CLEVELAND — LeBron James had no answers. His Cleveland Cavaliers had just given up 148 points in a regulation basketball game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. The point total tied the record for the most given up by a Cavs team in the history of the franchise, and it was the most points a James-led team had allowed in his 1,323 NBA games.
The troubling part is the previous record occurred earlier in January, when the Cavs let the Toronto Raptors score 133 points in a 34-point blowout loss.
Cleveland came into the 2017-18 season looking for its fourth consecutive NBA Finals appearance. After creeping within 1.5 games of the Boston Celtics, however, the Cavs have gone on a massive slide since their Christmas Day loss to the Golden State Warriors, losing nine of their past 12 games.
Worse, five of their past seven have seen the Cleveland defense allow at least 118 points, having no answers in transition against teams like the Thunder or in the paint against the Raptors.
"I don't think I've ever in my basketball life given up 148 points, not even probably in playing video games," James said following Saturday's loss. "I'm going to stay as positive as I can; patience has not always been a thing for me. But I know in the rough patch we're in right now that's what I can give to this team and just staying positive."
With the oldest roster in the NBA and little in the way of rest and practice time given the new NBA schedule, all Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue could offer was that everyone needed to improve—coaches and players—specifically on the defensive end.
Coupling the recent slide has been a bevy of trade rumors. Marc Stein of the New York Times recently linked Cleveland to DeAndre Jordan and George Hill, players who would provide not just an upgrade at positions of need for the Cavaliers but who would also theoretically provide an upgrade defensively at two of the team's weakest positions on that end of the floor.
The irony came full circle during the Saturday's loss to Oklahoma City, as Thunder forward Paul George not only scored a game-high 36 points (on just 19 shots) but was stellar defensively. He played physical defense on James, causing disruption throughout and allowing his team to take advantage of Cleveland's shoddy transition defense.
It's the same George who was heavily linked to the Cavaliers this past summer. The same George who, had a deal gone down, would have allowed the Cavs to be younger, more athletic and much more versatile, especially on the defensive end.
While the Cavaliers pore over film and Lue ponders altering his rotation as the entire organization searches for answers, is it possible the solution was right there for the having, only to slip away in the final moments?
Cavs owner Dan Gilbert has toned down his impulsiveness as of late, tweeting with low frequency and saying even less on the record. When introducing Koby Altman as the team's newest general manager, however, he couldn't help himself.
"I will say that Indiana could've done better than it did," he said this past summer when questioned about trade rumors surrounding his team.
Gilbert was being asked about Kyrie Irving at the time but took the opportunity to pan the team that was rumored to have pulled the plug on his Cavaliers at the eleventh hour, as they had negotiated a multiple-team trade that would send George,a four-time All-Star, to Cleveland.
According to an ESPN.com report, the Cavaliers had agreed to send forward Kevin Love to the Denver Nuggets, with the Nuggets sending guard Gary Harris and other pieces to the Pacers to meet the league's rules on salary matching. A conference call between George and Gilbert was in the works up until Indiana GM Kevin Pritchard backed out of the deal and sent the All-NBA swingman to the Thunder.
While the magnitude of missing out on George wasn't initially apparent, it would merely be the first domino to tip, as Irving soon requested a trade out of Cleveland. The Cavaliers dealt Irving to the Boston Celtics (despite the All-Star having two years remaining on his deal) for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and a highly coveted draft selection, which would provide the team flexibility during the 2019 offseason.
Thomas was thought to be the Cavs' new Irving, a guard who could dominate in isolation and provide a scoring punch as needed. Crowder was to provide versatility and take defensive pressure off of James with an eye angled toward Kevin Durant and the Warriors. Both, however, have failed to produce at a level commensurate with expectations. Thomas has the eighth-worst defensive rating among NBA players to have played in at least seven games while Crowder, according to one league executive, has been lost since arriving to Cleveland and being asked to play power forward.
"He has no idea what the f--k he's doing," the executive told Bleacher Report of Crowder, suggesting a move to the bench could be beneficial for all parties involved.
Making matters worse is the significant struggles of players like Tristan Thompson and JR Smith (two contributors on the championship-winning team). The Cavs' subsequent additions—Jeff Green, Jose Calderon, Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade—are lacking much in the way of the dynamic defensive skills needed to switch on to the NBA's modern, position-agnostic stars.
Since Christmas Day, the Cavaliers have a league-worst net rating, one fueled entirely by a league-worst defensive rating. Meanwhile, in Oklahoma City, you have a team with the fourth-best defensive rating in the NBA.
George has teamed up with two ball-dominant players in Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony, and the result has been his lowest usage rate since the 2012-13 season and his lowest points-per-game average since the 2013-14 season. On the defensive end, however, George has a per-100 possession rating five full points fewer than a season ago and a top-five real plus/minus at the small forward position while largely playing the power forward spot next to Anthony.
"I think that's who he is," Thunder head coach Billy Donovan told Bleacher Report. "He's the kind of guy who just likes to get his offense through the flow of the game. He's not a guy who wants a lot of shots or wants plays called for him. He just plays randomly and freely in the half-court offensively, but where he's really focused and locked in and takes a lot of pride is on the defensive end of the floor.
"He really puts forth really good effort. He's long, smart and disruptive. He's got good feet. He's a physical defender. He's hard to shoot over. It's really bolstered our defense."
The Cavaliers, according to Lue, are struggling in pick-and-roll situations and are being dismantled in isolation, as opponents are utilizing more dynamic players in key situations. George, conversely, is averaging 2.2 steals per game (a career-high mark).
According to Synergy Sports, he's in the 87th percentile of players in defending in isolation and is in the 75th percentile in defending the ball handler in the pick-and-roll.
On Saturday, James finished the game with just 18 points on 8-of-17 shooting and a game-worst minus-33 plus/minus. James was guarded almost exclusively by George, who played the four-time MVP physically. When he could, George forced James to put the ball on the floor, turning a player on the verge of 30,000 points into a pass-first forward.
"He does a good job of getting to 'Bron and testing his handle," Lue told Bleacher Report of George. "He does such a good job of fighting over screens and getting to the ball. He's a great defender."
So is Paul George the one who got away from the Cavaliers, or is there still a chance the swingman could end up in Cleveland? The Thunder underwhelmed for much of the first half of the season, leading some to wonder whether Oklahoma City would chalk the offseason move up as a failed experiment during George's contract year, moving him midseason in order to ensure some form of return.
What was a 12-14 record in mid-December, however, is now a 26-20 record, with the Thunder winning four consecutive games and sitting three games back of the San Antonio Spurs for the fourth seed in the Western Conference. But even with this, as the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets form the conference's top tier, would this recent run be enough to make OKC general manager Sam Presti push his chips into the middle of the table? According to recent reports, the Thunder have become "fully committed" to keeping George in advance of his free agency, but in the NBA, commitments are as fluid as the moments they represent.
After years of being a one-man band in Indiana, George has proved this season he can be of immense value when playing next to ball-dominant players. Whenever Thomas has needed the ball in his hands to score, Cleveland fans are justified in wondering "What if?" as it pertains to the three-team deal being their franchise's big move as opposed to the one that took place weeks later.
The Cavaliers are clearly looking to improve their roster given the recent speculation surrounding moves before the February 8 trade deadline. They have reportedly been reluctant to include the pick acquired in the Irving deal to this point, but a player like George is worth the risk.
Seeing what George has been able to do defensively this season, it's easy to picture him as the player who would allow the Cavaliers to not just march back up the Eastern Conference standings but also match up defensively with the dynamic players on the Golden State Warriors roster in the event both teams made it back to the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive time.
It would allow Lue to tighten up his rotations, and it would give James much more in the way of answers as opposed to the litany of loose ends that permeate the organization.
And if it's any silver lining, if George were to find his way to Cleveland in the longest of long shots, it's clear the forward enjoys playing inside of Quicken Loans Arena. During the first round of the 2017 Eastern Conference playoffs, George scored 29 and 32 points in Games 1 and 2, respectively. In his first game in Cleveland since being moved West, he engineered a 36-point masterpiece that left the entire Cavaliers locker room speechless.
"I enjoy playing here," George said of Cleveland's home court. "I'm more locked in, more in tune. It's a little bit of everything. The energy that The Q provides. The fanbase makes for a great road court. I just feel good here. It feels good to shoot."
Then again, if George never finds his way to Cleveland, it makes things that much worse.