Yes, LeBron James was horrible in his much-anticipated return to Cleveland on Thursday night. James had 17 points, 4 assists and 8 turnovers in the Cavs' 95-90 loss to a Knicks team that had gotten blown out by Chicago the night before. It was the first game in James' entire career, including postseason, when he had under 20 points and 5 assists while committing 8 turnovers.
James was passive early in the game, perhaps trying to remind people he's a great team player and that he can integrate two news stars, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, into the team concept. The King never found his rhythm and seemed unsure of himself with the ball at times. He could have had double-digit turnovers if a couple of his risky passes hadn't barely missed getting picked off.
But we know what to expect from James. He's the best player in the game and will find himself soon enough. But there's a more pertinent issue that isn't likely to go away for the Cavs. That's their shaky defense, particularly the soft interior defense of their skilled power forward, Kevin Love. Love is a terrific rebounder, shooter and passer. But he's no post defender, and it was evident throughout the opener. It's only one game, but you could see why NBA insiders felt Love's lack of a post presence would be a problem, and why most experts feel they're not the team to beat.
Love doesn't challenge shots like a top interior defender. He's also a little slow on rotations. Several times, he allowed the unremarkable Jason Smith to hit open mid-range jumpers. Anderson Varejao, the Cavs' nominal center, isn't much of a defender, either. It's no surprise that the Knicks had 30 assists, more than they had in any single game a year ago. They hit 50 percent of their jump shots, which isn't simply a matter of being hot. When you know there's no stud defender coming at you, you become a better, more composed shooter.
Love isn't much of a post player on offense, either. He had no luck posting up some pretty average Knicks. He has little elevation on the low block. He's more of a threat standing at the three-point line, or rebounding other people's shots. He is very productive; he had 19 points and 14 rebounds. But he has the sort of game that will be exploited by bigger, stronger, better front lines in the postseason -- where he has yet to prove himself in the NBA.
I'm not saying the Cavs won't contend. Obviously, any team with LeBron is going to win 55-plus games and be a playoff threat. I know the Heat started 8-9 in his first year in Miami, then ran off about 20 straight wins and got to the Finals. But this Cavs team isn't as talented as the Heat. I'm no Chris Bosh fan, but he's far better as an interior defender than Love. And Dwyane Wade is a better inside scorer than any of LeBron's new supporting cast in Cleveland. So James will be trying to with another title without the sort of interior help he had in Miami. It's in the crucible of the playoffs that it will really show.