This is ugly.
And it could get uglier.
In a film session Wednesday, first-year Cavaliers coach John Beilein tried to pay his team a compliment by saying they were no longer playing like “thugs.” Later that night, he contacted players saying he meant to say “slugs.” Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the story.
Beilein had been wrapping up what had been an off-day film session in Detroit and a hush fell over the room when his players and staff heard the words come out of his mouth, sources said.
The Cavaliers players left the room initially stunned and were increasingly disturbed as they dispersed out of the meeting, league sources said.
“I didn’t realize that I had said the word “thugs,” but my staff told me later I did and so I must have said it,” Beilein told ESPN on Wednesday night. “I meant to say slugs, as in slow moving. We weren’t playing hard before, and now we were playing harder. I meant it as a compliment. That’s what I was trying to say. I’ve already talked to eight of my players tonight, and they are telling me that they understand.”
Here are some thoughts on this:
• There is an obvious, massive difference between “thugs” and “slugs.”
• The word “thug” carries a lot of heft and ugly racial connotations when said to a room of mostly young African-American men. Because of that, it’s tougher to brush this off as a simple slip of the tongue.
• Was this a one-time, fluke thing? Or, is there a little more to this, and will other stories leak out in the coming days?
• The Cavaliers have been playing defense like slugs in recent weeks.
• Beilein left the University of Michigan at age 66 to take over the Cavaliers job this season, signing a five-year contract. The Cavaliers are a team in flux — veterans who could be traded, such as Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson, plus young players in need of development such as Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. It’s not an easy team to coach, but the roster has not responded to Beilein, and he has not connected with his players. What we end up with is things like Love acting out.
• Will this threaten Beilein’s job? Maybe. Things certainly are at a crossroads midway through his first season.
If this proves to be a pattern, then yes, he’s gone. If the players don’t buy Beilein’s “slug” reasoning and he loses the locker room (or loses it more, if that’s possible), then yes. If this spirals into something uglier, then yes. But predicting how this will play out in Cleveland is difficult thanks to an unpredictable organization.
Expect a lot more on this in the coming days.