The Cleveland Cavaliers are a team that truly seems rudderless. They play well over long stretches , only to get blown out by 44. They take big leads in games, only to give them up as though 25-point leads are close games.
When you stare at the Cavs for any length of time, you see a team that lacks leaders, consistency and direction.
Throughout the season, you can point to several different issues that have been or are at root with the struggles of this team. Dan Gilbert, Chris Grant, Mike Brown and nearly every member of the team has, at one point or another, been at the center of finger-pointing, and you can take that phrase at face value, because I’m not always pointing the same finger.
The frustration is that this isn’t a bad basketball team talent-wise. Kyrie Irving has talent. Dion Waiters has talent. Tristan Thompson has talent. Yeah, even Anthony Bennett has talent. The problem? Well, if there were one, things wouldn’t be where they are right now. The Cavs are 16-29. They were 13-32 last year, but were 17-28 two seasons ago. In other words, they aren’t any better…yet.
As the Cavaliers head to New York tonight after a 1-4 road trip, you can’t help but feel this is a make-or-break road trip. Can they be a good basketball team? Do we even want them to be?
Let’s point some fingers…and feel free to use whichever finger you see fit:Dan Gilbert: I like Dan Gilbert for a lot of reasons. If I were an owner, I’d probably be a lot like him, and I know a lot of Cavs’ fans feel that way. But, let’s take a quick look at what he’s done over the years. He ran out Danny Ferry. He fired Mike Brown. He allowed LeBron James to leave without being prepared for it. He hired Chris Grant. He hired Byron Scott. He fired Byron Scott. He rehired Mike Brown.
It sounds ridiculous, and that’s not even mentioning “the letter.”
There is some of that you can’t really put on Gilbert…especially the LeBron business, but other than that, what has he done that’s made the team better?
Gilbert rolled that e-mail out the night LeBron left, and in doing so created a “honeymoon” period of sorts. It’s lasted this long, but things are starting to wane a bit. He has to be looked at for not hiring the right fits up to this point.
I’d look for him, but where has he been?
Chris Grant: I’ve said this about the Indians, and I’ll say this about the Cavs; regardless of the situation, if you are picked to be in charge of developing a winner and you don’t, you aren’t doing your job.
Sure, in Grant’s case, he’s had some really bad overall draft-pools. Sure, he’s probably picked the best available player at the spot he’s had to pick for the most part. Sure, he’s done a nice job of acquiring future assets. He’s brought in some good free agents.
That all looks good, right?
The problem with what Grant has done is that he’s brought in a group of players that don’t fit together. They don’t.
Then, you throw Anthony Bennett into the equation. Now, Bennett could still turn into a star at this point, and while many people have written him off, I haven’t.
That being said, he’s been a bust of massive proportions. You can’t blow THAT pick, have a team that doesn’t fit together, and still expect to have a job if you miss the playoffs.
When you work in a market like Cleveland, you don’t have to be perfect, but you have to be close. Think about this. Irving was the right pick, but Tristan Thompson (even though I like the pick) was a reach. Dion Waiters (even though I liked the pick) was a reach. Anthony Bennett was a reach.
I still feel he got good value, but when you are reaching that far, you should at least get chemistry fits, and that hasn’t happened.
When you incorporate that Bennett miss right now, that’s big-time misses in a market that can’t afford that.
He’s made some great trades. That Bynum contract was brilliant, by the way, and the fact that that they turned that into a two-time all-star should be applauded in that they turned not a whole lot into Deng. You can question the move’s relevance in that I don’t think the Cavs will do anything at the end of the season, but as a pure basketball move: brilliant.
Is Chris Grant the right GM in the right town?
He is if you have a coach that can fit the pieces together.
Mike Brown: The road I’ve traveled with Mike Brown this year has been a long one. When they hired him, I rolled my eyes, because it drove me nuts when he was here with the discussion about offense. Offense…offense…offense…as if he could control what LeBron James did with the baseball.
I was equally concerned that Kyrie wouldn’t mesh with Brown because of that. This is a young team, and my fear was that Brown would come rolling in with an iron fist and alienate everyone. With young players, though, you have to do it. Of course, it’s hard to teach an NBA team new tricks…especially when they are spoiled kids who know better.
So Brown got a pass from me from the start.
If you go back to October, I said I’d give him four months to control this team, and that’s a fair assessment, even with the Bynum garbage and Bennett not playing well and Dion disappearing and Kyrie disappearing and everyone not getting along, or getting along too well, depending on who and when you’ve talked to someone.
Here we are.
Is the team heading in the right direction after four months?
I just don’t think so.
You can defend Brown in that he didn’t create this team make-up, but this is the NBA, and there has to be accountability.
If he’s lost the players, or perhaps the best way to say it, if he’s never had the players, that’s his fault. Why hasn’t the team improved defensively? If you gave him credit for their improved play at the beginning of the year, you can’t then choose to not give him credit for the team’s failed consistency as the year’s progressed.
Why hasn’t the chemistry improved at least a little? An NBA coach can’t do that?
Why hasn’t Anthony Bennett done ANYTHING, until Varejao got hurt. Look, I get that Bennett came in looking like a fat tub of goo. I know he was hurt and didn’t play in the preseason. I know that he sometimes looks like he’s crawling through marshmallow fluff…but WHAT’S HE DOING, AND WHY?
Is Grant forcing you to keep him on the roster and not send him to the DLeague, so you’re just not going to play him?
Are you showing him trust by keeping him on the roster, and just not going to play him?
What’s going on Mike?
So there’s only two ways you can go with this. You either figure he’s lost the team, won’t get it back, like the team and get rid of Brown.
Or, you figure this team is a group of pouting punks, don’t fit Brown, and need to be reworked to create a team that better fits his system.
I think you can make a case for both.
My point it, Browns likely not the center of this garbage, but he’s certainly part of the issue. It’s hard to walk into the middle of a mess and clear it up quickly. When the team follows his lead, they play better for the most part. When they struggle, they abandon everything.
Brown has to take a hit here, but probably not as big as some think.
Kyrie Irving: Kyrie Irving is starting in the All-Star game, so he’s been brilliant, right? Look, I’m not going to sit here and dog Kyrie Irving for being a bad player. He’s extremely talented, can score at will when he’s on, and can certainly carry a team when things are going right. I’m not taking away his talent. He’s also only 21-years old, and while age is often overrated, there’s something to be said for a kid who’s been making millions for three years and he’s only 21.
What he’s not good at?
He may be the worst defensive guard in the NBA, and that’s not hyperbole. I don’t sit in on Cavs’ practices, nor do I have intimate knowledge on the amount of time he puts in on the defensive side of the ball. What I do know is that whatever he’s doing, it’s either the wrong thing, or not enough. I’ve never seen him defend well over longer than a few minutes, and it 100% is choice.
Any good coach will tell you that offense is gift and defense is work. Kyrie doesn’t put in the work.
There’s also absolutely no leadership ability whatsoever. Normally, I would just say he’s one of those guys that just doesn’t have that in his game. The problem is that he’s a former #1 pick, and he plays the point, and he’s spent nearly every interview this season talking about being a leader.
Here’s a thought.
Act like one.
Is it because he’s 21? Is it because he doesn’t care? Is it because he’s still maturing? Is it because he’s never going to be that leader because he’s a complimentary player? Honestly? It doesn’t really matter at this point, because this current team just isn’t any good, and Irving was drafted to do that.
Kyrie Irving is the best pure basketball player on this team, but he doesn’t make the team better.
Byron Scott: Why mention Byron Scott in this piece when he hasn’t been a part of this team in nine months? Because he might have set up Kyrie Irving to fail with how he handled him over their two seasons together. I’m not trying to kick the guy now that he’s gone, since I actually liked Scott when he was here, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t some issues with Scott that need a bit of a spotlight on.
When the Cavs drafted Kyrie Irving, Byron Scott looked to be the perfect coach for the point guard since Scott coached both Jason Kidd and Chris Paul in the past.
During their first season together, it was a lot like Kismet between the two. The team wasn’t better, but you could tell there was a bond of trust between coach and point guard that went far on the court. There wasn’t a boatload of talent, so often, Scott would give Irving the reigns and just let him go…in a similar manner that LeBron often took over the team during his days here.
Of course, I don’t have to tell you the difference between the two.
My point here is that Irving, for many, many reasons, didn’t have to answer to Scott in a way that many other players might have to answer their coach should they not run an offense three or four times in a row down the court.
Irving was the savior, the NBA Rookie of the Year, a number one pick like LeBron James, and the fans loved him. Byron Scott gave him the keys to the team and said, “Do your thing.” The problem with that is that as the team acquires more talent, an offense has to be run to incorporate them all into it.
Kyrie’s really never had to do that. He barely played at Duke, or it would have happened there.
Again, I’m not saying that Kyrie is a guy that goes off in practice, or pulls an Iverson in a grandiose fashion, but I do believe that Kyrie was given a long leash, and Scott’s the one that did it.
In their second year together, things went south. There was speculation from January on about a rift between the two, and recently, Cavs beat writer Jason Lloyd bore that out in his Irving-dismantling with regards to his All-Star selection. I’m not sure how that all plays into Irving this season, but there does seem to be a disconnect between Brown and Irving.
Luol Deng: When the Cavs dealt for Luol Deng, there was a part of me that thought I understood the move, and there was a part of me that had no clue what they were doing. On one hand, you had a ten-year veteran who has the ability to score 20 a game, grab eight boards, dish a bit, and most importantly, play defense. It didn’t hurt that he was a three.
On the other hand, he is a half-year rental, the Cavs had to give up valuable assets to get him and the move may make the Cavs just good enough to not get in the playoffs and not have a shot at a top six pick in a loaded draft.
In other words, it’s the epitome of a Cavs move.
Looking back, perhaps there was more to this move than meets the eyes. Brown, as I’ve already mentioned, walked into a team that was about as far from his defensive philosophy as you could possibly imagine. There really isn’t a guy you can point to, other than Varejao and Thompson, that understand what it takes to be a really good NBA defender.
When you combine that with a young, lazy and pouty team, you have an ugly situation.
Deng was brought in to carry Brown’s voice defensively. I have no doubt about it at this point.
I wonder if there was another, more imperative reason to bring Deng in. Deng played one season at Duke University, and led his team to the final four under Coach K…just like Irving. Deng was likely brought in as a mentor of sorts to Irving, and one that he would likely listen to because of their common background in college.
Perhaps Deng can be the on-the-court-player that shows Irving how to care about defense, as well as expecting the most out of himself and the team. I’m not saying it’s going to work, but that may be the reasoning.
Deng comes from Chicago, and this is a guy that had to deal with that moron, Joakim Noah, on a daily basis. Obviously, there have been some vocal exchanges between the teammates there. Apparently, and surprising afte the players-only meeting early in the year, the Cavs have none of that. Perhaps it’s because of all the garbage from the meeting they don’t go at each other in a constructive manner.
Deng may be too little, too late.
Tristan Thompson: Thompson is my favorite player on the team, and I wonder if he ultimately doesn’t become the heartbeat as well. He’s a guy that can defend, although that’s still a process. He’s a guy that can throw out a double-double fairly consistently (22 times this season), although that’s still a process as well.
By all indications, Thompson is fiery in practice, although you don’t always see it in games. He’s not afraid to speak his mind, and he seems to be grabbing the mantle of “vocal leader” in the locker room. Does his game have the cache to make that voice in the locker room carry onto the floor, or are we literally looking at a 12 and 10 guy that’s just a piece of the puzzle?
Right now there’s a feeling that Thompson is a microcosm of the rest of the team in that he can shrug off big losses, which is a bit of a problem right now.
Dion Waiters: He’s complicated, and he shouldn’t be.
He has as much talent with the basketball as Kyrie Irving. People will dispute that, and that’s fine, but he truly does. There are just more layers to Waiters than the others. Waiters, off the court, is clearly an emotional guy. He wants the ball to run through him. It’s his mentality.
It’s the way he was in Syracuse.
It’s the way he is in Cleveland.
I’ve been saying for a long time that I would be curious to see Dion as the Cavs starting point guard, but I’m beginning to understand why that really can’t be. You truly never know what you’re going to get from him on a night-to-night basis. Some nights he’s unstoppable. Some nights he’s non-existent. He has no clue on how to run an NBA team, and never really plays to his strengths.
There are days it clicks, and he can be special, but if I’m an NBA coach and GM, I would never center a team around him right now. I wouldn’t have said this a couple months ago, but I’d say it now: I’d deal Waiters if I could get a first round pick in return.
Here’s the thing: they can’t play on the court together. They just can’t.
They are your two best players…supposedly…and they are human black holes. The funny thing is that both can create offense for themselves, and when they have it in them…for their teammates. I’d even argue that Waiters is better at it than Irving when he is actually trying to.
Unfortunately, both rarely try, and Waiters less than Irving.
Irving is moody. Thompson is moody. Waiters goes far beyond.
Anderson Varejao: I have no problem with Varejao here, but he needs to be mentioned.
I truly feel bad that Varejao is on this basketball team. I don’t know that there’s ever been a Cavaliers’ player that plays as hard as he does all of the time. Unfortunately, he’s stuck here.
Imagine how good Varejao would be right now if injuries haven’t shred the past three seasons. You’re looking at a guy that legitimately could be a 10-12 PPG, 13-15 RPG every season. That’s all-star stuff right there.
He’s been playing 35 minutes a game, and shouldn’t be, and now he’s got a bum knee.
I love the guy as a player, and hope that the Cavs can find a deal for him that can put him on a playoff team. He deserves it…and likely shouldn’t even be in any conversation about what’s wrong with the team.
Certainly, the issues don’t end with the players I’ve mentioned here, but only serve as the beginning. The Cavs can still make the playoffs, and whether or not you question the validity of such a run, people don’t get into the NBA business to be losers year-after-year.
The question is simple. Can this team turn itself into a playoff contender this season or any season thereafter? That’s a question we’ve been asking for nearly four years now, and until it’s answered with a resounding yes, fingers will continue to point…
…and deservedly so.