'I'm Still in Win Mode': Why LeBron Is Unstoppable—but a Cavs Are in Trouble

It was 10:30 a.m., Texas time, when LeBron James strolled into a Dallas Mavericks‘ locus for a new shootaround. In his mouth was a black cosmetic spoon.

But a King was not eating.

No, his teeth were clenched resolutely around a handle, withdrawal a turn finish an unreal stretch from his mouth.

What could it all mean?

Was LeBron angry? Frustrated? Concerned? Was a dull ladle a mystic plea? Dear basketball gods, greatfully broach a second assisting of All-Star playmaking.

Or, we know, maybe he’d usually discriminating off a strawberry yogurt parfait on a organisation bus. It’s possible.

But this is LeBron, a NBA‘s Sultan of Subtweets, and these are a drama-loving Cleveland Cavaliers—who had a league’s sixth-worst record during a time of their Dallas stopover final Saturday—and so we contingency parse each gesture, remark and laterally glance, each twitter and Instagram story and each final utensil.

Everything contingency meant something.

The Cavs were 4-6 when James posted a animation fist (caption: “Mood…”) to his Instagram account, promulgation a basketball universe into a suppositional tizzy. Then came a collage of fist photos (“Mood Forever…”), worsening a intrigue.

Four days, one win and one detriment after came a video post: LeBron, blasting on a cigar, a goblet of red booze in front of him, bobbing his conduct along to SZA and pumping his fist—happily.

And there he was Monday morning, merrily heading a whole Cavs patrol onto a New York transport train, to lapse to a organisation hotel after a morning shootaround during Madison Square Garden.

And after Monday, there was LeBron again, this time rejecting Kristaps Porzingis shots, going jaw to jaw with Enes Kanter and slapping his biceps after powering by a physique blow for a layup, all partial of an refreshing 104-101 quip feat over a Knicks (followed by a derisive Instagram post, that told New York, “You’re welcome.”)

So, yeah: Maybe a King is not so angry, or frustrated, or concerned—the Cavs’ ho-hum record (7-7) notwithstanding.

Sure, Kyrie Irving is gone, Isaiah Thomas is out, Tristan Thompson and Derrick Rose are bum and Dwyane Wade is slow. But LeBron is still LeBron—averaging 28.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and 8.8 assists—and that’s adequate to means a confidence for now.

“I’m in win mode still,” a smiling James told B/R Mag on his approach to a organisation sight late Saturday in Dallas.

Meaning: Even now, after 7 true Finals appearances and 3 championships churned in, James wants more—and is energetic to get it.

It’s generally ridiculous to negligence a LeBron-led team, no matter how sluggish or out of strike it competence seem between Nov and April. For 7 seasons, in Miami and afterwards Cleveland, James has found a approach to convene his teams, by injuries and aging, distractions and upheaval.

But as James himself pronounced final week, “This is a opposite challenge.” Indeed, for a initial time given LeBron started this run, there is reason to consternation if he’ll make it behind to a Finals.

This Cavaliers register is demonstrably weaker than a one that mislaid to a Golden State Warriors in a Finals in June. At a moment, it’s a misfortune surrounding expel he’s had in 8 seasons.

Irving, a scoring virtuoso, forced a trade to Boston in August. Thomas, acquired from a Celtics to fill a same role, is recuperating from a critical hip injury. He has not played given May and is still weeks from returning. There is no revelation how effective or durable he will be when he does.

Isaiah Thomas isn’t coming behind on a justice until mid-December by even a many confident of those in a Cavs franchise.Gary Dineen/Getty Images

The register is peppered with past-their-prime vets, from Wade (35) to Rose (an aged 29), to Kyle Korver (36), to Channing Frye (34), to JR Smith (32), to Jeff Green (31), to Jose Calderon (36).

For 7 years, James had co-stars who could magnitude and emanate during an chosen level—a younger Wade in Miami, afterwards Irving in Cleveland—and share a workload. No longer. Or during least, not until Thomas (fingers crossed) returns.

James is disgust to place that weight on Thomas (“We can’t rest on usually one person.”). Yet he knows, improved than anyone, how badly he needs him.

“It’s been a while given I’ve had that definite male who can get guys endangered though also magnitude during a same time,” James told B/R Mag. “But it’s fine. It’s something that a organisation will make an composition to.”

It’s been a while given I’ve had that definite male who can get guys endangered though also magnitude during a same time. But it’s fine.
— LeBron James

The bid is OK, James insisted. He’s not disturbed about wearing down, even in this, his 15th season. But he noted, “I demeanour brazen to when IT returns, whenever that happens, to give me a mangle here and there, where we know he can run a offense and control a entertain or two, or a diversion if need be.”

Needs? Yes, a Cavs have needs: defense, energy, athleticism, healthy indicate guards, to name a few.

They have already forsaken games to a Rebuilding Division of a Eastern Conference, with waste to New York, Brooklyn, Indiana, Orlando and Atlanta. They were dismembered by a New Orleans Pelicans, another expected lottery team. They stretched usually to put divided a squalid Mavericks.

And nonetheless a Cavs have also beaten Boston, Milwaukee and Washington, 3 of a East’s best, reinforcing a idea that James and Co. are merely battling early-season ennui and can serve their best when scrupulously motivated.

Also value noting: The register includes 8 new players. And one of their many critical holdovers, Thompson, is out given of a stretched calf.

“It’s usually so much—is originality a word?” Kevin Love told B/R Mag. “I consider we’re all unfamiliar.”

Familiarity will presumably come, along with improved health.

Yet a warning signs remain. Cleveland ranks last in defensive efficiency, per ESPN.com—a intensity genocide knell to any pretension chase—and each win takes limit effort. Though a quip Monday night was impressive, it was still overwhelming to see a Cavs tumble behind by 23 points to a decidedly muted Knicks.

The Cavaliers and their league-worst invulnerability dug themselves a 23-point third-quarter necessity before attack behind to tip a Knicks on Monday night.Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

“They don’t even demeanour like a genuine basketball team,” Brian Scalabrine, a former NBA brazen and stream Celtics analyst, examination from a press box, remarked in a third entertain Monday.

Scalabrine, for one, still believes a Cavaliers will make a Finals anyway—”because they have LeBron”—but other experts have their doubts.

“They could be a organisation that gets kick early in a playoffs,” pronounced one longtime scout, citing a Cavaliers’ aging revolution and miss of athleticism. “I consider we’re saying a twilight of that group.”

They could be a organisation that gets kick early in a playoffs. we consider we’re saying a twilight of that group.
— NBA scout

It’s admittedly a treacherous picture. The core of a organisation that finished 3 true Finals is still there, and a register is dotted with marquee names. But Wade isn’t Wade anymore, and Rose—who’s missed 7 games given of injury—hasn’t been an chosen actor in 6 years.

“Age ails them—which is not fixable,” pronounced a scout.

Maybe one actor changes everything.

Isaiah Thomas was among a final to leave a visiting locker room final Thursday in Houston, following a 117-113 detriment that a Cavaliers spun as a pointer of progress.

James was lively, during one indicate dunking so tough that a impact echoed opposite a arena. On a bench, Thomas was a team’s many fatiguing cheerleader, contributing what he could.

The rest of a joining is entertaining for Thomas to get healthy. Rival stars hail him in each arena, charity daps and good wishes. On Thursday, James Harden gave Thomas a comfortable welcome and difference of support on a approach to a loading dock.

Before leaving, Thomas consented to a brief interview, with one caveat: “No hip questions.”

He concluded with a grounds that a Cavaliers can’t be a organisation they’re meant to be until he’s in a lineup—and personification during a turn that finished him an All-NBA preference final season.

“You’re accurately right,” Thomas told B/R Mag. “We won’t know how good we’re unequivocally gonna be, or who we’re gonna be, until everybody is entirely healthy.”

The trade with Boston netted a Cavaliers dual other pivotal pieces: a Brooklyn Nets‘ defenceless first-round collect and defensive dilettante Jae Crowder, who has so distant struggled in Cleveland.

Jae Crowder has struggled in his initial few weeks with a Cavs, sharpened 38.0 percent from a building and 30.6 percent from behind a three-point arc by 14 games.Tony Dejak/Associated Press/Associated Press

The collect was a linchpin of a deal—a golden sheet that could pierce Cleveland a subsequent authorization star in June, or could be flipped in a trade.

But as of Tuesday, it’s as if a Cavaliers traded Irving for Crowder, an All-Star for a journeyman. Is it any consternation they’re worse off?

“You mislaid somebody that was a unequivocally large square of a success here,” Thomas says of Irving, “and afterwards we get [me], though I’m not means to play and fill that void, so it’s tough.”

It’s not usually that Irving took a ton of points, assists and purchase shots with him to Boston. It’s that a Cavs have no one else who can remotely replicate those skills. It’s forced James to play some-more indicate ensure than ever, a presumably unsustainable formula.

“I’m a tyro of a game, so we know everywhere we can help, man,” Thomas told B/R Mag. “I can help, initial off with my aggressiveness and my scoring ability. But usually putting vigour on a invulnerability each time down. Being means to get in a paint and make a invulnerability collect and select what they wish to stop. Being means to get to a free-throw line. Little things like that that we see nobody’s unequivocally doing though Bron.”

The James-Thomas pairing should be usually as energetic as a James-Irving partnership. And with a smoother offense—and Thompson’s return—the invulnerability should stabilize, too.

There’s a flourishing clarity around a organisation that Thomas competence be prepared by mid-December, violence a team’s initial projection of a Jan 1 return. That alone will interpose a Cavs with a renewed optimism, or during minimum, some clarity.

“Nobody suspicion it would be a onslaught like this,” Thomas said, before adding, “It can’t charge forever. At some point, it’s gonna click. And afterwards when it does, we’ll be a unequivocally good team.”

Nobody suspicion it would be a onslaught like this. It can’t charge forever.
— Isaiah Thomas

If we wanted Playful LeBron, he was there final week in Houston, teasing internal reporters who asked about his tighten crony and new Rockets star Chris Paul. “CP stinks! Tell him we pronounced it,” James said, shouting as a cameras rolled.

If we wanted Vintage LeBron, he was there Saturday night in Dallas, faking out and drifting by Dirk Nowitzki for a thunderous dunk that helped sign a win. 

If we wanted Angry LeBron, Determined LeBron or Dominant LeBron, they were all there Monday during a Garden, as James finished each play required to fuel a comeback.

He can do that, still, even while coming his 33rd birthday. But how often? And for how long? James is averaging a towering 38.1 mins per game, a many in a league, and his top normal given 2010-11.

It seems unsustainable, or during slightest inadvisable.

“I’m not endangered during all, generally as distant as me wearing down,” James told B/R Mag. “I’m not endangered with that, given we take caring of my body.”

But Wade, his longtime friend, does worry, revelation B/R Mag, “You don’t wish to wear on him—obviously physically, though mentally neither.”

It’s singular for a organisation in this epoch to make a Finals but mixed stars. James knows it. It’s what gathering him to leave Cleveland for Miami in 2010, and to leave Miami for Cleveland in 2014.

Squint a little, and this Cavs organisation resembles a 2009-10 Cavs, who surrounded James with an aging Shaquille O’Neal and Antawn Jamison, usually to fire out in a second turn of a playoffs.

Squint a small harder, and this Cavs organisation has a bit in common with a 2013-14 Heat, a gifted organisation that got aged and thin clearly overnight, and collapsed in a Finals.

Each time, James left for a improved roster.

All of that underscores what is unequivocally during stake.

James will be a giveaway representative subsequent summer and is neutral about his future. Team executives opposite a joining trust he’s leaving—though there’s a tangible opening between faith and tangible knowledge. The existence is, no one knows.

It leaves a Cavaliers authorization in a surpassing pickle: Do all probable to win a championship now, trade breeze picks for evident help? Or keep all resources and devise for a post-LeBron future?

Cavaliers GM Koby Altman could face a tough choice in determining possibly to keep a first-round collect acquired in a Kyrie Irving trade or traffic it for maestro assistance after this deteriorate to damp LeBron James.David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

Cavs officials are energetic to keep a Nets pick, simply their many profitable trade chip. They could maybe trade their own, reduce pick. They can't summarily order out anything.

What if a struggles continue? What if Thomas’ quip sputters? Would a Cavaliers give adult on what competence be James’ final deteriorate in Cleveland? Or would a Nets collect unexpected be in play?

“I consider a vigour gets flattering high,” pronounced a opposition organisation executive. “If it’s not working, they should possibly pierce a [Nets] collect or Love or LeBron. Those should all be on a table.”

If it’s not working, they should possibly pierce a [Nets] collect or Love or LeBron. Those should all be on a table.
— Rival NBA executive

The vigour to make a understanding usually intensifies if it’s LeBron James who’s job for reinforcements, as he has finished (both publicly and privately) in a past.

It’s too shortly for that discussion, of course. The Cavs have won 3 of their final 4 games and have found a magnitude of stability. At present, there is no spirit of panic to be found.

But if a time comes, if a subsequent predicament is some-more dire, if James believes a Cavs need a jolt, he will not demur to hit on ubiquitous manager Koby Altman’s door.

“I consider Koby has kind of non-stop that doorway for me,” James told B/R Mag. “I’m all about what’s best for a franchise. That’s what’s best for me, given we wish to win.”

“I feel great, I’m personification great, so I’m still in win mode,” James continued. “So if we feel like it’s something that can assistance a authorization be successful, afterwards I’ll voice my opinion.”

With that, James smiles and tools association and heads for a bus.

Mood: to be determined.


Howard Beck covers a NBA for Bleacher Report and BR Mag. He also hosts a Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

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