PORTLAND, Ore. -- The old head seems to be playing the long game, at least for now.
That's what LeBron James was doing Tuesday night, and perhaps more nights in the near future, when the Portland Trail Blazers whipped the Cleveland Cavaliers so heartily (101-82 was the final) that the white flag was out midway through the fourth quarter.
James pulled up even earlier, jogging through his final shift of the night watching his younger teammates bomb away indiscriminately and generally showing zero interest in fighting. It's an interesting strategy and not one James has relied upon in the past, when he's usually dealt with intra-team frustration by pulling on a cape and trying to heroball his way through it.
This time he just walked quietly to the bench when his coach, David Blatt, called timeouts to stem the bleeding. When his night was over, James picked the final seat on the bench and was into the tunnel shortly after the final horn.
In recent days there have been growing questions as to whether James might be hurt -- he has dealt with some minor back soreness -- or in some way suddenly physically diminished because at times he has looked lackluster.
That is not the case at all.
This is a conscious decision on how he plans to operate in a passive-aggressive mission to yank some teammates toward his way of thinking. Let some of them fail at their way so they will be open to new ideas, is what it looks and sounds like.
"Everyone wants to win, I would hope," James said. "Would you rather play selfish basketball and lose, or play unselfish basketball and sacrifice and win? So you pick it."
This style of leadership is not part of James' typical nature and it wouldn't be like him to keep it up very long. More likely, frustrated by the way the game unfolded as the Cavs' offense collapsed into one-on-one ball, this was his way of counting to 10 to calm down.
It's interesting that this took place in Portland. A few years ago, when he was being booed regularly on the road for the first time in his life, James stood on the court of what was then called the Rose Garden and incited the crowd to boo him as he led a comeback win. He said after the game he accepted the villain role going forward.
Within days, he'd abandoned that because that is not him. Neither, however, is this. This is not the way James sets an example.
And not what Blatt, who is thrashing around a bit in the deep end of his first NBA season as he struggles with basic rotations and player motivation, needs from him, either. Though it has not been hard to miss, James so far seems to be lacking chemistry with his new coach, another of those annoying factors that goes into starting over with a new team.
It must be said James has been preparing for these days and, it can be assumed, he's put thought into how to handle them. He certainly has been talking about his expectations of early struggles for the Cavs for months.
This is what James said in July when he signed:
"It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested. I know that. I'm going into a situation with a young team and a new coach. I will be the old head."
This is what he said when the Cavs were in the middle of a promising 5-2 preseason, when their offense flowed like water and they widened their lead at the top of the odds-makers' charts:
"You've got to go through something to create a bond; that means for the worse. It has to happen. I know it is going to happen. A lot of guys don't see it, but I see it. That's the only way we're going to be able to grow. You don't define yourself during the good times, you define yourself through the bad times. That's for the players and the coaching staff, as well."
And this was what James said Tuesday with the Cavs sitting at 1-2, the victory thanks to James' heroics and some Chicago Bulls injuries last week:
"It's going to be a long process, man. There's been a lot of losing basketball around here for a few years. ... But there's a lot of bad habits, a lot of bad habits have been built up over the last couple of years, and when you play that style of basketball it takes a lot to get it up out of you. But I'm here to help, and that's what it's about."
On this front, at least, he has been consistent, unlike his defensive efforts in the early going, when at times he has just waved at the ball as it's been driven by him. He may be in great shape but his effort level is far from midseason form.
Nonetheless, he apparently has something up his sleeve. He's working on delivering some sort of message.
His references to breaking bad habits from recent losing seasons seem rather obviously aimed at teammates Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, the pair of high draft picks who spent the previous two seasons tugging at the ball.
As James stood passively and watched as the Blazers extended their lead in the second half, Waiters and Irving dribbled and dribbled and shot and shot. They had 19 shots in the second half, James had four. He was scoreless in the second half and put up just two points after the first quarter. To put that in perspective, he hadn't scored two points in three quarters since the 19th game of his career back in December 2003.
"My mission is not a one-game thing," James explained. "We have to do multiple things in order to win. We got to share the ball. We got to play defense. We got to sacrifice in order to ultimately win. And obviously when you're going through the process, it's not the best part of the process, but I'm looking at the end of the tunnel."
The end of the tunnel might be a ways off. When questioned about what he sees as the timeline before the Cavs start playing more like a contender, James offered something both real and metaphoric.
"It could go on for a couple months until we're all on the same page," James said and then compared what he has going through now to when he undertook the rebuilding of a 1972 Chevy Caprice Classic from the wheels up. It took numerous trips to the paint shop before it was James' desired shade of baby blue.
It's not just a "shots for James" vs. a "shots for Irving, Waiters or Kevin Love" issue. Though it should be pointed out that Irving was 3-of-17 Tuesday and then bolted the locker room before offering comment about it in another not-exactly-desirable show of leadership.
The young Cavs have no interest in passing the ball to veterans such as Mike Miller, who has one 3-point attempt in three games, or Shawn Marion, who seems to only get passes from James. And now the team has its first injury as backup guard Matthew Dellavedova tweaked his knee Tuesday and could be out a little while, though the team did not announce his injury.
No matter how it's parsed, the Cavs are going to need a lot better teamwork and a vast amount more effort before a discussion about their long-term goals can truly be had. This is something that James must understand when looking in the mirror as well as when giving sideways glances and speeches in team meetings as he applies his methods for whipping the team into the shape he's looking for.
It's also something Irving, Waiters and even Blatt -- who has seemingly gotten lost in the game at times in his first week doing the real job -- must come to grips with. James is trying to play chess, but the entire team could use a few games of basic checkers, too.
"It's going to be a process. I keep on harping on that word, but it's the truth," James said. "I've been there before and understand it. But you do have to go through it even though you don't like to go through it."