It's only mid-December, and I don't think the Cavaliers have reached an "hour of reckoning" point of the season just yet.
But the Cavs are in a stretch of 10 home games in 13 prior to taking off on a long, tough West Coast trip in mid-January. A poor showing over the next 13 games combined with taking their lumps on the West Coast trip could jepoardize the season.
So far, the Cavs are 0-2 in the stretch of 10 home dates. Denver, a playoff team last year, comes into The Q tonight.
Cleveland is 2-7 in its last nine games, causing their record to careen from 9-2 to 11-9. The Cavs now sit a mere half-game out of last place in the stacked Central Division, where the Bulls are bringing up the rear with a 10-9 record.
Tonight's game isn't a must-win, but as the losses continue to pile up and the West Coast swing draws closer, the pressure to start winning will grow. Many of the players and coaches weren't here to witness last spring's collapse that caused the Cavs to miss the playoffs, but after narrowly missing the postseason two years in a row, the pressure to make the playoffs is great this year. If the Cavs are below .500 and in lottery position come mid-February, the likelyhood of the team narrowly missing the playoffs for a third straight year is high. That's not progress. And the "LeBron is leaving" murmurs will grow louder. Even though LeBron has played a hand in the Cavs' recent skid.
Below, I size up some Cavs players and coach Mike Brown, and find out what they can do to help the Cavs rebound before it's too late.
What he is doing: Carrying the scoring many nights, being a willing team leader, not getting down on himself or his team.
What he is not doing: playing consistent defense, spreading the workload around, demanding more of his teammates.
What he needs to do: LeBron has the athleticism to be a lockdown defender, but too often, he is trying for the steal, missing, and consequently giving his man a clear path to the basket. LeBron needs to begin taking as much pride in his defense as he does in his almost-limitless offensive game. While it is great he is not badmouthing his team, there comes a time when LeBron needs to assert himself and demand more of his teammates. Like last season, when the going gets tough, LeBron puts all the weight on himself, and allows his teammates to become passive observers. That's not going to win any playoff series, let alone championships.
What he is doing: bringing energy on a nightly basis, showing an unwavering confidence in his outside shot.
What he is not doing: playing any kind of real defense, showing good judgment when hoisting three-pointers.
What he needs to do: Jones is, at the moment, not doing a good job of playing within himself. He appears obsessed with the three-ball. During a game against New Jersey last Friday, he grabbed a long-carom rebound at the free-throw line off a missed Donyell Marshall three. Instead of taking the ball to the basket or trying to draw contact inside, he dribbled back out to three-point land and hoisted another miss.
Jones is not Reggie Miller. He is a good but not a great outside shooter, and needs to realize that anytime is not a good time to hoist a three. Jones would also be best-served to focus his energy at the defensive end, and at least be an undersized, disruptive pest even if he can't really guard anyone.
What he is doing: being that long-sought scoring compliment to LeBron, showing fearlessness when penetrating to the basket.
What he is not doing: Living up to his reputation as a first-team All NBA defender.
What he needs to do: This is where a Ron Artest trade becomes intriguing again. Artest and LeBron in the lineup could move Hughes to the point. At 6'-5", rail thin and quick, Hughes has the body of a modern NBA point guard, and could shut down smaller guards on defense. But as long as he is a shooting guard, he needs to use that quickness to at least slow down opposing two-guards, if not stop them.
What he is doing: Getting to the free-throw line, playing well within his limitations, showing a willingness to work at his defensive game.
What he is not doing: like LeBron, not demanding more of his teammates.
What he needs to do: Z is the elder statesman of the Cavaliers, with 10 seasons under his belt. That level of experience lends itself to leadership. I'm sure Z works with younger players, but he and LeBron could be the standard-setters for the roster if they'd be willing to speak up more often. Not being jerks about it, but leaving strong hints that lax efforts like the one Tuesday against the Hawks is beneath the team and will not be tolerated. To a lot of players, one sentence from a teammate is worth more than an hour-long lecture from a coach.
What he is doing: saying all the right things, preaching defense, acknowledging that building a team is a process. What he is not doing: building a bridge between the complexities of his playbook and his players, who have to to execute the plays, not just learn them.
What he needs to do: becoming a head coach is like being in a new country for Brown. From the high language of NBA scholars, he must now find a language that reaches the NBA's million-dollar peasants, the players. The players want simple concepts, since they not only have to learn the plays, they have to execute them on the floor. Lengthy skull sessions on the intrcacies of pick-and-roll defense only educates players to a point; after that, it bores them.
Keep it as simple as possible, Mike.