Cavaliers crumbled quickly without LeBron James

AP Photo/Ron Schwane
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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):

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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):

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***

In his infamous letter after LeBron signed with the Heat in 2010, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert wrote:

“I PERSONALLY GUARANTEE THAT THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS WILL WIN AN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP BEFORE THE SELF-TITLED FORMER ‘KING’ WINS ONE”

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:

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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.

Doncic calls Antetokounmpo ‘the best player in the NBA right now’

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It was a matchup of two of the NBA’s top five players and two guys high in the way-too-early mix for MVP this season: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic.

Doncic carried the Mavericks again with 27 points on 10-of-20 shooting plus 12 assists.

Antetokounmpo was a force of nature with 30 points on 11-of-19 shooting plus 11 rebounds, plus he had more help around him leading the Bucks to a 124-115 win.

There is a mutual admiration society between these two players, and after the game Doncic called Antetokounmpo the best player in the NBA. Via Jack Maloney at CBS Sports.

“Enjoy [competing against him] is hard because I want to win, so it’s hard to go against a guy like that,” Doncic said after the Mavericks’ fourth consecutive defeat. “He’s the best player in the NBA right now. He’s almost impossible to stop. It’s really fun to see him play, but it’s not that fun to go against him.”

Antetokounmpo had praise for Doncic as well.

“That’s a great compliment and I appreciate that,” Antetokounmpo said. “When you play against the best players in the league, being able to say something like that feels good. No matter wins or losses, just being respected by your peers, it’s always a good feeling.”

We have many years of these two players testing each other, and someday it may be Antetokounmpo calling Doncic the best in the NBA.

Three things to know: The Warriors are starting to look like the Warriors again

Golden State Warriors v Minnesota Timberwolves
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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) The Warriors are starting to look like the Warriors again

About that slow start in the Bay Area…

Over their last 11 games, the Golden State Warriors are 8-3 with a top-10 in the league offense and defense and a +4.5 net rating (fourth best in the league over that stretch). The latest win was Sunday’s destruction of the stumbling Timberwolves, 137-114, a game that saw the Warriors up by more than 20 in the first quarter and never truly threatened again.

“I think we’re starting to put it together and if we can keep building at this rate, you know, we’ll be poised for a run pretty soon here,” Draymond Green said.

All season long the Warriors have had Stephen Curry playing at an MVP level, carrying the team. So what has changed over the past few weeks that has the Warriors rolling? Three things.

First, Steve Kerr started staggering the rotation and separating Green’s and Curry’s minutes some, something he tried not to do much in the past. It’s one way Kerr dealt with the fact the Warriors’ bench has struggled (getting Donte DiVincenzo healthy helped as well). Curry now stays in for the entire first quarter, while Green gets his first rest about the five-minute mark, then Curry sits to start the second and Green returns to play with more of a bench unit (both stars finish the quarter together on the court).

“I’ve said for years Draymond is kind of the heartbeat of our team,” Kerr said. “He’s the guy who kind of makes everything go and he’s the motivator, he’s the bully, he protects his teammates on the floor, talks trash. But this guy is just so good at basketball.”

Second, the other way the Warriors dealt with the bench issue was Kerr scaled back the “two timelines” experiment. The idea was that the roles Otto Porter and Gary Payton Jr. filled last season could be filled by the young trio of James Wiseman, Moses Moody, and Jonathan Kuminga. That plan failed spectacularly. Wiseman is now down in the G-League, while Moody is out of the rotation. Kuminga is getting his shot — he played well against the Timberwolves — but has been up and down this season.

“I think we’ve settled into some roles, guys are comfortable now with when they’re gonna play who they’re gonna play with. So I think that’s been helpful,” Kerr said.

Third, Klay Thompson found his legs. He kept saying he needed more time, and whether it was a spark lit by Charles Barkley or Thompson getting off of social media and out of his own head, it’s worked. In his last 10 games Thompson is averaging 20.8 points a game and shooting 46.2% from 3. He is not defending like his old self (and may never again), but he’s back to being a No.2 scoring option on an elite team.

Green would throw in one more reason, the Warriors’ defense is back.

“Most importantly our defense has picked up which allows us to push the pace more,” Green said. “Like it’s one thing to push off makes, which we want to do, but when you’re pushing off a miss and getting a rebound then going, that’s tough to guard because it creates a lot of cross-matching.”

There was no magic bullet for Kerr to fire, it took a number of things to turn for the Warriors to get back to being themselves. But they have now, and the rest of the West should be worried.

2) Doncic says Antetokounmpo is “the best player in the NBA right now”

The Dallas Mavericks had no answers. Not that teams really ever do.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was a force of nature Sunday and dropped 30 with 11 boards on the Mavericks, leading the Bucks to a 124-115 win.

After the game, Luka Doncic called Antetokounmpo the best player in the game. Via Jack Maloney at CBS Sports.

“Enjoy [competing against him] is hard because I want to win, so it’s hard to go against a guy like that,” Doncic said after the Mavericks’ fourth consecutive defeat. “He’s the best player in the NBA right now. He’s almost impossible to stop. It’s really fun to see him play, but it’s not that fun to go against him.”

Antetokounmpo returned the compliment.

“That’s a great compliment and I appreciate that,” Antetokounmpo said. “When you play against the best players in the league, being able to say something like that feels good. No matter wins or losses, just being respected by your peers, it’s always a good feeling.”

Antetokounmpo and Doncic are two of the guys in the early MVP conversation, along with Curry, Jayson Tatum and a few others. It turns out, those first two also have a mutual admiration society going.

3) Clippers Ivica Zubac put up a monster 31 and 29 line against Pacers

No Kawhi Leonard, no Paul George, but the Clippers picked up another win on Sunday knocking off the Pacers 114-100.

Thank Ivica Zubac, who had a monster 31-point, 20-rebound game.

After the game, Zubac was made he fouled out before he could get his 30th rebound and have a 30-30 game.

Quietly, Zubac is having a fantastic defensive season for the Clippers, but like the rest of the team his offense has been up and down as they try to adjust to ever-changing lineups. That Clipper defense locked down the Pacers in the second half, plus Indy was just off shooting 9-of-42 from 3.

Zubac found his offense, the Pacers had no answer for him, and the Clippers have a win and improved to 12-9 because of it.

Curry drains 7 3-pointers, Nets start homestand with win over Blazers

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NEW YORK — Kevin Durant scored 31 points, Seth Curry added a season-high 29 off the bench and the Brooklyn Nets beat the Portland Trail Blazers 111-94 on Sunday.

Curry was 7 for 10 on 3-pointers and had his highest point total with the Nets and the most by a Brooklyn reserve this season.

“I’ve always felt like if I get good shots I’m going to make them at a high clip,” Curry said. “Our offense was flowing pretty well. Guys found me open early on to start the game and I felt pretty good, aggressive.”

Kyrie Irving added 22 points for the Nets. Ben Simmons took just three shots but had 12 rebounds and eight assists.

“Ben did a great job of getting downhill,” Curry said. “He’s a great passer (and) he knows how to find me out there on the floor.”

Jerami Grant scored 29 points for Portland. Jusuf Nurkic had 17 points and 14 rebounds, while Anfernee Simons added 15 points and Justice Winslow had 14.

The Nets have won four of their last six games, while the Trail Blazers, who are playing without Damian Lillard, have dropped five of six.

“Tough little stretch that we’re in right now,” Portland coach Chauncey Billups said. “It is what it is. Every team goes through it.”

Brooklyn made 52.6% of its shots from the field overall, and 42.9% from 3-point range, in the second matchup between the teams in 10 days.

“It’s a make-or-miss league,” Durant said. “It’s about baskets.”

With the Nets leading by four entering the fourth, Curry scored Brooklyn’s first eight points of the quarter. Royce O'Neale‘s free throw gave the Nets a 93-87 lead and following a Portland turnover, Curry made a 3 that extended the advantage to nine.

Nurkic sandwiched a hook shot and free throw around two free throws by Irving to cut Brooklyn’s lead to 98-90. However, after a timeout, Durant hit a 3 to push the lead to 101-90.

Brooklyn led 58-57 at halftime, and 84-80 after the third quarter.

T.J. Warren targets Dec. 2 for return to court for Brooklyn Nets

2022-2023 Brooklyn Nets Media Day
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T.J. Warren was a breakout star in the bubble, averaging 26.6 points and 6.3 rebounds a game for the Pacers.

Warren has played just four games since the bubble due to stress fractures in his foot.

The Nets signed him this season hoping he could get healthy and provide some depth off the bench at the four. We’re about to find out if that can happen on Dec. 2, with Warren targeting his return then Toronto, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Nets have not confirmed this timeline. However, coach Jacque Vaughn has recently talked up Warren’s workouts and hinted that a return is getting close.

A healthy Warren could be a big boost for a Nets team looking for more of a spark off the bench.