Hours before the latest installment of their spectacular on-court implosion against the Orlando Magic, Jason Lloyd of The Athletic laid out in pretty damning detail just how bad things have gotten behind the scenes for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
According to the longtime Cavs beat reporter, the fissure at the heart of Cleveland’s downward spiral from three-time-defending Eastern Conference champions to a gang that can’t shoot straight, can’t stop anybody, has lost 14 of its last 21 and doesn’t seem capable of going 12 consecutive hours without some sort of controversy lies in the relationship (or lack thereof) between LeBron James and Dan Gilbert, and specifically with a dispute over “two key issues: David Griffin’s removal as general manager and Kyrie Irving’s subsequent trade to the Boston Celtics.”
For the past seven months, the Cavs have been noticeably pivoting away from James’ recommendations. He was vocal both publicly and privately in wanting Griffin to return as GM. Instead, owner Dan Gilbert replaced him days before the draft with Koby Altman, the inexperienced 35-year-old who is widely regarded as not ready for the mammoth task in front of him.
James recruited Jamal Crawford last summer to come to Cleveland, but instead they ignored him and signed rookie Cedi Osman. James told the Cavs not to trade Irving regardless of how disgruntled he appeared. Irving was under team control for two more years, and James was adamant he had no leverage.
“Bring him to camp,” James told the Cavs. He was confident he could repair whatever damage Irving felt was done to their relationship. But Irving made clear to Gilbert and the Cavaliers he wanted out of Cleveland because he did not want to play another minute with James, one source told The Athletic. Given how close Irving and James were to the ends of their contracts, the Cavs chose to move Irving while they believed he still had peak value. […]
The deal was also completed without consulting James, one source with knowledge of the situation told The Athletic. Altman called James when it was essentially done and informed him of what was happening.
“It’s the best we can do,” Altman told James. Twenty minutes later, the trade was leaked publicly, one source with knowledge of the situation told The Athletic. It had been negotiated entirely without James’ knowledge.
Lloyd’s report of an organizational move away from James’ dictates after several years spent bending their way in pursuit of the championship that had eluded the Cavaliers since their founding — a decision that paid off in three straight NBA Finals and the 2016 title — comes attached to a corroboration of a claim previous reportedly by Ken Berger of Bleacher Report: that, with Griffin gone, owner Gilbert is “firmly in charge of basketball decisions once again,” and that Gilbert was “the driving force behind the trade” of Irving to Boston in exchange for injured All-Star Isaiah Thomas — “in large part due to how much he coveted the Celtics’ unprotected first-round pick from the Nets.” It remains to be seen what sort of return that pick produces for Cleveland; in the short term, though, the deal has proven disastrous.
“The word is out that Dan is running things,” a rival executive told B/R. “Frankly, that’s where he’s happiest and the role he’s most comfortable in.” […]
As ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan reported [last] month, James was unwilling to give Gilbert a commitment that he would stay with the Cavs beyond the 2017-18 season when asked around the time Irving was being dealt last summer.
It’s no surprise. First, that is always how LeBron has handled his impending free agency. Second, is an organization with Gilbert as the top basketball decision-maker going to be something he’ll be willing to sign up for again in July?
I tried to pose that question to James on his way out of Quicken Loans Arena […] He wanted no part of it.
“I got nothing to say tonight,” he said.
Weeks later, after more losing, dysfunction and reports about what his future might entail, James had something to say on Tuesday night, confirming the reporting of Yahoo Sports’ Shams Charania that he won’t waive his no-trade clause before Thursday’s 3 p.m. ET trade deadline.
“I’m here for the long haul,” James said, according to ESPN’s Dave McMenamin. “I’m here for this season right now, [to] try to figure out ways we can still compete. I couldn’t give up on my teammates like that. I couldn’t do that. I just couldn’t do it.”
If you couldn’t help but notice the juxtaposition of “for the long haul” and “for this season right now,” well, you’re not alone.
Cleveland’s mired in its worst stretch in ages, looking less like a title contender now than they have since LeBron’s return, the result of a bloated, aging roster with too long a list of fundamental two-way on-court issues to resolve in the trade and buyout market. Looking forward, the Cavs have $86.9 million already on the books for next year for eight players (assuming oft-injured Iman Shumpert would pick up the $11 million he’s owed in the final year of his deal) without factoring in new deals for James, Thomas (or a new point guard to replace him) or the rest of the bench; it’s incredibly daunting to construct a path to the flexibility to reload this roster on the fly in a manner that will make it competitive with the Golden State Warriors, to say nothing of the rest of the NBA’s elite or near-elite, as LeBron heads into his mid-30s.
Add it all up and you’ve got pretty dismal odds of legitimate title contention, this year and in the next few to follow. From there, it doesn’t take much of a leap to envision LeBron making his second exit from Cleveland this decade.
“As this franchise continues to stumble toward April and an unknown fate beyond, there is an overwhelming sense that the end could be near,” Lloyd wrote Tuesday. “Team officials believed in July 2014 that James returned to finish his career here. No one is really talking that way anymore.”
All this would’ve seemed unthinkable as recently as seven months ago. But then, so would Kyrie asking out, and Cleveland playing such uninspired and rudderless basketball for the better part of two months, and a team led by LeBron James getting outscored by 34 points in the second half of a game against the Orlando friggin’ Magic. Things only seem impossible until they happen. They’re happening near-nightly for the Cavs now.
“Nobody’s coming to save us,” James’ longtime friend and Cavaliers guard Dwyane Wade said after Tuesday’s loss, according to Chris Barnewall of CBS Sports.
Worse than that: it’s feeling more possible than ever that the guy who did come back to save the day in 2014 could be on his way out of town again in just five months’ time.
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