-- Before LeBron James worries about the problems facing his Cleveland Cavaliers teammates in their poor start to the season, he may need to work on himself first. James is not the reason the Cavs are 5-7 and on a four-game losing streak.
Naturally, he has been their best player and is already being asked to carry too much of a load, a classic symptom of teams he's played on in his career. Much of the team has been constantly inconsistent or simply has underperformed as new coach David Blatt struggles with the adaption to the NBA game.
But James is not helping his team in an extremely important area: his leadership. If there is one area he needs to clean up first, this should be it. He's doing some damage right now with his actions and words that are not typically part of his character.
James nailed a fencepost into the Cavs' lopsided loss to the Toronto Raptors on Saturday when he complained of his team being "fragile" after blowing an 18-point first-half lead. This is a code word for stronger commentary -- which wasn't easy to miss -- but it is probably a quote that will be referred to for quite some time, even if/when the Cavs turn things around.
However, it is James who has been a leader in the "fragile" category for the Cavs. It is his body language that has been poor when the games have turned for the worse or when teammates have made mistakes. The GIFs have been piling up with evidence.
It is James who has sometimes not gotten back on defense out of frustration.
It is James who has fallen asleep on the defensive end when the Cavs are in the midst of negative runs.
It is James who has been guilty of ridiculous turnovers -- he's averaging four per game this season -- during the Cavs' losing streak. He has said that some of this is because of chemistry and continuity problems, and that is certainly true. But the film doesn't lie: James has attempted numerous foolish passes and has become so reliant on running pick-and-rolls with familiar Anderson Varejao that teams just sit on him and wait to make interceptions.
It is James who has undercut Blatt with words and actions dating back to even before training camp -- not aggressively, but passively and steadily. Without a doubt, James has many good reasons to be unsure and unhappy with his coach, but he has not handled it progressively or the way a veteran of his experience and standing could to help improve the situation.
Whether it is a dismissive attitude, publicly disagreeing with Blatt's assessments or one instance in which James admitted he "didn't look for [Blatt's] guidance" when deciding on how to send messages to teammates, James is inflicting little cuts to his coach. None of it is unprecedented by star players, but James has yet to appear invested in Blatt's plan, and this is making an already-challenging job that much harder.
In other words, James hasn't been the leadership rock that he's expected to be. It is no wonder the Cavs are sometimes fragile.
"I can't be negative at all," James said Saturday. "Once I crack, then it will trickle down to everybody else. So I will never do that to these guys. I owe it to them and we owe it to our fans as well."
He's right about the concept: He is everything for this team, and his example is vital. But he is wrong about his execution on it thus far.
James has been consistent in attempting to set a positive tone for teammates, especially when it comes to sharing the ball, at the start of games. But his patience has routinely appeared to run thin, and it shows all over his face and his game. James has put up several lifeless second halves recently as games slipped out of the Cavs' reach. Because of his standing, it can't help but be a drag.
Asking him to do so much -- be the team's best scorer, passer, motivator and leader -- is of course extreme and sometimes unfair. He cannot always be perfect. But this is the role James has not only earned but has chosen to accept. The weight of that choice has clearly been wearing on him already as he's learned just how big of a job it is going to be.
"I've been through it before, but at the same time, I'm a winner, I want to win, and I want to win now," James said. "It's not tomorrow, it's not down the line, I want to win now. So it's a fine line for me, but I understand what we're enduring right now."
James does understand it, his experiences deeper than anyone else's in the Cavs organization. He frequently shows the perspective of someone decades older, and it's one of the reasons he has said he feels like he is an "old soul."
No one is better positioned or equipped to handle everything on his shoulders and spin it into a positive.
But he is not doing his best work in this area, and right now it is more important than more superficial monitors like field goal percentage, points per possession on post-ups or defensive rating. Those all better improve if the Cavs are going to get serious about reaching their potential.
To start, James needs to set a much better example. This is something he's fighting within himself right now -- that is obvious. But with a team and a coach that are repeatedly frustrating him with their immaturity and inexperience, it is one thing he can control.
"I have a low tolerance for things of this nature," James said. "So it's something I'm working on, as well, which I knew from the beginning that that was going to be my biggest test to see how much patience I've got."