This is what it was supposed to look like, way back in the beginning. LeBron James was back, Kyrie Irving was locked up, and Kevin Love would be the pick and pop savant. Around them would be shooters and dunkers, and no one would be able to guard them. Offensive records would be challenged or broken. Kyrie Irving would thrive with the spacing of Love and the attention drawn by James.
In a way, it's always worked. The Cavs have had a very good offense two years in a row. When Tristan Thompson shared the court with Irving, James, Love and J.R. Smith during the regular season, the Cavs had an offensive rating of 115.3. Swap in Matthew Dellavedova for Kyrie Irving and the rating spiked to 120.4. Last year, the Cavs blitzed the league once Timofey Mozgov replaced Anderson Varejao and Brendan Haywood and LeBron James got healthy.
But you hadn't seen any kind of real, sustained success. In the playoffs, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving got hurt. Irving didn't come back until December of this year, and hadn't been shooting well until late in the regular season. Timofey Mozgov struggled coming off knee surgery. Speed bump, after speed bump, after speed bump. It took a toll not just on the Cavs' offense, but also on LeBron James' body.
Cavs 2015 playoffs: 104 pts/100 possessions, LeBron usage rate of 37.4%.— David Zavac (@DavidZavac) May 8, 2016
2016 playoffs: 118.7 pts/100 possessions, LeBron at 28.9% usage.
Indeed, while the Cavs required just as many games to beat the Atlanta Hawks a year ago in the Eastern Conference Finals, James was required to expend an amount of energy that left him collapsing to the floor after a Game 3 home victory. And those numbers above include the first round, when Irving and Love were healthier.
This season, James' minutes are down from 42.2 to 38.8 per game. His usage rate is down 8.9% to 29.5 after the Cavs ended the Hawks' season. Even his assists per 36 are down from a year ago, so it's not simply an issue of him playing more of the point guard role. The Cavs were also pushed to six games by the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals a year ago, but have played the minimum number through two series in 2016.
Why has LeBron been able to take a step back? It starts with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Love is using a healthy 26% of the Cavs' possessions, and Irving is efficiently using 27.1%. Per nbawowy.com, the Cavs are still struggling whenever LeBron James sits. This is a problem moving forward, but you might see James ramp it up to 44 minutes a game in a potential Finals matchup. Even with the drop-off when James sits, it's important to note that the Cavs are putting up an insane offensive rating over the course of the playoffs, not just with certain lineups. They're doing a much better job of sustaining offensive success than they have all season.
The Cavs will have to defend better if they want to beat whatever team comes out of the West. And they won't continue to shoot from three as they have through eight games. But they've already taken a bit off LeBron James' plate, and he'll be as fresh as you can expect when the Eastern Conference Finals starts next week.
Stats courtesy of nba.com/stats unless otherwise noted.