Cavaliers crumbled quickly without LeBron James
Kevin Love became the target at the Cavaliers’ infamous meeting last January. The team was struggling, and he left a game early a couple days prior and then missed the next practice. His teammates demanded to know why.
“They’re like to the point of ‘Unless somebody is dying, we don’t give a sh.’ You know what I mean?” Love said. “And I’m saying, ‘I’m dealing with something. I’m going to be better for you guys. But right now is a really tough time for me.’ With where the team was, I don’t know if some guys were hearing that or not.”
Then-Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue came to Love’s defense, according to Love. Love said Lue brought up what Love later revealed to be a panic attack during an earlier game. Love doesn’t blame Lue, who was dealing with his own anxiety issues, and believes Lue was trying to protect him. But Love also said Lue inadvertently crossed a line.
“It was kind of an oh-shit moment where I said, ‘Man, if I was going to say anything, I was going to say it on my own terms,’” Love said.
That and DeMar DeRozan coming forward sparked Love to open up about his anxiety and depression. Love said therapy has taught him lessons that apply not just to his mental health, but also difficult basketball situations.
“I’ve learned to, a lot of things roll off my chest. A lot of things, I absorb and can use it into then furthering my team or furthering myself in a very positive way,” Love said. “So, I think those definitely go hand-in-hand, because they have to.
“You either grow or you die.”
LeBron James returns to Cleveland tonight for his first game there with the Lakers.
He’ll see his former franchise in ruin.
The Cavs are 2-13, the remnants of a roster LeBron propped up incapable of competing without him. These are the consequences of four years of title contention – the win-now trades, the long-term contracts, the necessity of resting rather than practicing.
LeBron escaped to Los Angeles. The Cavaliers have to deal with it.
They’re starting from behind. Of the 13 teams to begin a season so poorly in the last decade, only the Mavericks the previous two years did so with an average age so old (weighted for playing time, holding a player’s age constant as of Feb. 1):
Cleveland just has too many veterans accustomed to competing. Current Cavaliers have 653 games of playoff experience, second only to the Warriors.
Going from meaningful games to this can be a shock to the system.
J.R. Smith said the team was tanking then got sent home. Kyle Korver was reportedly promised by management he’d get traded during the summer if LeBron left, but remains on the team. Lue got fired after playing veterans.
“It’s not easy,” Larry Drew, Lue’s replacement, said of managing competing goals.
The Cavs should have traded Korver, a sharpshooter on a reasonable contract who’d return value. But these are mostly understandable problems in the aftermath of LeBron.
The Cavaliers repeatedly mortgaged their future during the last four years, and they got a championship and three other NBA Finals appearances out of it. It was worth it, even as the bill now comes due.
Still, many of Cleveland’s problems are self-inflicted. Lue told the veterans they’d get benched before suddenly reversing course. The Cavs named Drew interim coach while he resisted that title. A former assistant coach is suing the team for age discrimination.
And the Cavaliers talked big before the season about competing, even making their slogan the now-widely mocked “Be The Fight.”
Instead, the Cavaliers are challenging for the worst-ever record for a team following a playoff season (*reached NBA Finals):
In his infamous letter after LeBron signed with the Heat in 2010, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert wrote:
Gilbert was wrong. LeBron won two titles in Miami. In the meantime, the Cavaliers tried to win, but mostly just accumulated the high draft picks used to fuel their contending run upon LeBron’s return.
But it seems Gilbert’s sentiment remains.
So does perception Cleveland needs LeBron to win.
In the last 20 years, the Cavs have played 11 seasons with LeBron and nine without him. Their worst season with LeBron (35-47 his rookie year) was better than the best season without him (33-49 in 2013-14).
There’s a belief Gilbert holds an urgency to prove he can win sans LeBron.
“I don’t think it’s urgent, because if it’s urgent, then we’d put more emphasis on winning,” Cavaliers guard George Hill said.
Hill said he believed the franchise – despite its public statements – had no designs on competing once this season began. How long will Hill, 32, remain patient?
“It depends on the goal of the organization,” Hill said. “If the goal of the organization is doing the right thing – how I said, if we want to develop, develop in the right way and things like that – then you’ve got to be patient.
“But who knows what the goals are? We don’t know.”
It’s easy to see how that’d rankle veterans. See Smith. For his part, Hill said he’s focused on his job as a player and feels blessed just to play in the NBA. Korver also said he’s OK with helping a team build.
And then there’s Love.
Love is out with a foot injury he expects to keep him sidelined at least another six weeks. He’s staying busy promoting a campaign with Schick on mental health, including a series of videos speaking with other athletes about those issues. In one episode of Locker Room Talk, Love and teammate Channing Frye discuss grieving the loss of family members:
Compared to that, the Cavs’ losing is small potatoes. It’s important to keep perspective.
Yet, Love’s prominence to be heard on these issues comes from the public’s NBA fanaticism. Post-LeBron, Love is the Cavaliers’ biggest star and franchise player.
That’s because they signed him to a four-year extension this summer worth more than $120 million. Love is very good, but that’s a huge bet on a sub-superstar on the wrong side of 30 with repeated injury issues.
A similar case was made with Blake Griffin, whom the Clippers traded for value shortly after he signed last year. But at least Griffin helped L.A. win a little before he got shipped to the Pistons.
The Cavaliers aren’t getting much present value from locking up Love. He’s hurt, and the team was lousy with him earlier in the season.
Love has – by far – the most guaranteed money (including this season’s full salary) of anyone over age 30 on a losing team:
Only John Wall is guaranteed more money than Love among players older than even age 23 on losing teams, and Wall’s contract is regarded as one of the NBA worst.
This isn’t what Love expected when he signed his extension.
“We had high hopes for this year, that we were going to be able to compete and maybe slip into the playoffs,” Love said. “But, now we kind of have to look at this season as we’re going to have to have a growth mindset.”
That starts with Collin Sexton.
Sexton settled in front of his locker for a snack before Cavs’ loss to the Pistons on Monday. He took one bite of his chicken, got up and tossed his plate into the trash.
“It wasn’t done,” Sexton said.
The No. 8 pick in last year’s draft, Sexton is the big remaining prize from the Kyrie Irving trade. The 19-year-old who’s just starting his rookie-scale contract is the centerpiece of Cleveland’s rebuild.
The Cavaliers aren’t dumping him, no matter how raw he is.
When veteran teammates grumbled about Sexton, Drew told them to show more patience. Sexton said it was the “right thing” to say, but insisted he had no issues with the older players.
Still, some awkwardness is natural.
Sexton has started the last five games at point guard in pace of an injured Hill. The rookie said starting made a “big difference” in his development, as he had to learn even more on the fly. But will he stay starting when Hill returns? No word yet.
“With our young guys, in order to develop, they do have to play,” Drew said. “But I’m not going to play guys that continue to make mistakes and where I see things are not moving in the right direction. I’ve been very fortunate that our young guys have been getting minutes. Our young guys have been producing.”
Sexton has done well to get to his spots and knock down shots. The Cavs can definitely play him without losing credibility. But he also appears to be in way over his head as a distributor, and his defense is lacking.
The upside: The Cavaliers keep losing, and they head toward a high draft pick. More than anything, they need an influx of high-end talent, and the best way to get it is drafting and developing it. Sexton, Tristan Thompson, Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson, Cedi Osman and Rodney Hood aren’t nearly enough to build around.
That the Cavs acquired Nance, Clarkson, Osman and Hood last year in an attempt to win with LeBron and pivot into a brighter future if LeBron left makes the situation even sadder. Cleveland still lost in the Finals. Again. And there’s little reason for optimism about the future and even less about the present.
LeBron’s return will provide reason to reminisce joyfully. Four conference titles and an NBA title in four years is a tremendous accomplishment.
But then he’ll return to Los Angeles, and Cleveland will have to try to do something it hasn’t done in Sexton’s lifetime – win steadily without LeBron. No matter what the Cavaliers said, it will be a long build back up.