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COLUMN: The lackluster leadership of LeBron James



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The Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James dunks over the Oklahoma City Thunder after a lob from teammate Dwyane Wade in the second quarter on Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018, at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. James and the Cavs are 31-22 on the season and have gone 8-14 in their last 22 games. Tribune News Service Buy Photos

Sometimes an NBA superstar has to put his team on his back. Those responsibilities are heightened even more when that star is arguably the best basketball player in the world.

The Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James has learned that the hard way too many times this season.

James has carried the Cavaliers offensively this year as many members of his supporting cast continue to struggle. Once again, he’s having an amazing statistical season, currently averaging 26.5 points, eight rebounds and 8.7 assists.

However, something is different about this season from years past. James’ Cavaliers aren’t winning on a consistent basis, and that rests squarely on the shoulders of their star player, despite him having another productive season.

Yes, Cleveland’s defense has been absolutely abhorrent this year, due in large part to the minimal effort exuded from Kevin Love and Isaiah Thomas. And yes, players that were once considered some of the NBA’s best role players such as Jae Crowder, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson have been non-factors far too often.

It’s all culminated in a 31-22 record as the Cavaliers near the all-star break, which is well below the norm for a LeBron James-led team. Even worse, they’ve been in a horrendous slide as of late, going 8-14 in their last 22 games. In that slide, they’ve fallen to some of the NBA’s bottom-feeders, like the Sacramento Kings and Orlando Magic.

Yet it still all comes back to James. Where he has failed miserably with this team is at another important role of a player of James’ caliber — leadership.

Instead of rallying the troops in the face of adversity, which he has done countless times in years past, LeBron has let Cleveland’s locker room descend into chaos. Instead of trying to work it out, the Cavaliers have turned to pointing fingers at one another, blaming anybody and anything under the sun.

It’s been everything from Thomas not fitting in after coming back from a hip injury, Thompson suffering from the Kardashian Curse, or Love leaving a Jan. 20 game in Oklahoma City due to illness. The latter even led to a heated meeting between players and coaches, directed squarely at Love. Whatever the newest revelation may be from behind the scenes in Cleveland, it always has to be somebody’s fault, and nobody is stepping up to take the blame.

Now, let’s not kid ourselves into believing corralling the locker room is Cavaliers Coach Tyronn Lue’s responsibility. Although, in theory, the head coach should play a major role in such a situation, it’s been well-documented that James truly runs the show. Whether it’s been Lue, David Blatt or Mike Brown on the Cleveland sidelines, James wants to be in the driver’s seat, whether he admits it or not.

That means James hasn’t done one of his most important jobs as his team’s franchise player: being a leader. There’s been no more obvious evidence of that than the ugliness that the Cavaliers have shown on the defensive side of the ball.

It’s already a known fact that Love and Thomas are liabilities when it comes to defense. What isn’t usually holding Cleveland back in that department is James. He’s proven to be one of the league’s best defensive players, but he’s not been himself this year.

James’ effort defensively has been at a minimum, and he’s made it a point of showing his frustration with his teammates while he’s at it. He leads by example on both ends of the floor but when he acts like he doesn’t want to even be there with this set of teammates, it results in the pathetic overall effort we’ve seen from the Cavaliers thus far.

The argument could be made that James shouldn’t exert too much energy at this point in the season, and that’s a solid viewpoint. The 82 games of the NBA season are a grueling haul for any player, and history has proven that LeBron and the Cavs have found a way to flip the switch when it comes time for the playoffs.

However, with things in full crisis mode in Cleveland right now, doesn’t it seem like James should find a way to flip that switch now before the ship sinks completely?

Of course, all of this has led to the seemingly yearly question of if James will leave once again as a free agent. Everybody, from the Rockets, 76ers, Clippers, Lakers, Spurs and even the Warriors, have come up as potential landing spots for him if he decides to leave this summer. He seems unhappy right now, so why wouldn’t he leave?

He’s proven in the past that he will give up on Cleveland if he’s not satisfied with his supporting cast. Rewind to 2010 when James left for the Miami Heat. He had led the Cavaliers to a first-place finish in the Eastern Conference, but they were bounced from the playoffs in the second round by the Boston Celtics. He was surrounded by a core of Mo Williams, Anthony Parker, an aging Antawn Jamison and an old-as-dirt Shaquille O’Neal.

Therefore, the move might have been justifiable at the time, but this team is different. Coming into this season, it looked as if this team was built to run the table in the East once again and face the Warriors for a fourth straight Finals. They had depth off the bench, shooters to surround James with, and a large group of returning players from their Finals team from last year. The roster was full of role players such as Crowder, Smith and Thompson, along with veterans Dwyane Wade and Kyle Korver. It was a group that many contenders would die for.

However, they still had to blow it up mid-season to appease the King.

At the trade deadline, the Cavaliers flipped Thomas, Wade, Crowder, Channing Frye, Iman Shumpert and Derrick Rose for some younger options that they think might fit around James and their system a bit better. Now they bring in Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. from the Lakers, Rodney Hood from the Jazz and George Hill from the Kings.

This isn’t to say these were bad moves by Cleveland’s front office. In fact, they probably improved overall, but that’s not the point. The sad thing is James’ original supporting cast was one that was seemingly built for him to win with. While many things contributed to that, such as Thomas and Crowder being sorely disappointing after coming over from Boston in the Kyrie Irving trade, or the fact that Father Time is finally starting to catch up with some of their veterans, such as Smith, Wade and Rose, it feels as if this could have been avoidable if LeBron was willing to adapt to his new teammates a little bit better. He’s supposed to be the greatest player since Michael Jordan, meaning he’s supposed to make those around him better, not worse. That’s what great players do.

Yet, once this summer’s offseason rolls around, we’ll all still sit here wondering if the trade deadline moves were enough. We’ll still wait in anticipation as LeBron decides if he wants even more.

John Blutarsky, John Belushi’s character in the film, Animal House, once used the phrase, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” as a rallying cry toward his fellow fraternity brothers.

Maybe it’s time for us to question if LeBron James is one of those tough people Belushi was referencing. Maybe this recent lack of leadership means something a little more about the true character of the world’s best player.

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