LeBron James and Cleveland’s Offensive Un-Coordination

by Lang Whitaker

• Did anyone watch TNT last night? Charles Barkley was on fire, I guess because he’s excited for Vegas and All-Star. His best line last night was: “I hear Doug Collins talking about Chicago wants to be (the second seed). Well, I want to be skinny but my ass is too big.” He was like that all night. Charles was about as giddy about going to Vegas as the SLAM crew is.

• And yes, we’ll be bringing you our usual comprehensive coverage from All-Star, this year in Sin City, at least until Khalid or Sam passes out in a casino or something. I’ve been doing my best to coach the SLAM crew and get us all ready for action. I think we’re prepared. But it’s Vegas, so who knows what in the world is going to happen out there. I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes off great, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the worst All-Star Weekend ever; there’s that much wiggle room.

• Speaking of All-Star, the League made it ‘fficial today and put Carmelo Anthony and Josh Howard on the All-Star team. Now all they need to do is figure out a way to get Joe Johnson on the Eastern Conference team and I’ll stop complaining.

• Fearless Prediction: The Celtics will beat the Nets tonight. Just got a feeling…

• While everyone is talking about Oden vs. Durant, think of it this way: Would you rather build a franchise around David Robinson or Tracy McGrady? Yeah, thought so.

• I don’t want to go too deep into it here, but I hate the new Yahoo! NBA homepage and site. Yahoo! used to be my go-to site for looking up NBA stats and headlines, but now they’ve added a bunch of useless photos and graphics and the thing loads about half as fast as it used to. Anyone got any better suggestions? Let us know.

• I got a call earlier this week from a radio station in Cleveland asking if I could come on the air and talk about the LeBron cover story I wrote in the current issue of SLAM. “I just read your story,” the radio producer said, “and it’s funny how the stuff you wrote about a month ago is still an issue with the Cavs right now.”

What this brilliant producer was specifically referring to was the chunk of my story that deals with the Cleveland offense. Here’s a direct quote from the story…

Last season the Cleveland Cavaliers finished 50-32 and made it to the Eastern Conference semifinals, where they pushed the Pistons to 7 games before ultimately getting sent back to Ohio. For the regular season, last year’s Cavs averaged 97.6 points per game and gave up an average of 95.4 points per game. But this season, through early January, the Cavs were 24th in the NBA in points per game (94.4 ppg) and 26th in field goal percentage (44.1 percent), and they’d tallied a 4-9 road record through their first two months. Moreso, LeBron’s numbers have dipped significantly, from last season’s 31.4 points per game to this year’s 27.1 ppg.

I wrote that over four weeks ago but it’s all still an issue with the Cavs. For whatever reason, they can’t find a groove on offense. It’s become frustrating enough that earlier this week LeBron spoke out and crapped on Mike Brown, saying the Cavs need to run more to get more easy baskets.

Coach Brown, meanwhile, is holding the Cavs back a bit, but he’s doing it for a reason: To make sure the Cavs will have an effective halfcourt offense come Playoff time. LeBron talks about Cleveland’s playoff ambition in the article, while Mike Brown tries not to talk about it, but that’s basically that this whole thing is about. The Cavs want to go all out, but Mike Brown is still tugging on the reins a bit. Everyone will start to sleep on them, and eventually Brown will let the team loose.

I just don’t know what’s going to happen when he lets them all go. Will the Cavs respond? Will they fumble about? I just don’t know, and that’s the key question for the Cavs right now.

To me, the player’s frustration with the offense is completely understandable. The Cavs are running a new offense this year, one that’s less reliant on the basic pick-and-rolls that most NBA teams use. It’s also designed to lessen the burden on LeBron, which means he’s handling the ball less, and I think that’s probably making Bron nervous, in the same way I get nervous when I’m in a car with my wife and she insists on driving.

It doesn’t help Coach Brown’s cause that the Cavs halfcourt offense is probably the most verbose in the NBA. I watched a few games on TV and was amazed at the stuff Brown was calling out. Most teams just use the numbers of the players involved in the play — a 1-5 side, for instance, is usually a pick and roll between the 1 (point guard) and 5 (center) on the side of the floor. Of course, both teams understand what’s being called out, and it basically comes down to execution. The Cavs, however, come at you with a mouthful of plays.

“He got a lot of football calls,” LeBron said when I asked him about Mike Brown’s plays. “A lot of people, especially opponents, they’ll be like, ‘Damn, you guys got football plays.’ It’s kind of funny because they are real long. So he’s got like, well, one play we run is ‘Thumbs Down 34 Slash C.’ Then there’s ‘Thumbs Up 25 Ice.'” (Incidentally, the signal for that play is for the point guard to point to his eye, which is apparently Cavs code for “ice.”)

One of the Cavs’ main offensive sets is what they call their “1-4 set.” As the point guard brings the ball down, the shooting guard and small forward take positions on each wing on the free throw line extended. The power forward and center stand on the free throw line elbows. The action commences from there, with a series of picks and cuts. They use a lot of other sets, but the 1-4 seems to get the most use.

“A lot of what we runs depends on what other teams are doing,” Mike Brown told me. “We like to put Bron in pick-and-roll. We’ll put him in middle pick-and-roll, we’ll put him in side pick-and-roll, and we’ll do it out of that 1-4 look. We also have movement out of that 1-4, we also have post-ups out of the 1-4.”

Out of that 1-4, LeBron usually gets the ball on the left side of the floor, and LeBron thinks that’s because Coach Brown understands LeBron’s left hand is probably better than anyone else’s on Cleveland.

(“Doesn’t matter for me,” LeBron told me, with all the humility in the world. “I can play the right, left, middle, baseline, whatever.”)

What’s funny to me is how we keep hearing about the Cavs complaining, I keep reading people in Cleveland complaining about the way the Cavs are playing…and yet the Cavs are 2.5 games out of first IN THE CONFERENCE. The Cavs are on pace to win close to 50 games and coast into the Playoffs in much better shape than they were in last season. Isn’t that good enough?