NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers are in basketball purgatory
Tristan Thompson wanted to remind everyone on the eve of the NBA’s 2018-19 season that the Cavaliers were the "4-time defending Eastern Conference champions". He is right. They are until a new team is crowned as such in May or June of 2019.
But, it seems inevitable that a new team will be named Eastern Conference Champions of the NBA we just don’t know if it’s the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics or Philadelphia 76ers. The Cavaliers are 1-9 to start the season and head coach Tyronn Lue has already been fired. The Cavaliers may not even get to defend their Eastern Conference title in 2019.
From the moment the possibility was conceived that LeBron James might and eventually did leave Cleveland for a second time this summer the other top teams in the Eastern Conference were licking their chops, salivating at the possibilities of not having to deal with LeBron in the playoffs.
Let’s face it, no one is worried about J.R. Smith, who can light up a scoreboard and defend well, if he’s motivated, leading the Cavaliers to great heights. He has only managed to appear in 6 of the team's 9 games so far this year averaging 6.3pts/g. He is also the same J.R. Smith who lost track of the score in a playoff game last June in the NBA Finals infamously stating “I thought we were ahead”.
Further, with LeBron no longer a Cleveland Cavalier they have not replaced his 27.5pt/g scoring average from last season or his 19fga/g either. The trade to acquire power forward Sam Dekker and the signing of David Nwaba does not address the loss of a dominant player like James. Basketball is unique in that one player may be the difference between a good or a horrible team.
If J.R. Smith, isn’t the leader, then, perhaps it's Kevin Love. Love has been a splendid pf/c for most of his career - a great rebounder and outstanding long-range shooter. However he is 30, and as of November 2nd, 2018 he has been out of the Cavaliers lineup and will be re-evaluated in six weeks. He has managed to play in just 4 games for the Cavaliers this season.
He has also been maligned for perceived lack of defense and softness, and his name has often come up in trade rumours during his time so far in Cleveland. Yet, this past offseason he signed a 4-year contract extension.
The problems go on and on for the Cavaliers. Rookie Collin Sexton is getting criticized by team veterans because according to them “he doesn’t know how to play”. Sexton is 19 years old. I dare say I hold out more hope for Sexton figuring things out than say, Rodney Hood, who at age 25 refused to play the final 7:48 seconds of a playoff blowout the Cavaliers were enjoying against the Toronto Raptors.
Hood had struggled in the 2018 playoffs averaging 4.6pts/g. So was that refusal due to a lack of confidence or a spat between player and coach? Keep in mind before being traded to Cleveland, Hood struggled in postseason play when he was with the Utah Jazz.
Then there is the now fired Tyronn Lue. His ascendancy to the head coach spot in Cleveland was weird, to begin with. While enjoying a 30-11 record in the 2016-17 season Cavs head coach David Blatt was suddenly fired and replaced by Tyronn Lue.
The problem with Blatt it seems was he placated to his stars, alienating the rest of the team. Lue did win an NBA championship with Cleveland but after an 0-6 start to this season, his tenure is over. Lue also seemed to have a slippery grasp on the team’s attention last year before deals to remove Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose were made, mid-season, during a troublesome period that saw Cleveland slip to third overall in the Eastern Conference.
But James and Lue, last season, seemed to be on one page while the rest of the Cavaliers were on another. The Cavaliers' official statement for firing Lue was he is not a good fit for their rebuilding roster. It seems Lue, like Blatt before him, took a shine to his veterans and they to him, and the firing is not sitting well with Cleveland’s better players. Larry Drew has replaced Lue as Cleveland’s head coach.
Part of the reason players like Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr., George Hill and Jordan Clarkson were traded for, mid-season in 2017-18, was the team's lack of defense. Now, without LeBron James and a flawed Kevin Love gone for at least six more weeks, the Cavs will have to work hard to find offence, as well.
As good as LeBron James is, when he leaves a franchise it is left in tatters. He forced the Cavaliers in 2010 to fire their head coach and GM and then immediately left that summer for Miami. In the summer of 2014, James opted out of his contract and re-signed in Cleveland. It came with conditions.
He was willing to play with Kyrie Irving but not Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins who was drafted in the first round had to be traded to Minnesota for Kevin Love to accommodate James. But even that relationship between James and Love was tenuous at best.
Now while Cleveland may not have won an NBA title in 2016 with Wiggins and Kyrie Irving, they might well be a team on the rise with both those stars the centrepiece of their roster now. Instead, Irving demanded a trade in the summer of 2017 to get away from James.
Cleveland is left trying to rebuild a roster that spent the last 4 years competing for the NBA title, winning it once. The difference now is their all-star, the greatest player of this generation is no longer a part of what they do.
First round picks and stars elsewhere, Andrew Wiggins and Kyrie Irving, have long left town and now Cleveland's hopes are pinned temporarily for the moment on a kid named Collin Sexton whose teammates don’t see his upside, an oft-injured, can’t play defense 30-year-old power forward who may have seen his best days in Kevin Love, and a 33-year-old shooting guard in J.R. Smith who is just as well known off the court, as he is on it, and a power forward in Tristan Thompson who is known mostly for his rebounding.
There is no saviour amongst this group. The Cavaliers' fall from greatness was expected without James. Cavs fans will be spending time, maybe years, in purgatory, waiting for the next LeBron James, Kyrie Irving or Andrew Wiggins to raise the Cleveland Cavaliers to the heights of Eastern Conference Champions again.