CLEVELAND – The honeymoon is over for the defending champs. The Cleveland Cavaliers have lost six of eight games, and the criticisms of the team’s roster made by LeBron James on Monday are still ringing loud and clear along the shore of Lake Erie.
On Thursday, it was another longtime Cavaliers presence’s turn to talk, as Tristan Thompson addressed James’ comments and gave his own views on the team’s roster.
“LeBron’s comment is what it is,” Thompson said. “I really don’t give a [expletive]. I just got to keep playing better. We got to keep playing harder. He’s right. We got to all play better. It’s simple. You see the [expletive] out there. We all see it.”
Thompson made it clear, though, that he believes the guys in the locker room can get the job done for Cleveland.
“This is the team we have right now,” Thompson said. “That’s how you got to approach the game. You can’t go out there hoping somebody is coming to walk through the door. Play with whoever the hell we got right now, and let’s win some [expletive] games.”
On Monday, James voiced his displeasure on the current state of Cleveland’s roster. Per Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal, James said the Cavaliers were “not better than last year, from a personnel standpoint” and needed another player. According to Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com, James called the roster “top-heavy as [expletive],” while signaling out himself, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love as those top-heavy pieces.
This is not the first time James has made criticisms of the Cavaliers since returning. His issues with former Cavaliers coach David Blatt became a public topic of conversation. James received backlash at the time for such behavior, but Blatt was fired last season despite having Cleveland atop the Eastern Conference.
His comments this year came during the worst stretch of the season for Cleveland. It hasn’t just been that the Cavaliers have dropped six of eight games. It’s also been who they have lost to and the manner of defeat. During this skid, the team has lopsided road losses to the Portland Trail Blazers and Golden State Warriors, a setback to an Anthony Davis-less New Orleans Pelicans team and a home loss to the Sacramento Kings. Cleveland has not beaten a current playoff team since its Dec. 31 victory over the Charlotte Hornets.
In response to the concerns over whether the Cavaliers have the right pieces, Thompson said every team in the NBA has issues with its roster.
“No team is perfect,” Thompson said. “Every team needs something. You go to Golden State, they said they didn’t have the post players to protect them. The Raptors, they say, after Kyle Lowry and DeMar [DeRozan], what else do they got? Us, he wants another playmaker. It is what it is. Every team needs something. That’s for the front office. We only can control what we got. Guys got to get better.”
Thompson wasn’t the only one to address James’ comments and the distractions around the team right now. Head coach Tyronn Lue wouldn’t comment on potential roster changes for Cleveland, but he did make it clear he does not like the talk surrounding the team.
“It makes it tougher, and I hate it,” Lue said. “I have to come and deal with you guys every time it happens. I’ve always been a man. I don’t like when people come out and say, ‘sources say.’ Listen, if you can’t put your name behind it, don’t say it. I don’t believe in that.”
Some of the stories Lue was likely addressing were rumors of a potential trade with the New York Knicks for Carmelo Anthony and a Thursday report from Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com that James and ownership were in disagreement about how much to spend on the team.
While Lue might feel it’s distracting for him to deal with, that might not be true for the players.
“Ain’t no distraction,” Thompson said. “At the end of the day, it’s basketball. Go out there and just play. It’s simple. Coach give you a game plan. Do your job or sit the [expletive] down.”
While the team’s roster construction might be stealing the headlines, Lue feels the team’s issue is its defense. In the last eight games, Cleveland is allowing 112.1 points per game. Over the course of the season, that number would be second-worst in the NBA.
There is time to improve that, and Lue stresses this is still the same team that won an NBA title in June. There is just some work to be done to get back there.
“There’s a lot of distractions,” Lue said. “We have to focus on basketball—getting back to winning. We’re the third-best team in the NBA right now, we’re a great team, we’re the champs. So we just have to get back to playing championship basketball.”
Missing the easy ones
In two of Cleveland’s last three losses, the team has shot 54.5 percent or worse from the foul line. That’s an important mark, considering both of those games went to overtime and were decided by a combined seven points.
“That could definitely bite you in the butt,” Thompson said. “Especially when it’s crunch time and the going gets tough. Everyone likes to say those are free money.”
Thompson himself is amid the worst free-throw shooting season of his NBA tenure. While he’s never been elite at the line (61.6 percent for his career), he’s at a career-worst 48.1 percent right now.
LeBron’s triple-double not enough
For the second time in as many games, James notched a triple-double on Wednesday, but the result was also the same as Monday—a loss. While James did a little of everything, Lue said he can still do a little more.
“A guy like that who is a great player of course he can come out in the second half and have a great second half and a triple-double, but he needs to get involved in the game in the first half,” Lue said.
The triple-double was the fifth of the season for James, who prior to Monday hadn’t notched one since Nov. 27.
Western Conference woes
Despite an overall record of 30-14, the Cavaliers are just 10-8 against the Western Conference. That’s an important statistic to keep an eye on because in the final 11 games for Cleveland before the All-Star break, it faces six Western Conference teams. Without an improved mark against the other league, the Cavaliers could struggle to get back on track before All-Star Weekend.