Following the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 118-108 loss to the Golden State Warriors on Monday, multiple players acknowledged growing discontent and a strong sense of concern that unlike past seasons, the team does not have the capability to fix its problems and get back on a championship track.
Several prominent players, speaking on condition of anonymity to ESPN, Cleveland.com and The Athletic, expressed doubt that the problems — an aging roster, defensively challenged personnel and a glut of redundant role players — could simply be worked out through patience and a chance to coalesce when fully healthy.
The Cavaliers have one preeminent player: LeBron. It’d be disingenuous to frame this article this way without including him, and I doubt McMenamin is doing that.
These concerns are perfectly valid.
Cleveland is the NBA’s oldest team, weighted by playing time, in a decade. That doesn’t bode well for building up steam toward and in a long playoff run. This is an even more extreme version of the problem LeBron’s last Heat team succumbed to.
Wade, Calderon and Rose can’t all serve as lead playmaker while LeBron sits – leaving the other two without clear roles when everyone is healthy. Smith and Korver would both be spot-up 3-point specialists if Smith were hitting shots. Jae Crowder and Jeff Green look similar (a compliment to Green, but a telltale sign of how underwhelming Crowder has been). Frye is a lesser version of Love as a stretch five. Tristan Thompson can’t get going, and Iman Shumpert can’t get healthy.
To be fair, the Cavaliers are 26-17 – hardly bad, but not quite championship-caliber. This portrait of doom and gloom is accurate only when measured against the highest of expectations.
The Cavs can still trade the Nets’ first-round pick to upgrade the roster, though they’re reportedly disinclined to do so. This report sounds like a plea from top players for the team to reconsider. And if owner Dan Gilbert and general manager Koby Altman don’t, it’ll read as LeBron framing his exit in free agency next summer.
Isaiah Thomas to make Cavaliers debut Tuesday vs. Portland
LeBron James, playing at an MVP level, has carried the Cavaliers to a 24-12 record (third in the East) with an offense that is one of the best in the league. He also has carried a heavy load and has played more minutes than anyone in the league (at age 33 in his 15th season).
The cavalry has arrived.
Isaiah Thomas, who Cleveland acquired in the Kyrie Irving trade last summer, will make his debut for the Cavs Tuesday, recovered from the hip issue that sidelined him all season. Coach Tyron Lue made the announcement on Monday, adding that IT will come off the bench and be on a minutes restriction (less than dozen minutes, reportedly).
It’s going to take time for him to get his legs under him and adapt to playing with LeBron. Ultimately, the Cavaliers need Thomas to be somewhere near what he was last season, an elite scorer and shot creator that gives Cleveland options and diversity. Thomas was an All-NBA guard last season, and even if he can’t repeat that level of play (we’ll see if he has the explosion and mobility that make him so hard to guard), what he can bring is another threat that will open up the Cavaliers offense.
Other teams in the East have seen the Cavaliers as vulnerable this season, mostly because they have the 26th ranked defense in the NBA on the season (and it is third worst in the last 10 games). Thomas is not going to help with that. But the Cavaliers are still the team to beat in the East, and they are about to get better.
NBA: Yes, Kevin Durant did foul LeBron James twice in final minutes
LeBron James was frustrated. Tyronn Lue was more frustrated on the sidelines. Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy were blaming replay for everything but global warming on the broadcast. Cavaliers fans were apoplectic.
Twice in the final 1:20 of the Warriors win over the Cavaliers on Christmas Day, LeBron James tried to drive on Kevin Durant in isolation, both times LeBron thought he was fouled, but the referee didn’t see it that way. Coming away with no points on those possessions sealed the Cavaliers fate, a 99-92 loss.
That admission and $5 will get you a latte at Starbucks. It’s transparent of the league to acknowledge this, but it changes nothing. The end of the game does not get replayed, the outcome remains the same.
Those calls did not cost Cleveland the game. Cleveland’s bench cost them this game shooting a collective 6-of-26 and getting outplayed all afternoon (the bench has been improved this season, but they were bad on Christmas). The Cavaliers starting backcourt (Jose Calderon and J.R. Smith) were a combined 1-of-9 from the floor. As a team Cleveland shot 31.8 percent overall, they were just 7-of-22 at the rim and 3-of-14 from the midrange. That is what cost them the game — hit more of those shots and it’s out of the officials’ hands at the end. If a team puts itself in a position where a close call could decide everything, it has to live with referee mistakes. Welcome to basketball.
Still, those calls sting.
Consider it fuel for the rematch (maybe in the Finals, again).
Three Things to Know: Did Durant foul LeBron? Probably, but that’s not why Cavs lost.
Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.
1) Did Kevin Durant foul LeBron James on a late drive? Twice? Probably, but that’s not why Cleveland lost. First things first: This was no NBA Finals preview on Christmas Day when Cleveland traveled to Golden State. Not because these two teams will not meet again in the Finals — I would put the odds at a little better than 50/50 they do — but because both will be different teams come June. The Cavaliers will have Isaiah Thomas starting at the point, and Stephen Curry will be opposite him, that alone changes a lot of dynamics and we’re not even getting into trades, players’ shifting roles, and more.
What we did get on Christmas Day was a great show — a 99-92 Warriors win that ended in controversy that consumed Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy on the broadcast, not to mention NBA Twitter.
Did Kevin Durant foul LeBron James on his drives to the rim late? On this play he did if you ask me.
Shockingly, LeBron said he was fouled after the game, Kevin Durant said no.
Kevin Durant on the Twitter debate that his final defensive stand was a foul: "Keep that shit on Twitter" pic.twitter.com/CpJ0lyCnm5
I have a long-running belief about controversial calls at the end of games: If a team puts itself in that position, it has to live with referee mistakes. Don’t want that play to matter? Then be better before and take it out of the officials’ hands. Cleveland’s bench cost them this game shooting a collective 6-of-26 and getting outplayed all afternoon (the bench has been improved this season, not this day). The Cavaliers starting backcourt (Jose Calderon and J.R. Smith) were a combined 1-of-9 from the floor. The Cavs lack of depth and the fact they have guys on this roster who can be exploited in a playoff series was evident. Frankly, Cleveland lost because right now the Warriors are the better team. LeBron almost changed that, because he’s LeBron, but it wasn’t enough.
There were interesting takeaways from this game, especially looking ahead to a potential NBA Finals rematch (for a fourth straight year). First, Jae Crowder did a respectable job guarding Durant for much of the game. Yes, KD had 25 points on 19 shots, but he’s one of the great scorers the game has ever seen, he’s going to get his. This was manageable for Cleveland. Crowder made him work for his buckets. Crowder has been a disappointment to start the season, but in recent weeks has looked healthier and rounded into form (not so coincidentally when the Cavs went on a winning streak). Having Crowder on Durant opens up a lot of other defensive options for the Cavs.
Also interesting was Steve Kerr going small from the opening tip, starting rookie Jordan Bell opposite Kevin Love and sitting Zaza Pachulia. We will see more variations of this as things heat up for Golden State.
If this is the NBA Finals matchup again, we are going to have an entertaining series. One with controversy.
2) Thunder make a statement in beating Rockets, but the bigger question is what has happened to Houston’s defense? How long have we been saying “once Oklahoma City gets it together…”
Houston has lost three in a row, and while Chris Paul being out certainly has set the offense back a little, that’s not the problem — it’s the defense. In those three losses, the Rockets have allowed a league-worst 119.6 points per 100 possession. What has fueled the Rockets rise to look like a legit threat to the Warriors is not just an elite offense — on pace to be the best in NBA history in points scored per possession — but the fact the defense was top 10 in the league (currently eighth). They have done a good job on the glass, not fouling, and putting weaker defenders (Ryan Anderson, James Harden) in positions to mitigate the damage. But the last three games the Rockets have been a mess defensively, and that’s what they have to clean up to turn this thing around.
3) Sixers show they are all about Joel Embiid, get win over Knicks. This was a quality win for a Sixers team that had been stumbling. Going into Madison Square Garden on Christmas and beating the Knicks is no simple task, and this showed the team can win (even when Ben Simmons is just okay, 8 points on 8 shots).
What this game really showed is now much Philadelphia relies on Joel Embiid. When Embiid was on the court Christmas Day, Philadelphia outscored New York 90-65. They won 105-98 in a close game. Embiid was a force at both ends: he defended well and protected the paint with three blocks, hit a couple of threes, and was the one Sixer consistently attacking and getting to the free throw line. Embiid finished the game with 25 points and 16 rebounds.
Philly shoots itself in the foot with turnovers every game (they lead the league in turnovers by a wide margin) and did it again late on Christmas, with three straight turnovers at one point when they should have put the game away. They let the Knicks hang around.
All that played out Monday, too. The game also was close because of a big night from Enes Kanter, who was a beast inside with 31 points and 22 rebounds — 11 offensive.
The Knicks are currently the eighth seed in the East (tied with Miami for that spot), but they need to now start winning on the road to keep it. New York has had 21 home games and is 15-6 there, but just 12 road games where they are 2-10. Stan Van Gundy conspiracies aside, this is a team that needs to start winning on the road, or they will be home for the playoffs. Again.
Not even LeBron James has saved Derrick Rose’s deteriorating career
As Kyrie Irving made abundantly clear, playing with LeBron James isn’t for everyone. LeBron attracts outsized attention, gets passive-aggressive and, intentionally or not, reduces his supporting cast to an afterthought.
But he also makes his teammates better.
LeBron is one of the most unselfish superstars of all time. He’s a willing passer with the tools to maximize it – double-team attraction, court vision and strength to throw cross-court passes. When he puts forth defensive effort, he roams to cover for many of his teammates’ shortcomings.
Many players have looked their very best when sharing the court with LeBron.
The Cavs have been outscored by a whopping 10.9 points per 100 possessions when Rose and LeBron share the court. No two-man combo involving LeBron has been anywhere near that bad since at least 2007-08, as far back as NBA.com has data (minimum: 50 minutes).
Here’s the full set of LeBron tandems with their net rating. Scroll aaaall the way down for Rose:
But Love and Thompson have proven positive track records with LeBron over far great samples. Calderon should be out of the rotation once Isaiah Thomas returns. Crowder, a versatile two-way player, fits extremely well with LeBron on paper.
Rose does not.
He’s a dismal 3-point shooter, neither spacing the floor for LeBron nor taking advantage of the open looks from beyond the arc LeBron frequently generates for his teammates. Though LeBron hasn’t been consistently interested in that end of the floor this season, Rose is a woeful defender.
There are reasons the Cavs have been so awful – far worse than any other LeBron combo – with Rose on the floor. They’ve been even worse when he plays without LeBron (-28.6). It’s only somewhat coincidental Cleveland has gone on a seven-game winning streak after Rose got hurt.
Rose might still belong in the NBA. He can get going down hill and score at the rim. He doesn’t set up teammates and, again, his defense is deficient. But some teams need that one-dimensional offense to prop up weak bench units. Not the Cavaliers, who have Dwyane Wade in that role. But some teams.
Of course, Rose is heavily incentivized to keep trying to play. He’s obviously tired of being injured, but he’s also just 29. That’s young to retire no matter the circumstances.
Maybe it’ll work out better for him Cleveland with more time. But his Cavaliers tenure has been an abject failure so far for the most predictable of reasons.
If LeBron can’t make it work with the former MVP, it’s time to treat Rose as what he is: A borderline NBA player – if he wants to be.