AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Coming into Monday night, the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets were tied for the worst record in the league at 7-22, a paltry .241 winning percentage. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Cavaliers rested LeBron James for the second night of a back-to-back after he had played 40 minutes on Christmas Day. The Cavs were summarily waxed 106-90 by the Detroit Pistons.
What’s the correlation between the cellar-dwelling Sixers and Nets and the defending champs? The loss dropped Cleveland’s record to just 4-18 in games in which James didn’t play since the start of the 2014-15 season, when he returned for a second stint with the franchise. That’s a winning percentage of just .182.
That’s right. Without James, the Cavs play worse than the worst teams in the league.
But what exactly does it mean? The obvious answer is that James -- one of the handful of greatest talents ever to grace the hardwood -- is irreplaceable. Take away his season averages of 25.5 points on 51.3 percent shooting from the field, 37.9 percent from 3-point range, along with 8.6 assists and 7.9 rebounds per game, and the Cavs’ 0-3 mark without him this year is understandable.
Yet the Cavs are more than just James. They still have Kyrie Irving, off to the best season of his career, and Kevin Love, off to the best season of his time in Cleveland. On Monday, they were playing a Pistons team that, albeit at home and not playing for the second time in two days, was mired in a five-game losing streak.
“I’m pretty sure it’s going to be the blame on me and Kev and how we can’t win without Bron,” Irving said afterward. “It’s the same sentence that goes on no matter what.”
While Irving (18 points on 8-for-20 shooting, eight assists and five rebounds) and Love (17 points on 6-for-14 shooting, 14 rebounds, one assist, two steals, one block) weren’t terrible, they played generally worse than they do with James on the court with them. They also combined for eight of the Cavs’ season-high 22 turnovers.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, here’s how the pair has fared playing without James since the start of the 2014-15 season:
Again, the numbers aren’t terrible. But it’s not like they are raising their game to another level when James is absent.
“We still have enough talent to win; that goes without saying,” Love said. “But take the best player in the world off your team -- he just means so much to us. His usage is so high in what we do with both units that, whether it’s the starting unit or the second unit, you take him away from our team, and we lose a lot, naturally.”
James’ presence has been missing the most offensively. The Cavs average 110.8 points per game this season. In the three games he didn’t play, they averaged 89.3. Part of the problem is the Cavs’ roster includes, as coach Tyronn Lue labeled them, “specialists” like Mike Dunleavy, Channing Frye and James Jones (as shooters) and Tristan Thompson, DeAndre Liggins and Iman Shumpert (as defenders) who are called on for their ability to mesh well in a specific role when Cleveland is at full strength. They aren't guys who will suddenly go off in James' absence.
That leaves Irving and Love, who we’ve covered, the 36-year-old Richard Jefferson, the injured J.R. Smith, the rookie Kay Felder and the buried-on-the-bench Jordan McRae to pick up the slack by creating shots for themselves. Felder had his number called Monday, playing in his hometown, and went 2-for-8 in 20 minutes. McRae, the best scorer in this bunch outside of Smith, got only six minutes and scored seven points. Maybe the next time James sits -- and there certainly will be more times it happens, as the Cavs try to preserve his body for what would be, for him, potentially a seventh straight trip to the Finals -- McRae will get a crack to show what he can do. It’s not like whatever McRae does would be any worse than what the Cavs have already done without James.
In the grand scheme of things, this is a minor problem. The reason James is sitting in the first place is to increase his chances to be healthy when it matters most. And those are the games that the Cavs ultimately will be judged upon.
“We expect to have LeBron [in the playoffs],” Love said, leaning back in his chair to rap his knuckles on the wooden locker behind him. “I think we should be winning games without him. We are capable, but like I said, we’ll have him and expect to have him, and we’ll all pick each other up. Knock on wood, we’ll [have] him and have Swish [Smith] back and have everybody back and playing well.”
But until that happens, if the Cavs continue to struggle without James, it will be a scab that gets picked at with every mounting loss. Unless, of course, the rest of the roster steps up and heals it.
“I mean, you got to do more,” Lue said. “Guys got to do more.”