LeBron James has traditionally used the occasion of his birthday on December 30 to be a little more self-centered. Known as the superstar perhaps most committed to the total game – deferent occasionally to a fault, a defensive terror – James has averaged 33.5 points in six birthday games, up from his career average of 27.4 per. His rebound and assist averages have held steady in those games, meaning he hasn’t sacrificed his versatility. He’s just taken a little more for himself, and who could blame him?
But his most recent birthday – his 30th – was celebrated a little differently: on the inactive list with left knee soreness. A few days later, an MRI revealed knee and lower back strains and now he’s in the middle of missing an expected two weeks.
Amidst a generally underwhelming start to James’ heroic homecoming to the Cleveland Cavaliers, this injury is only the most recent stumbling block. Whether they carry any weight or not, rumblings are out there about Kevin Love’s dissatisfaction with his role, Kyrie Irving’s defensive liabilities, rookie head coach David Blatt’s inability to connect with the team, the possibility that James would leave Cleveland next season if it were the “appropriate business decision,” and so on.
Surely, this is not what he had in mind when he made the decision to come home.
In the Sports Illustrated epistle that announced his return, James was upfront about the difficulties the Cavs would face. “We’re not ready right now. No way,” he said. “It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested. I know that.” But it’s one thing to predict adversity, another to actually get through it.
Just how involved with front office decisions James is can be difficult to assess (although it’s clear at the very least he’s being consulted on roster moves), but an active week for the Cavs on the trading block would indicate that the team itself is not content to weather the storm. The trade of the supposedly disgruntled Dion Waiters to Oklahoma City and a second-round pick to New York for a first-round pick, Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith addressed a need for wing defense and established, if inconsistent, perimeter shooting and hilariously inappropriate Twitter DMs. Cleveland then turned around and flipped that newly acquired first round pick – along with one from Memphis – to the Nuggets for center Timofey Mozgov, addressing their need for rim protection in the wake of Anderson Varejao’s season-ending injury to his Achilles. Taking care of these needs is going to end up costing the Cavs $7.3 million in taxes, and going over the hard cap into luxury tax territory is not the move of a team that thinks it’s not ready to win right now.
The questions then, in both the short-term with regard to these moves and the long-term with regard to the season as a whole, are how much does chemistry bred from familiarity create wins – and how much do wins foster chemistry?
James may be one of the most physically perfect athletes to play basketball – more athletic than either Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant – but as a human being, he’s always been a little lumpier, a little more heart-on-sleeve than we generally like our superstars to be. It can be easy to forget that he didn’t leave Cleveland in the first place just to win, but to play alongside his friends from USA Basketball, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. He brought his closest friends from his AAU team to St. Vincent-St. Mary High School with him. When his free agency was up in the air this past offseason, the indicators that pointed his way back to Cleveland were not primarily financial or competitive, but rather soft and kind of dopey – that is, LeBron might leave because he’d done it before and for personal reasons. And true to form, his open letter was threaded through with talk about raising his kids in his own hometown.
So how do we square this upheaval of a roster that had already been thoroughly turned over from last season with the importance to LeBron of camaraderie, with his understanding that a team takes time to gel? (When James comes back from injury, Irving will be the only returning starter from last season, and one of only four returning players total, including the injured Varejao.)
The simple and accurate and unsatisfying answer is that you can’t. It’s un-squareable, but that in itself is part of the humanity of LeBron James and the way he’s approached basketball. Pushed to their extremes, principles – even good principles – can come into conflict. If Kobe solved the conflict between his competitiveness and his humanity by relinquishing some of the latter, then this is LeBron’s patient understanding of team-building clashing with his age and the fact that his career is finite.
This is all far from working itself out. LeBron is out, J.R. Smith went 0-5 with 3 fouls and 2 turnovers in his debut as a Cavalier – a 105-93 loss to the Rockets – and Mozgov is only just on his way. Now on the other side of 30, there’s less of LeBron’s career in front of him than behind him, but there’s much that’s still unwritten.