By James Holas
The Cleveland Cavaliers have danced this dance before. In his 15th season, LeBron James is an old hat at handling the regular season rigamarole.
It’s like Groundhog Day as Cleveland saunters through the regular season with pundits clucking and howling over uninspired performances. All will be forgotten if (when?) James shrugs his massive shoulders, flips the switch, and drags the Cavs through the Eastern Conference once again, en route to their fourth dance with Golden State in the Finals.
The faces have changed: out went Kyrie Irving, Richard Jefferson, and the corpse of Deron Williams. In came Isaiah Thomas, Jeff Green, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade, and former MVP Derrick Rose. Time and injury has taken the pop out of the big names, but on paper that’s ample star power—so much so that ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh listed the current iteration of Cavaliers as the “Super-team Standard”, behind only the mighty Warriors. The faces have changed, but LeBron is LeBron; surround him high level talent and you’re playing in June.
But look closer.
The term “uncanny valley” entered the lexicon back in 1970. Japanese roboticist Masashiro Mori coined the term to describe how the more realistically human in appearance we design animatronics or graphics, the more unsettling and grotesque the design appeared to the human eye. The closer to the representation gets to reality, the more stark any unnatural differences stand out.
And at first glance, the roster the Cavaliers handed LeBron to work with this season seems like just the type to maintain status quo. But the more we see of Rose and Wade, the more doubts creep in that the roster construct around James is more mirage than real deal Finals-worthy.
To the casual eye, the Dwyane Wade that’s coming off of the bench for the Cleveland Cavaliers is the same Wade he’s always been. His hair is a little longer, his face a bit more weathered, but when the Cavs played the New Orleans Pelicans, it was Wade who put up a tidy 15 points and four assists in a mere 23 minutes of work. In fact, he’s scored 15 or more in four games off the bench for the Cavaliers. Squint hard enough and the fuzzy image of Wade turning on the jets for the monster two-handed jam could be straight Heatles days.
“Dwyane Wade turned back the clock! Do you hear it ticking?!”
But look closer.
For the bulk of his career, Wade fit the bill of NBA superstar. Raw stats, analytics, on-off numbers, box office draw, you could run the numbers and the results were authentic.
But over the last few seasons, while the naked eye may not be able to ascertain the differences, the numbers don’t lie. PER is by no means a be all, end all metric, but Wade’s has steadily declined since his career high 2008-2009 season, from 30.4 in ‘09 to 26 in 2012 to 22 in 2014, to 14.0 this year. His field goal percentage, true shooting percentage, and turnover, steals, and free throw rates are all among the lowest of his career. Wade still mostly moves the same, but without the superhero speed and bounce, the once breathtaking plays now can short circuit. Wade posted a tidy 15-point, four-assist, two-steal night against the Pelicans, but the Cavaliers were outscored by eight with Wade on the floor and lost by 22.
Last season, Derrick Rose seemingly bounced back from myriad knee and leg injuries to post a “vintage” Rose season for the Knicks. His 20 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 4.9 assists on 47.1 percent shooting per-36 minutes is nearly identical to the 20.3/3.7/5.9 on 48.9 percent he posted as a 21-year-old Bull. This season, before going down with a knee injury, Rose strung together a three-game stretch of 18 points per game on 53.5 percent shooting, blowing past defenders and drawing oohs from the crowd with his trademark athletic finishes around the rim.
At first glance, he’s had some fine games. For instance, he scored 19 points on 69.3 percent shooting against the Indiana Pacers.
But his counterpart, fringe starter Darren Collison, went for 25-5-8 on 90 percent shooting from the field and the Pacers won a laugher, 124-107.
Rose’s assist rate of 10.4 is a fraction of his career rate of 30.8. He’s turning it over on 17.1 percent of his possessions, a big bump on his career 13.2 percent.
Most damningly, Rose’s net rating, which tracks how much better or worse the team is with a player on the floor compared to when he sits, is a ghastly -15.9.
LeBron James is the anchor to reality in the simulacrum that is the Cavaliers. His heroics still stand up to the tests of authenticity. He was a human cheat code in the fourth quarter against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden, putting the defensive shackles on the 7’3” Kristaps Porzingis and drilling the go-ahead three late. His 57-point, 11-rebound, seven-assist gem against the Washington Wizards was awe inspiring enough to be added to his already impressive all-time highlight resumé.
But the heroics were needed in New York because the Knicks held a 23-point lead. It took Lebron James playing perfectly and Kyle Korver (10.8 ppg this season) erupting for 19 fourth quarter points for the Cavs to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. His 57-point explosion against the Wiz ended a four-game skid, during which they lost to the lowly Brooklyn Nets and rebuilding Pacers.
The Cavaliers have won four straight games, and it’s logical to note that, after a 3-5 start, they have now won six of their last eight games. It’s easy to say \ Cleveland just doesn’t care about the regular season (as we’ve noted the last two years) and trust that a roster studded with former all stars led by LeBron James is just as potent as past iterations.
But we haven’t seen Rose be a real impact player since he’s been beset by injuries back in 2013, and Wade was already showing slow since of decay when LeBron took his talents back to Cleveland.
The Cavaliers problems aren’t on the offensive side of the ball, where they rank fourth in the league with an offensive rating of 110.8. No, the problem is that in a league gone sleeker and switchier, Cleveland’s roster has not. Their transition defense is non-existent, defensive rotations are inconsistent and, with Tristan Thompson out, they’re 21st in defensive rebounds percentage. Isaiah Thomas’s January-ish return won’t remedy these issues.
This is not an ode to the end of Cleveland. I’m not smacking the panic button nor giving up on the idea that a combination of Wade and Thomas will help Cleveland be overwhelming offensively enough to make the putrid defense not matter.
We’re less than a quarter through the year, so they’re still plenty of time for the Cavs to coalesce. Maybe by the time postseason rolls around, Cleveland will look so ready the question will be why I was silly enough to doubt LeBron’s superhuman humanity. But the closer these Cavaliers get to appearing like their old selves, the more unsettling they become. I guess we’ll see if LeBron can lead his troops up the mountain to to another title fight, or will they fall victim to the uncanny valley.