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Cavaliers crumbled quickly without LeBron James

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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.

Wizards hire former Cleveland Browns exec Sashi Brown, former Georgetown coach John Thompson III

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The Wizards chose Tommy Sheppard as their new general manager.

Now, they’re filling the rest of the front office.

Wizards release:

Sashi Brown will serve as chief planning and operations officer for Monumental Basketball and Daniel Medina will serve as chief of athlete care & performance for Monumental Basketball.

Brown will manage efforts relating to technology, finance, communications, security, research and player engagement and Medina will head up medical, training, mental health, strength and conditioning, nutrition and physical therapy/recovery.

Leonsis also announced a new athlete development & engagement department which will be led by former Georgetown and Princeton Head Coach John Thompson III. Thompson will use his vast experience to lead a team that will focus on maximizing player potential both on and off the court for all Monumental Basketball athletes. Employing a holistic development approach, the department will focus on financial literacy, post-playing career opportunities and the overall empowerment and development of the athletes.

In addition to Sheppard’s promotion and the addition of Brown, Medina and Thompson, Leonsis also announced two promotions of current staff. Sashia Jones, who previously served as vice president of community relations, was promoted to vice president of player engagement and will work with Thompson to provide services to players for all teams. Brett Greenberg, who previously served as vice president of basketball analytics/salary cap management, was promoted to assistant general manager for strategy and analytics.

When the Cleveland Browns hired Brown to run their front office in 2017, it was an unconventional choice. He’s a Harvard Law grad whose apparent football connection was serving as the Browns’ and previously Jaguars’ general counsel.

Now, he’s getting hired to work for an NBA team with even fewer obvious basketball ties.

That might be fine. Employers should more often consider untraditional candidates. Maybe Brown’s intelligence will translate.

It is a weird fit, though.

Under Brown’s watch, Cleveland essentially imitated imitated Sam Hinkie’s Process. The Browns went 1-32 in Brown’s two seasons in charge, accumulated assets, didn’t draft particularly well and still rose into a budding power under the next general manager.

Now, Brown will work for Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, who said his team would never tank.

To be fair to Brown, he might have more than one gear. Just because he thought that strategy was right for the Browns at that time doesn’t make it the only way he can contribute. It’s also possible Leonsis is more open to new ideas.

Thompson is part of basketball royalty in Washington. Both he and his father coached Georgetown. Though the younger Thompson had his ups and downs on the job, it’s still a prestigious position – especially in D.C.

It’s a little surprising Medina landed with with another NBA team so quickly. The 76ers had plenty of issues with Joel Embiid‘s, Zhaire Smith‘s and Markelle Fultz‘s health. But evaluating medical personnel is extremely difficult. Results say only so much. The counterfactual is hard to assess.

Why did Jimmy Butler choose Miami? It started playing dominoes in Little Havana

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Jimmy Butler‘s push to get himself to Miami in a sign-and-trade caught the NBA off guard.

The basketball cultural fit made sense — the Heat’s focus on hard work and conditioning as a foundation for winning are very Butler — but with the Sixers, Lakers, Clippers, Rockets and other teams interested in him Butler could chase a ring next season. The Heat were a year or two and a couple of big moves away from that level. Yet Butler chose Miami after meeting with the Heat staff and canceled other meetings. Soon enough, the deal got done and Butler was a member of the Heat.

How did butler come to that moment? It started when he played dominoes in Little Havana. Anthony Chaing at the Miami Herald put together a fantastic look at how Butler — with some help from Dwyane Wade — came to love Miami.

As for Butler’s fit with the city of Miami, he started exploring that in April with a tour through Little Havana. With the 76ers in town to take on the Heat in the final home game of Wade’s career on April 9, Butler used the first part of that day to learn about the area.

Butler was determined to experience “the real Miami” and settled on Little Havana as the neighborhood to tour…

On April 9 during a tour of Little Havana, Butler was looking forward to proving he was a better dominoes player than those at Domino Park that day. Not aware that double-nine dominoes were used at the park, Butler was thrown off because he grew up playing with a double-six set…

The group ended up playing double-six dominoes. And of course, Butler won.

Butler spent the first part of that end-of-the-season day trying to get a feel for Miami, its people, their love of basketball, and if he would be happy there. He ultimately decided yes, he would. Wade had planted the seed with Butler that the Heat organization and Miami would be a good fit for him, but Butler had to explore and figure it out for himself.

Butler started that months before he met with teams, but by the time he walked out of the room where Pat Riley, Erik Spoelstra, and the rest of the Heat brain trust had been to pitch him on June 30, Butler knew where he wanted to play. He left it to the Heat and 76ers to figure out the sign-and-trade (which sent Josh Richardson among others to the Sixers, a move that cleared out enough cap space for Philly to sign Al Horford).

Now it’s on that Heat brain trust to add a lot more talent to the roster.

Bucks GM Horst says keeping Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez was summer priority

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Milwaukee made the leap last year — won 60 games last season, had the MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo, was top five in offense and defense, reached the conference finals, and became a serious title contender. It was an amazing season and run, one that earned GM Jon Horst Executive of the Year honors, as voted by his peers.

But a GM’s job is never done.

The Bucks went into the summer with three starters as free agents and a lot of questions about keeping the roster together. Milwaukee retained two of those starters — Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez — and those two were the top priorities, Horst told Eric Nehm of The Athletic.

Khris was always a focus… He’s our second superstar, our second star. He’s an All-Star. He’s been one of our best players for a long period of time here. Fits our culture, fits our style of play, fits our aging curve. He’s become a leader of our team. For us, we want to try to recruit with him and play the culture fit, winning. Create an environment he wanted to play in for a long, long time. A place where his family is happy with Sam and the baby and everything…

When we got Brook last offseason, we understood, at some level, how important he was going to be to us and how important he was going to be and what the value was going to be. We also understood if he’s as good as we think he’s going to be, it’s going to present a lot of challenges.

The challenges Horst is referring to are about money. The Bucks got Lopez on a one-year steal of a contract at $3.4 million, but he played his way into an eight-figure salary. Keeping Lopez meant roster changes were needed to create cap room.

The ultimate upshot of that is Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic are no longer with the team. The Bucks could have matched the four-year, $85 million offer Indiana put on the table for Brogdon, but doing so would have put them deep into the luxury tax and tied their hands in other ways. The Bucks signed Wesley Matthews as a stopgap instead.

Malcolm is very, very important and we knew how important he was to our team. It will be hard to replace him. I think we’ve done the best that we can and we’ll continue to work in ways to be creative and fill that gap.

Horsts’ moves this summer should keep the Bucks as title contenders next season, they head into the season as the favorites in the East.

That’s not the biggest question facing Milwaukee, however. That is: Did the moves keep Antetokounmpo happy? Next summer he can be offered a super-max contract extension to stay with the Bucks through his prime, if he turns it down the Bucks have to consider trading him. Will Antetokounmpo take the money? Every move Horst made this summer needed to bring Antetokounmpo closer to answering yes to that question.

We’ll see how it went in a year.

Chris Paul says players don’t really talk about money in locker room

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Locker room banter flies all over the conversational map: Clubs/restaurants to first cars to rappers to Fortnite to why Player X never has any lotion and always has to borrow someone else’s.

What doesn’t come up? Money.

That according to Chris Paul, who should know after 14 years in the league and now serving as the players’ union president. He was talking about his campaign to help players become more financially aware and said this to Clevis Murray of The Athletic.

“I think the reason why I’m so passionate about this is because I’m finishing up my 14th year in the NBA, and I’ve been around long enough to realize that guys in our league, we talk about everything in the locker room except for finance, except for money,” he said. “Nobody talks about money, because it’s one of those uncomfortable things.”

It’s a strange dynamic in an NBA locker room because everybody knows what everybody else makes, it’s very public, and that provides a certain measuring stick of worth.

Yet how does one player tell another “man, your entourage is too big, you’re blowing your money.” Players finally making money understandably want to take care of family and close friends, but other people come into their life and things can spiral fast. CP3 says he gets it, and he is working with Joe Smith — who made $60 million in NBA earnings and lost all of it — to help prepare rookies.

The stories of NBA players blowing through their money absolutely happen, but they also are not the majority, and the numbers are shrinking. More and more players are learning to be smarter with their money and set themselves up on some level for life after basketball. Not all, but guys who stick in the league a few years tend to learn. If Paul and the union can come up with ways to reach players at an earlier age and prepare them for what is to come, all the better.