If you had money on the Drastic Losing Skid—Trade Rumors—Finger Pointing trifecta, please head straight to the window. You’re a winner.
It was just one week ago where LeBron James was expounding upon Martin Luther King Jr. and the Cavaliers were looking to get back on track after a West Coast road swing derailed their train back to the top of the Eastern Conference Finals. Fast forward seven long days and the Cavaliers are still on their skid, having lost in record-tying fashion, and are now having an airing of grievances a full month after Festivus. Losing, when you’re the Cavs, is much deeper than pick and roll defense and getting obliterated in transition—it’s questioning the severity of reported sickness, and tweeting about teammates needing to look in the mirror.
“It’s a culture of finger pointing,” ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said of Cleveland on this morning’s on Golic and Wingo. “The targets are generally moving targets in Cleveland. Now they’re just putting the blame on [Kevin] Love. The team has issues off the court; they certainly have them on the court. There’s a lot to resolve.”
For all of his defensive shortcomings, Kevin Love has been the consummate professional. He knows that regardless of his box scores, it’s LeBron James’ team. He does what he’s asked—whether it’s move to the center spot or guard one of the best point guards in the league during crucial moments of a Game 7. He injured his shoulder in his walk year, one that was littered with drama and trade rumors and unfulfilled hopes, only to re-sign for multiple seasons. In many ways, he’s the left tackle of the Cavaliers—the guy fans tend to notice only when something goes wrong.
When I spoke to Love in passing about my recent Isaiah Thomas comeback story, my hopes were to leverage the two stories as some parallel. Both players are stars who were integral in their respective teams’ successes only to see their injuries creep up in the worst of times. Love, who has shown increasing levels of comfort with Cleveland since being dealt prior to the 2014-15 season, shrugged it off. I asked if Thomas had leaned on him at all in terms of how to deal with a comeback not just from an injury, but within the structure and culture of the Cavaliers’ locker room, but there was nothing. At the time, I had just read into it as a player trying to prove doubters wrong, but as more time unfolds, I’m left wondering if the team feels they’re on borrowed time with the IT experiment.
Thomas has been a tremendous liability for the Cavs as it pertains to defense. Not only has his trigger-happy style of play taken touches away from Love (who is in the midst of an All-Star season despite recent struggles), and there is a reason why potential trade targets include Sacramento’s George Hill and Los Angeles’ Lou Williams. Wojnarowski says Iman Shumpert and Channing Frye are included in discussions for Hill. Brian Windhorst recently added that Charlotte’s Kemba Walker is available, and could be had for the right price. Hill provides size—a seven-foot wingspan is no joke—and has fit with every team he’s been a part of. Walker provides All-Star-caliber scoring punch, averaging 21.8 points per game on the season, but also comes with the caveat of an owner in Michael Jordan who is asking for an All-Star in return while willing to take on additional salary.
If history has shown us anything, the Cavaliers are willing to take on the salary. The question, of course, is could that All-Star be Thomas? While many want to point at Tristan Thompson’s on-off court numbers in correlation with the Cavs’ overall record, the struggles have been magnified while they attempt to work Thomas into the fold. While the numbers prior to his return provided reason for hope, what has transpired has been the antithesis of hope due to a low true shooting percentage coupled with a team-high usage rate and a complete allergy to defense.
“Right now, there’s a lot of frustration with the way Isaiah’s playing,” Windhorst said on Monday’s episode of The Jump. If fans thought Kyrie Irving’s penchant for over-dribbling and one-on-one situations were a headwind to the Cavaliers’ sustained success, what Thomas has provided since his return has made that look like a modified version of catch-and-shoot. Before Thomas’ return, Love was averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds per game, earning 13.9 shots. Since then he’s been Domantas Sabonis—with 1.5 fewer boards per night. Not helping matters: It was Thomas who allegeldy led the charge in the air-it-out session involving Love. Talk about getting it at both ends.
The issue: Neither Hill nor Williams or Walker would provide much in the way of assistance defensively. If Koby Altman is looking to merely shake up the Cavaliers’ locker room and hope for the best, these would be great guys to add. Hill provides balance. Williams provides scoring, both from the floor and the line. But if you search out defensive net rating and sort from worst to best, you’re going to get a host of Cavaliers along with Hill, Williams, and past-their-prime types like Rajon Rondo. So if not them, then who?
Five Cavs among the worst nine in the league defensively with a minimum of two games and 15 minutes played. While there is some lineup noise here, this is less than ideal. pic.twitter.com/oVv2AENDIL
— Scott @ WFNY (@WFNYScott) January 22, 2018
Paul George would be perfect, but according to countless reports, he is no longer available. Boogie Cousins is putting up Wilt Chamberlain-type numbers and has been told he’s not being dealt. DeAndre Jordan is an elite help-side rim protector and roll man in pick and roll situations, but comes with a ton of baggage as it pertains to his contract and what it would take to acquire him. The Utah Jazz are reportedly shopping Rodney Hood, a player who can create his own shot while hitting three pointers and defending multiple positions, but comes with way less caché than George, Cousins, or Jordan. Judging these deals through the prism of putting the Cavaliers back in the championship contention talks, it’s difficult to argue that Hood alone—while an upgrade over a player like Shumpert or Derrick Rose—would give the Cavaliers that bump.
What’s easier to argue is that the Cavaliers’ best chance at getting back to prominence is through improving internally. The “culture of finger pointing” is nothing but a downward spiral. While subtweets rarely help, Wade’s quote is a sign that some players do believe that success could be had through soul searching. While it’s much more fun as fans to create fake transactions on the trade machine and then argue for hours as to which team would “say no”, acquiring another player would only provide marginal improvement. In 2016, the cohesiveness was starting to erode, but the team made a move and brought in Channing Frye, a player who is credited building morale more so than draining a few three pointers.
The irony, of course, is that now Frye is on the block and players with his locker room style are few and far between. Adding someone to the fold may make some players feel as if the front office is giving them a vote of confidence, but it’s as ephemeral as buying a new pair of shoes when you feel badly about how your day went.
Late last week, it was LeBron James who said the Cavs were residents of Strugglesville. What he did not say was how long he felt the team would be calling it home. Tuesday night brings the San Antonio Spurs on the road, with the always feisty Indiana Pacers and the world-beating Houston Rockets waiting in the wings.
The last seven days may feel like they flew by, but the next 16 have all the ingredients to make it feel like that light at the end of the tunnel is a train barreling down the tracks. If there’s one end in sight, it’s that the trade chatter will end in two weeks thanks to the league’s adjustment of its deadline. The rest of the drama? That will be up to the 15 men in the locker room to figure out.