The Cleveland Cavaliers are stuck. And standing pat during the trade deadline will only make it easier for LeBron James to walk away.
Thursday night was an arduous one for the Cleveland Cavaliers. They traveled to face the Orlando Magic, who had won just 16 games heading into the contest. Things looked great for LeBron James and the Cavaliers. At one point, they had stretched their lead to 21 and were on track to make up for their embarrassing loss to the Houston Rockets on national television. And then everything flipped.
A 41-point third quarter from Orlando erased Cleveland’s lead, and they followed that up by scoring just nine points in the fourth. It was, by all accounts, a repulsive and repugnant performance. LeBron James had 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. The second-leading scorers were Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith and Jeff Green, who all had 12 points each.
“Right now, when we hit adversity, we go our separate ways,” said Thomas after the game to ESPN’s Dave McMenamin. “And that’s just how I feel, and it looks like that as well. Guys start to go one-on-one on offense, and the defense is every man for himself. The first half we played good, everybody was happy. It was energized, helping each other on the defensive end. Sharing the ball. The ball was moving side-to-side on offense. And then we revert back to what makes us lose games.”
Their loss to the Magic is rock bottom, and time is running out for the front office to help remedy the situation. The Cavaliers are just 6-10 since the start of January and are in danger of losing control of the third seed. Some of the losses have been frustrating, others shocking. At times, James looks disengaged to an extent we’ve never seen — like he’s upset that the team he helped construct isn’t living up to the expectations. He’s at fault. LeBron is the leader. He deserves most of the blame, but not all of it.
His teammates aren’t producing. There are only so many open shots one can miss before blame deflects from the facilitator and lands on the shooter. Additionally, the front office hasn’t done anything this season to make the team any better. With the trade deadline this Thursday, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst told Scott Van Pelt that rival executives have explained what they would do if they were in that situation: “trade three or four players.” That’s easier for him to say and me to write than the Cavaliers to execute.
James, being a good friend, convinced management to give Thompson and Smith inflated contracts; the former signed a five-year, $82 million deal in October of 2015, and the latter earned $57 million over four years last October. These arrangements came at fascinating junctures. Two seasons ago, Thompson and Smith were among the x-factors that helped the Cavaliers’ championship manifest. It made sense to pay them for what they accomplished, but the multi-million dollar question was how much. Outside of them, the front office signed a slew of three-and-D guys that only play one end of the floor.
As the king, LeBron should be able to motivate his teammates to make them compete on defense, but that only goes so far. The talent level isn’t there. It’s like trying to grow a flower in a closet.
The string of unfortunate events has touched every part of the Cavaliers organization. Inside the locker room, chemistry is eroding at an astonishing rate, and that’s noticeable when they take the court. Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas, two pieces in the Kyrie Irving trade that James wasn’t a fan of, have looked nothing like they did with the Boston Celtics, and it’s been detrimental to the team’s success.
Crowder was supposed to be a defensive anchor on the perimeter who doubled as a feared marksman. His ability to stop the ball has wanned, and it appears Crowder left his stroke in Boston because he’s connecting on just 32.6 percent of his threes. For context, that’s three-tenths of a point lower than Dwyane Wade. Thomas, the jewel of the package, has fallen from premier scoring guard to unwatchable shot chucker.
In 14 games, Thomas is scoring 14.9 points but boasts a ghastly shooting clip of 35.5 percent. His struggles were expected as he was coming off of hip surgery. But don’t forget that the Cavaliers traded for a guy who had undergone hip surgery. That situation by itself is tricky. Irving wanted out, yes, but he also threatened to have an operation on his knee if the team failed to trade him. The fallout from that would’ve been intriguing.
The combination of unfavorable contracts and poor play halts any possible deal. Teams are not in the business of taking on mediocre players with outrageous salaries. Young talent is usually the difference-maker, but that only applies to a couple of teams who are already in their rebuild. Enter the Brooklyn Nets‘ pick. And the front office is stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Cleveland could mortgage their future for some talent that will hopefully entice LeBron James to stick around for a little longer, but there’s no guarantee that their return will upend the Golden State Warriors (or Houston Rockets) in the NBA Finals. Should they forgo that, they would play out the rest of this year while holding onto the pick and protecting the integrity of their impending rebuild. Those are the two scenarios. The first is far less likely than the second. But the second will lead to constant negativity and shoddy basketball for the next couple of months. It’s less than an ideal situation.
The Cavaliers are feeling the effects of Murphy’s Law, and the rest of the campaign is going to be rocky unless change comes. There’s disdain all around. LeBron’s upset with management, and — judging from the outside — who knows if they want to sit down and hash things out just to smooth the rest of the season. Additionally, the rest of team is maybe starting to lose faith. Analysts and fans across the country billed the Cavaliers as the favorites out of the Eastern Conference, but that projection was because it doesn’t pay to bet against James.
As the days pass, things look gloomier and gloomier in Northeast Ohio. If Cleveland doesn’t do something to re-energize the team, the return of LeBron James is all but guaranteed.
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