There’s a lot of competition early for the “worst team in the NBA” title. Phoenix has the worst point differential as they lean heavily on their young stars, and Orlando is scoring less than a point per possession in a league where offenses are exploding, but don’t forget the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are right in the middle of that mix with the worst defense in the NBA.
There’s a lot of competition early for the “most dysfunctional franchise in the NBA” title, with the Washington Wizards doing everything they can to run away with that “honor,” but the latest piece by Joe Varden at the Athletic makes the case the Cavaliers should be right in the middle of that mix, too.
The interesting news out of the piece was Kyle Korver having a handshake agreement to be traded if LeBron James left, but the Cavaliers saying no. Which is symbolic of the dysfunction and failure to set one clear path by the organization.
The first player Altman ever signed to a contract as GM was Kyle Korver. It was a three-year, $22 million deal inked in July of 2017, but it came with an understanding: If LeBron were to leave, the Cavs would either trade Korver or buy him out of the deal so he could move his family to his next team during the summer. So when LeBron left July 1 for the Lakers, Korver asked for the Cavs to move him. They refused because, they told him, they wanted him to play and for the team to try and win. To be fair, in the event of a Korver trade they would want maximum value in return, like a first-round pick. Anyway, the same basic message of competing now was communicated to Kevin Love before he agreed to a four-year, $120 million extension and to rest of the returning players…
In on the record commentary, time and again, veterans like Tristan Thompson have made clear there is a divide between the Cavs’ holdover vets from the LeBron glory years — like him, Smith, Frye, and Korver (Tristan didn’t mention Love, who’s gone from the team after foot surgery) — and the team’s mostly unnamed younger players. In the meantime, they’re getting their asses kicked as a team almost every night. “Team is in a very weird place right now and we have to figure it out, whether it’s a players-only meeting or coaches or front office meeting or whatever it is, we have to figure it out and let everyone know what their individual role is and what to expect,” Smith said. Except, the veterans do not expect [Larry] Drew to do this because, while they respect him greatly, they don’t think he’s the head coach because of his contract situation.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that when you hear a Cavs veteran talk about younger players not knowing their role, or knowing how to win, or what to do on the court, they mean Sexton. Throughout the organization, the line on Sexton is that he does not “know how to play.” He doesn’t know how to defend the pick and roll. He doesn’t know how to set up teammates as a point guard. He’s playing 25 minutes a night, averaging 11.1 points and 2.2 assists (2.1 turnovers) and is shooting 22 percent from 3-point range. Against the Hornets, he had as many points (four) as fouls.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, you really should go read the entire piece. Or, if you’re a Cavaliers fan, maybe don’t. It’s pretty bleak.
The Cavaliers core flaw this season was trying to walk the fine line of staying competitive — they talked openly about competing for a playoff spot — while rebuilding and playing Colin Sexton, Cedi Osman, and other young players big minutes. It’s not an impossible balance, but it takes a very different roster than the LeBron supporting cast Cleveland had in place. Plus, the Cavs need to make decisions on guys like Jordan Clarkson so he’s going to get run, too. The winning while rebuiding balance was never going to work for the Cavs — and then Kevin Love’s body betrayed him, and he will be out a couple of months with foot surgery.
Their original flaw may come from the hubris of owner Dan “my team will win without LeBron” Gilbert. Maybe it’s GM Koby Altman, maybe a combination of things. But the Cavaliers are terrible on the court and a bag of mixed messages off it right now. A clearer direction needs to be set from the top down. Is Cleveland’s ownership and management capable of setting that tone is another question.