The Cleveland Cavaliers have been to three consecutive NBA Finals. They won the city's first championship in 52 years just last summer. They remain the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.
It just doesn't feel like it.
First, they lost general manager David Griffin, who presided over those three runs to the Finals, after he and owner Dan Gilbert failed to reach an agreement on an extension. Multiple league sources say Gilbert ended talks after reports of the Orlando Magic's interest in Griffin kept surfacing despite Gilbert's denying them the right to interview him.
Since then, the New York Knicks have expressed interest in Griffin. One league source said he met in person with the team earlier this week, following up on a recent phone conversation between the two sides. Neither Griffin nor Knicks acting GM Steve Mills responded to text messages asking for confirmation or denial of the alleged meeting.
The next L came with Chauncey Billups turning down the Cavs' offer of a five-year deal to take over as president of basketball operations in Griffin's stead.
Billups has no front-office experience, but Gilbert, a Detroit native, has held him in high regard for his role as the leader of the Pistons during their run to six consecutive Eastern Conference Finals in the 2000s. That Billups, currently an ESPN NBA analyst, would turn down the offer was connected with the biggest L of them all: the loss of confidence in James' staying beyond next season.
Billups has since told ESPN's The Undefeated that he didn't consult with James and that James' tenuous future with the franchise didn't play a factor in his decision.
"These kinds of decisions go down to a gut thing and my spirit," he told The Undefeated. "It just wasn't time." A separate report by ESPN's Chris Haynes and Marc Spears, though, claimed Gilbert's below-market contract offer to Billups also played a role.
James' future aside, there are several reasons the Cavs job would give veteran team-builders pause, much less someone with no experience. Start with the bar being set at winning a championship—anything less is considered a failure as long as James is on the roster.
Then there is the limited flexibility the team has in improving its current roster. The Cavs had the highest payroll in the league last season and are projected to have the second-highest payroll this season. Even if James leaves next summer, they already have potentially as much as $87 million committed to five players—Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert—for the 2018-19 season.
Even if there were a max-contract talent willing to replace James—the longest of longshots considering the franchise's free-agent history—there's a chance they would not have enough money for one.
Even if James commits to staying beyond next season, at 32 and having played more than 50,000 minutes, regular season and playoffs combined—Kevin Garnett, for comparison, played a combined total of 55,701 minutes before retiring—he is more likely to decline than improve. He's also one of the most powerful players in the league and has never been shy about making his feelings known about what the Cavs need and how they should be run.
That's naturally a tricky proposition for anyone in charge.
"I think he looked at it for what it was," said one Eastern Conference senior VP of Billups' decision. "He's got people around the league telling him to be careful, that there are going to be better opportunities out there."
Multiple league sources dismissed reports that Griffin was on the cusp of landing one of the All-Stars, Jimmy Butler or Paul George, who have since been traded elsewhere.
If he had, said one league source who has had extensive talks with the Cavs, the remaining front-office executives—acting GM Koby Altman, G-League Canton Charge GM Mike Gansey and director of analytics Jon Nichols—were fully capable of completing any deal.
While their public profiles are practically invisible, league executives familiar with the threesome's capabilities speak highly not only of their current roster-building acumen but also of their potential to some day run a team.
Altman is strong at building relationships and evaluating collegiate talent. He was interviewed by the San Antonio Spurs a year ago for an assistant GM's position but lost out to then-Pistons assistant GM Brian Wright.
Gansey, the 2016-17 D-League Executive of the Year, is also a Cavs scout. He is given credit for the fact the Charge's first two head coaches, Steve Hetzel and Jordi Fernandez, are now NBA assistant coaches for the Charlotte Hornets and Denver Nuggets, respectively, and that the team has made the playoffs every year since the Cavs purchased it.
Nichols, who has a degree from Harvard, is considered one of the rare numbers-crunchers who can communicate his analysis to players and coaches in a way that makes sense. He was recommended to the Cavs by Ben Alamar, the director of analytics for ESPN who, as a consultant for the Oklahoma City Thunder, convinced them to draft UCLA guard Russell Westbrook.
"They're all competent guys," said the Eastern Conference senior VP of the Cavs' remaining front-office personnel. "They just haven't had to make decisions."
Their role to this point has been to construct or suggest possible ways to improve the roster for Griffin to review and then potentially take to Gilbert for approval to pursue, said a source familiar with the organization's inner workings. How much changes will depend on Gilbert.
"I know Dan wants to be more involved, but how much?" asked one former league executive. "Is he going to negotiate deals with agents? Is he going to do owner-on-owner trades? That part we don't know yet."
The harsh reality is the Cavs did not have surplus draft picks or young talent to entice either the Bulls to deal them Butler or the Pacers to send them George. Their only valid course of action was to move one of their core stars, Irving or Love, in hopes of getting back two quality players for the price of one.
One Eastern Conference team president said he was aware of only one team that has shown a sincere interest in acquiring Love: the Denver Nuggets. The Cavs did indeed discuss a three-team deal last week with Denver that would've netted Cleveland George, with the Nuggets getting Love. But the picks and young talent that would've satisfied the Pacers never materialized.
The luster of the Cavs job also has been diminished in some circles by Gilbert's reputation as a hands-on boss who doesn't pay particularly well, a belief further bolstered by the report he initially offered Billups $1.5 million a year to become the team's president. That would have ranked among the lowest salaries at that position in the league.
It is not known what Griffin made last season, but one league executive joked that if Griffin were to land a job with the Knicks, "one year there might make up for the eight years in Cleveland."
An up-and-coming executive with another Eastern Conference franchise said he would not pursue a job with the Cavs if approached. "He's a micromanager," the executive said of Gilbert. "You see how he did Griff. I'll pass."
James has made note of how Griffin was treated as well, tweeting, "If no one appreciated you Griff I did…" and Cleveland.com cited a source close to James saying who replaces Griffin and his "ability to make things happen" will impact James' decision on staying next summer.
One of the last such potential moves "to make things happen" is acquiring the Knicks' disenchanted star, Carmelo Anthony. ESPN recently reported Anthony is open to waiving his no-trade clause to join the Cavs or Rockets.
Even if getting Anthony doesn't cost the Cavs one of their core pieces, an executive from a rival Eastern Conference playoff team last season isn't worried.
"I expect Cleveland to play it out and not move one of the main pieces," he said. "They get Carmelo, all you're doing is rearranging deck chairs. As good as Carmelo is, he hasn't been great in some time."
The Cavs, on the other hand, have been great for quite some time. There's no reason, especially in light of players such as George and Butler moving to the Western Conference, they won't be great again next season. The Boston Celtics added Gordon Hayward to a roster that finished first in the Eastern Conference, but to do so is likely to cost them a couple of key role players, diminishing the net gain.
Turmoil isn't a foreign element to the Cavs. Griffin once told B/R the team actually thrived on it. But this feels different. This has the wrong kind of familiarity—Gilbert's overreacting, LeBron's escaping, prospects balking.
Sometimes, when a team gets the sense that its best days are behind it, it can look exactly the same but lose its never-say-die will. "When a team loses that, they're done," said one NBA scout. "You have to have that belief that you can win it all. You get to a certain point, it comes down to whose will is bigger?"
Are these mere spasms of necessary change or the start of an inexorable slide back to what long was? Whichever it is, the Cavs could use an end to these L's, and their best hope for that—the start of next season—is still a long ways away.