Cavs' Front Office Mistakes Pushing LeBron and Co. to Breaking Point

Ken Berger@@KBergNBAFeatured Columnist IJanuary 30, 2018

FILE - In this Monday, Jan. 8, 2018, file photo, Cleveland Cavaliers players, from left, LeBron James, Isaiah Thomas, Kevin Love, JR Smith and Jae Crowder take a break during a review in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Minnesota Timberwolves in Minneapolis. Frustrated by their recent poor play in a season where their NBA title hopes seem to be slipping away, the Cavaliers held an emotional pre-practice meeting on Monday, Jan. 22, 2018, in hopes of clearing the air. (AP Photo/Jim Mone, File)
Jim Mone/Associated Press

CLEVELAND  To borrow from the late, great Kurt Vonnegut, the excrement hit the air conditioning in Cleveland over the past week. Big time.

Confusion and frustration have swirled around a Cavaliers team that has lost 10 of 15 games since Christmas, with Isaiah Thomas hopelessly struggling to fill the void left by what looks like a disastrous decision to trade Kyrie Irving to the Celtics.

Grievances have been aired, privately and publicly, and most notably in a now-infamous team meeting that started with Thomas questioning why Kevin Love left the floor three minutes into a blowout loss to Oklahoma City and devolved into a full-blown finger-pointing session in which no one—from Tyronn Lue to neophyte general manager Koby Altman to LeBron James—was spared.

"There's an old saying: 'Nothing haunts us like the things we don't say,'" Love told Bleacher Report. "We have to get it out in the open, and we have to grow from it. And if there are any grievances or things that we just need to take care of, let's either put it to rest or find different ways we can grow from themwhether it's on or off the floor."

What became crystal clear over the past week of turmoil is that the Cavs' dysfunction goes a lot deeper than Love or any one player.

What we're witnessing are cracks in the winning culture and organizational structure that were supposed to have been unshakeable when James decided to return from Miami in 2014. The week of controversy surrounding Love and his absence was merely a window into that dysfunction, not the cause of it.

"This was not as much about Kevin Love as it was a bunch of players reaching their breaking point with a culture that was increasingly difficult to be a part of," a person familiar with the organizational dynamics told B/R.

What happened? Well, David Griffin, the general manager who used to put out all of these fires and have the hard conversations with players, coaches and agents, was shown the door in June. With owner Dan Gilbert firmly in charge of basketball decisions once again, and 35-year-old Altman along for the ride, the team caved to Irving's July trade demand and sent him to the Celtics.

Irving's replacement, Thomas, finally returned from a hip injury this month and has fit in like a machete in a sewing kit. He's been high-volume and low-percentage on offensemuch to his teammates' dismay, according to Jason Lloyd of The Athleticand even worse on defense. (In his first nine games through Friday, Thomas had a team-worst defensive box plus/minus of minus-5.9.)

Kevin Love's unexplained absence from a recent loss to Oklahoma City opened some long-festering grievances swirling around the team.
Kevin Love's unexplained absence from a recent loss to Oklahoma City opened some long-festering grievances swirling around the team.David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

"If IT is going to be high-volume, no-efficiency and a poor defender, that's pretty hard to absorb," a rival executive told B/R. "The pieces don't fit."

Thomas, an uber-confident 5'9" point guard, has bristled at suggestions that any of this is his fault. And in fairness, he just got here.

"We've been a lowest-five defensive team in the NBA the whole time," Thomas said at practice Saturday, after the Cavs finally got back in the win column with a 115-108 victory over the Pacers on Friday night. "So when I come back, it's my fault now? Which, life isn't fair, but that's not fair, bro. At all."

Thomas' remarkable media session Saturday pulled back the curtain on all of the internal tumult that has rocked the Cavs in the past week. When asked to clarify his role in the players' questioning of Love about his whereabouts last weekend, Thomas leveled an unfathomable accusation: Nobody with the team had told the players why Love was not on the bench after leaving the OKC game, why he wasn't in the locker room afterward and why he wasn't at practice the next day.

"I think the overall message on Monday was addressing a situation that a lot of people questioned," Thomas said. "And we're not talking about Kevin Love's illness. We just didn't know where he was, at the end of the day. To be real, we didn't know where he was. We didn't know why he wasn't on the bench supporting his teammates and why he wasn't in the locker room after the game.

"And then he missed the next practice, which it still wasn't addressed. So we wanted to address it when we saw him or when we came together and everybody was there. And that's what it was. … We just wanted to know where he was and why he didn't play."

Thomas said he made it clear to Love he wasn't blaming him for the 24-point shellacking at the hands of the Thunder.

"We just wanted to know where was the support?" Thomas said. "That was the only question. Which we found out he was very sick and he went home."

Communication has been a recurring problem within the Cavs. When ESPN's Dave McMenamin texted a player in June to get reaction to Griffin's ouster, the player replied, "Griff's leaving?"

Isaiah Thomas' struggle to find a rhythm in Cleveland and his close ties to owner Dan Gilbert have made it difficult to gain the trust of his teammates.
Isaiah Thomas' struggle to find a rhythm in Cleveland and his close ties to owner Dan Gilbert have made it difficult to gain the trust of his teammates.Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

There was little clarity in the locker room, too, when Derrick Rose left the team in November to contemplate whether he had the physical and mental stamina to continue battling injuries. (Rose returned Jan. 18 and is still trying to regain his conditioningand his teammates' trust.)

But for one of your All-Stars to be sent home during a game with an illness without telling the rest of the team what was going on? That's…incredible.

"They were frustrated that they didn't know about it," said a person familiar with the team's dynamics who corroborated Thomas' account. "It wasn't that Kevin left. It was that nobody addressed the team and said, 'Look, Kevin's not going to be here tomorrow, and this is what's going on.' It's disarray."

A second person with knowledge of the situation told B/R there was no attempt to hide Love's whereabouts or the circumstances surrounding his absence.

"I know for a fact that if any of [the players] had asked a single question, the training staff would've told them where he was," the person said.

Thomasincreasingly frustrated and defensive about being blamed for the Cavs' recent strugglesaired it all out Saturday with reporters. At once forthright and defiant, Thomas took offense when asked if anyone on the team had confronted him about his shot selection.

"If they're worried about my shot selection, they must not have seen me play the last few years," Thomas said. "That's all I can say about that. If somebody's worried about that, what did you trade me here for? To not shoot? To not find my rhythm? To not be Isaiah Thomas?

"I can't be anybody else. So whoever's saying that, I don't know what I'm here for if I'm not here to score the ball and make plays after being off seven months."

The story of how and why Thomas got here is where the Cavs' latest Eastern Conference title defense started going sideways. (After beating the Pistons 121-104 on Sunday night, they still have the third-best record in the East and have won two in a row for the first time since mid-December.)

Did the Cavs have to trade Irving, with two years left on his contract at the time of his request? Or could they have pulled a Gregg Popovich and said "no," as Pop told LaMarcus Aldridge last season when he came to the Spurs with a similar list of grievances?

The departure of former GM David Griffin removed a key buffer in the Cavs organization for players to work through their disputes.
The departure of former GM David Griffin removed a key buffer in the Cavs organization for players to work through their disputes.Tony Dejak/Associated Press

"It works for Pop because he's Pop," a league source familiar with the situation told B/R. "Nobody has that reverence for anyone there, so there was no way that could happen. … Kyrie didn't trust he could get what he needed out of that group anymore."

Thomas has become a favorite of Gilbert, and they often exchange calls and text messages, a league source familiar with their relationship told B/R. This isn't necessarily unusual on a team with an owner who is as involved in the basketball side of things as Gilbert is. It also isn't great for locker room chemistry, because the rest of the players know it.

"LeBron just looks at everybody as a shill for Dan," the league source said.

When Griffin was let go, he'd been working on a couple of contingency plans in the event Irving's growing discontent with the team and organization couldn't be reversed, two decision-makers within the league told B/R.

One was a trade for the Bulls' Jimmy Butler, which never got close to fruition, one of the people said. The other was in more advanced stages: A three-team deal that would've brought Paul George and Eric Bledsoe (who shares James' agent, Rich Paul) to Cleveland.

There are two misperceptions about these trade discussions. First, that they were initiated by James' camp; they weren't, multiple league sources said. And second, that Irving finding out the Cavs were trying to trade him was what pushed him to want out. Irving's agent, Jeff Wechsler, was kept fully abreast of the talks, and it was understood by all parties that if Irving wanted to stay, then he'd stay, the sources said.

But Griffin wasn't around long enough to complete any deal. In a meeting with Gilbert the Monday before the draft, it was mutually decided that they would part ways. There was a new basketball sheriff in town. His initials were D.G., but unlike Griffin, he also owned the team.

As The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor reported after Irving was dealt to the Celtics in August (the holdup being Thomas' ailing hip), Gilbert was the driving force behind the tradein large part due to how much he coveted the Celtics' unprotected first-round pick from the Nets.

Sure enough, Gilbert was spotted with Altman and several Cavs scouts at the Oklahoma-Alabama game Saturday, taking in a matchup of two top points guards in the draft, Trae Young and Collin Sexton.

Though owner Dan Gilbert reportedly tried to get a long-term commitment from LeBron James, the four-time MVP has steadfastly refused.
Though owner Dan Gilbert reportedly tried to get a long-term commitment from LeBron James, the four-time MVP has steadfastly refused.Jason Miller/Getty Images

"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."

If there's a silver lining in Cleveland, it's twofold. First, if nothing else, the meeting last Monday introduced something that had been sorely lacking within the team: communication.

"We've got to communicate better," Thomas said. "We've got to have each other's backs. We've got to trust each other on both ends of the floor. And as you can tell, that trust is not there yet."

Second, Lue may have found something useful in a lineup change he implemented for the past two games. Tristan Thompson replaced the disappointing Jae Crowder in the starting lineup, allowing Love to slide back to his natural power forward positionas opposed to enduring mismatches at both ends of the floor at the 5. Love had his second straight effective game Sunday night with 20 points on 8-of-14 shooting (4-of-6 from three-point range) with 11 rebounds against Detroit.

"I think it lets me for the most part roam kind of where I'd like and be free-flowing throughout the offense," Love told B/R. "Being out there with Tristan, we're interchangeable in terms of who we guard on the defensive end. But on the offensive end, he's more of a traditional pick-and-roll guy.

"I'm able to pick-and-pop and pick-and-roll and come off pin-downs and offensive rebound and space the floor. So I think for me, it's just being able to pick and choose where I am on the floor as far as offense goes."

But the overarching issues remain. The Cavs are older and slower than most of their opponents, and barring a deal at the trade deadline, these faults will only be magnified come playoff time.

"It's not preparation from a coaching standpoint; it's really that they're not athletic enough to compete with these younger teams that are running up and down against them," a league coaching source told B/R. "There's chemistry and effort that people question a lot, but it comes down to the athleticism of their team. These teams that they're losing to are just running them out of the gym."

The experience and leadership void created by Griffin's departure hasn't been filled, and the impact was never more evident than in this past week of avoidable controversy.

Then there's Thomas. Despite finding some rhythm Sunday night (14 points on 5-of-12 shooting with seven assists, though no minutes in the fourth quarter), he's been an awful fit so far.

Gilbert's desire to acquire a potential lottery pick from the Celtics reportedly drove him to push for the team to trade Kyrie Irving once he made his trade request.
Gilbert's desire to acquire a potential lottery pick from the Celtics reportedly drove him to push for the team to trade Kyrie Irving once he made his trade request.David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

"I'm in a new system, a totally new player that came in in the middle of January," Thomas said. "A player that's supposed to be very impactful on this organization. That's not going to work overnight. I don't care who you are.

"… I'm trying to figure out how to play with LeBron. I'm trying to figure out how to play with Kevin Love. At the same time, I'm trying to get my rhythm back in real, live action. So that's going to take time."

But the biggest issue of all? As usual, it surrounds LeBron.

As ESPN's Jackie MacMullan reported this 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 on Sunday night. He wanted no part of it.

"I got nothing to say tonight," he said.

Earlier, after this rare, joyful victory over the reeling Pistons, Kyle Korver wondered what all the drama was about. As if it wasn't obvious.

"On the inside, like, it's OK," Korver said. "On the outside, it's like, 'This thing is burning down.' It's crazy."

It is, indeed.


Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KBergNBA.