that,” James said, pointing to continuity as a source of his excellent start. “With the team that we have, coaching staff that we have, we have to take advantage of that.”
The Cavs don’t call many plays. Lue will spend whole minutes with his hands in his pockets, as he paces the sideline watching as James and Irving come down and flow into sets. When James moves on the floor, his teammates move with him, creating angles and windows where they know he can deliver the ball.
Meanwhile, James has learned which teammates want the ball where. Like a long-snapper who has perfected delivering the football to the holder, James has mastered how to get the ball to his shooters.
“It’s my responsibility to know how my guys want the ball,” James said.
“If they like it with no seams or with the seams. I know that might not make sense — some guys like it different ways. I get the ball right in my hand before I throw it. I know the guys on my team like seams or guys who like the ball high when they catch it. I know guys who like it low or midsection. I know where everyone wants the ball, and I just try to put it there on time and on target. All they have to do is catch and fire. It’s those guys working on their craft that allows me to do that.”
It’s a little more complicated than that. It is true the Cavs have enjoyed a reasonably easy schedule thus far. They’ve played 10 of their 15 games at home and have played the fewest games in the league. Their opponents’ winning percentage to this point is just under .500. It toughens later this week with a home game against the Los Angeles Clippers and then a road trip to Chicago and Toronto.
So all these numbers and this stellar play might not hold. But it might. When the Cavs are healthy, they have shown they are potent. James is attracted to the idea of playing this brand of basketball, and he seems to only be getting stronger as he hands the scoring load off to Irving and Love, who is averaging six more points per game than last season.
“LeBron poses a lot of problems,” Stotts said. “At times it can make you just roll your eyes.”