Whatever opportunity the Cleveland Cavaliers might have had to lure LeBron James back to his home state appears to have gone by the wayside.
Simply put, the franchise that took James No. 1 overall in the 2003 NBA draft has been an absolute mess since James jumped ship to join the Miami Heat in July 2010. No team—not even the sorry Charlotte Bobcats—has lost more games over the last three-and-a-half seasons than have the Cavs. The year after King James departed, Cleveland endured a 19-63 campaign that "featured" an NBA-record 26-game losing streak.
But the 2010-11 season is well in the past. That was before the Cavs added four top-five picks in three years, including No. 1s in 2011 and 2013. Things must be looking up in Rock City nowadays...right?
Swinging and Missing
Eh, not so much.
As of Feb. 11, the Cavs were 19-33, less than a week removed from a bizarre and embarrassing loss to a bare-bones Los Angeles Lakers squad that extended Cleveland's losing streak to six games. That loss, per ESPN's Marc Stein, was enough to cost general manager Chris Grant his job.
The ax might have fallen on the head of Mike Brown if not for the pricy, five-year pact he signed to return to Cleveland this past summer. Grant, on the other hand, was working on an expiring contract when team owner Dan Gilbert pulled the plug.
If money were no object, Gilbert may well have kicked Brown out of town as well.
Not surprisingly, then, Cleveland's on-court performance has been anything but perfunctory. According to NBA.com, the Cavs rank among the bottom 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, despite Kyrie Irving's skills as a scorer and Brown's presumed expertise as a defensive guru.
Of course, the issues that Brown has encountered since returning to Cleveland from his failed stint in L.A. go far beyond X's and O's. He's failed to wrangle a locker room whose last traces of chemistry have been torn asunder by poisonous conflict, with second-year guard Dion Waiters and Irving at the fore.
Mere weeks into the 2013-14 season, Waiters, whom the Cavs acquired with the No. 4 pick in 2012—ahead of Harrison Barnes and Andre Drummond—reportedly confronted Tristan Thompson, the No. 4 pick in 2011—ahead of Jonas Valanciunas, Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard—over the latter's penchant for "buddy ball" with Irving, the top pick in 2011, according to Chris Broussard of ESPN The Magazine.
That's not a good look for a trio whose talent and draft position would peg it for the core of this club over the long haul.
The Cavs claim that the discord between the two guards is more the product of youthful inexperience than it is of any intractable battle of personalities.
"They've had some moments where they've played very well together on the floor," Brown told Bob Finnan of The Morning Journal. "They are two young guys trying to figure out how to play the right way themselves, no matter who else is out on the floor. They are getting better learning how to play with each other."
Irving went so far as to describe Waiters as "a good friend." "We're just being honest with each other out there, telling each other what we see out there," he proclaimed to The Morning Journal. "He's looking to me for advice. I'm looking to him for advice, different things we see out there. Earlier in the season, we probably wouldn't have said anything to one another. It's just continuing to get better and playing off one another."
Irving, by the way, has been no saint in all of this. His productivity has slipped a bit in year three, and though it's tough to expect a 21-year-old to command a locker room, one would hope that Irving, who will be starting for the Eastern Conference All-Stars this weekend, would demonstrate better leadership.
"He's acting like he doesn't care," said an anonymous Cavs player of Irving to Jason Lloyd of The Akron Beacon Journal.
Perhaps that had something to do with the suggestion from ESPN's Chad Ford that Irving wanted out of Cleveland. Irving has since denied those allegations, albeit not categorically so. "I'm still in my rookie contract and I'm happy to be here. And I'm pretty sure I'm going to be here for a long time," Irving told ESPN's Brian Windhorst following the Cavs' blowout loss to the New York Knicks in late January.
As dramatic as Irving and his running mates have been, at least those guys have been productive on the court. The same can't be said for Anthony Bennett, who's put together one of the worst rookie seasons ever by a No. 1 pick so far. The 20-year-old Canadian missed his first 16 shots as a pro and has since settled in with a less-than-splendid line of 3.4 points, 2.6 rebounds and 29.9 percent shooting in 12 minutes per game.
In Bennett's defense, his struggles aren't without explanation. He sat out the entire NBA Summer League and part of fall training camp while recovering from serious shoulder surgery. That layoff left him both out of shape and generally ill-prepared for the rigors and nuances of the NBA game. The fact that Bennett's been stuck behind Thompson and Anderson Varejao in Cleveland's frontcourt rotation has only further hindered his development.
To Bennett's credit, he's performed much better of late. The first four double-digit scoring efforts (and the first double-double) of his NBA career have all come within the last two weeks or so.
And it's not as though the Cavs have fared much better in free agency, either. Their three big signings from this past summer—Jarrett Jack, Earl Clark and Andrew Bynum—have all been busts to some extent.
Jack has looked like anything but the budding Sixth Man of the Year candidate he'd been with the Golden State Warriors. He's repaid the Cavs for the four-year, $25.2 million contract they gave him by averaging 8.6 points (his fewest since his rookie season) on a career-low 39.6 percent shooting.
That still beats the contributions of Clark, who had been one half of Cleveland's two-headed monster of misery at small forward, alongside Alonzo Gee. The Cavs handed Clark a two-year deal worth $8.5 million after seeing him shine for stretches in L.A. He's done anything but since then, as his flagrantly awful field-goal percentage (.374) might suggest.
On the positive side of things, at least Clark doesn't play much anymore. He hasn't played in five of Cleveland's last seven games.
And, for what it's worth, Clark has yet to agitate for a way out—unlike Bynum, who wanted out of Cleveland so badly just two months into the season that his camp told Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski that the former All-Star was considering giving up basketball for good.
The Cavs eventually obliged, sending Bynum's cap-friendly contract, along with draft picks, to the Chicago Bulls in exchange for Luol Deng in early January. The Bulls immediately cut Bynum, who's since landed a backup gig with the Indiana Pacers. Bynum offered some parting shots for the Cavs shortly after arriving in Indy, during a chat with Candace Buckner of The Indianapolis Star:
That atmosphere appears to have already turned off Deng, to the point where he may well bolt via free agency this summer. According to Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News, Deng recently told a close friend of his that "the stuff going on in practice would never be tolerated by the coaching staff or the front office back in Chicago. It's a mess."
Deng, though, has said all the right things in public. He's even gone so far as to praise the Cavs for the amenities they provide to their players. "These guys have everything," Deng told the Beacon Journal.
They're getting taken care of. Sometimes when you've only been in one place, you don't know what it's like. Honestly, it's top-notch here. I'm not just saying that to say it. I feel like we're given the best, we're taken care of to perform at our best. We have to somehow figure out what our best is. For us right now to win as a young team, more than anything it's a unity thing. We have to play as one unit. Are we going to get there? I don't know, but we need to.
Deng added that he believed the Cavs would get on track and start winning games, which they have. Cleveland extended its winning streak to a season-high-tying three games on Tuesday with a 109-99 win over the visiting Sacramento Kings. As a result, the Cavs are now within somewhat comfortable striking distance of the eighth seed in the East.
Not Quite Crystal Clear
Things may be looking up at Quicken Loans Arena at the moment, but will those good times roll long enough to convince Deng to stay, much less LeBron to leave South Beach?
At this point, it's tough to see either scenario playing out in Cleveland's favor, with James' return as the much longer shot between the two. James has made it clear that his goal, from here on out, is to win as many championships as he possible can before his playing days are through.
"I'm going to be one of the top four that's ever played this game, for sure," he said during an interview with NBA TV (via ESPN.com). "And if they don't want me to have one of those top four spots, they'd better find another spot on that mountain. Somebody's gotta get bumped, but that's not for me to decide. That's for the architects."
Carving out a place on the NBA's Mount Rushmore will be that much more difficult for James if he decides to reboot the team-building process with another franchise. He, of all people, understands not only the backlash that comes with ditching one squad for another, but also the painstaking work that comes with fashioning a new group into a legitimate title contender.
His Heat were good enough to crack the NBA Finals in year one of the Big Three era but didn't truly hit their stride until deep into their 2012 playoff run, which ended with James and company hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
James would have to fight through a similar construction job in Cleveland, but with decidedly less talent around him. He'd be the one tasked with teaching youngsters like Irving, Waiters, Thompson and Bennett how to win at the highest level, rather than having an experienced champion like Dwyane Wade on whom to lean.
Wade has been floated in some cases as a potential cause for James' departure. The spectacular shooting guard has struggled with knee problems for years now, to the point where Erik Spoelstra and the Heat have decided it best to give him regular rest, not unlike the way the San Antonio Spurs have handled the aging Tim Duncan.
Then again, James probably wouldn't have come to Miami if not for Wade. The two have been close friends since they first met in the lead-up to the 2003 draft. The greater impetus for James looking around could come from Chris Bosh, who will have every opportunity to look around this summer should he ultimately opt out.
Even if such a scenario should play out, with Bosh taking his talents to, say, his hometown Dallas Mavericks and Wade wallowing in knee pain, James would still have plenty of reason to pass on the Cavs and hang on with the Heat.
Aside from the quality of life that comes with making a home on the shores of Biscayne Bay, James can count on a solid owner, in Micky Arison, who won't meddle with management or antagonize his players; a legendary executive, in Pat Riley, whom he trusts to fashion a top-notch roster around him; and a coach, in Spoelstra, with whom he's built a strong relationship over the course of their three-and-a-half tremendously successful seasons together.
Compare that to Cleveland—with its overbearing owner, shaken-up front office, familiarly mediocre coaching staff and depressing climate—and it's clear that Miami has the upper hand, especially when considering that James is already intimately familiar with the most intricate inadequacies of the Cavs organization.
Why, then, would James leave behind a franchise with which he's won two titles to return to one that struggled to surround him with elite talent when he was there and has, by and large, been an embarrassment since he left?
Why would he ditch the success and happiness he's worked so diligently to build in Miami for the toxic waste dump that Cleveland has become?
Why would he go back to a place where the fans once burned him in effigy when he's managed to capture the hearts and minds of so many more in South Florida?
These questions might have been marginally easier to answer if the Cavs had performed up to their owner's preseason expectations, if they were a lock for their first playoff appearance since 2010. But that growth hasn't come to pass, leaving Cleveland with little more than the fleeting dream of LeBron's second coming to keep the city's forlorn fans warm through yet another bitterly cold winter.
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