- Kirk Irwin/Getty
- The Cleveland Cavaliers are 3-10 since Christmas and in the midst of an implosion.
- The Cavs reportedly had a fiery team meeting in which several players yelled at Kevin Love for leaving a game sick and missing practice.
- One report called the locker room “divided,” while another suggested the team needed to make changes.
- The Cavs are said to be involved in trade talks, but it’s unclear whether even a big trade could save their season.
LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are in a tailspin unlike anything we’ve seen from them.
While January slumps have become the norm for the LeBron-led Cavaliers, this year seems worse.
Since Christmas, the Cavs are 3-10. Their defense has fallen all the way to 29th in the league, and they are just 0.1 point per 100 possessions better defensively than the 14-33 Sacramento Kings.
In fact, given their season, the Cavs’ above-.500 record looks a little fluky. The Cavs began the season 5-7 before rattling off a 13-game win streak and 20-2 overall stretch. It seemed then as if the Cavs had righted the ship, but, in retrospect, only four of those wins came against teams that today would qualify for the playoffs.
Beyond the on-court futility, the Cavs’ internal state doesn’t seem to be much better. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Monday that the Cavs had a fiery team meeting in which much of the team directed ire at Kevin Love for leaving a game sick and then missing practice the next day. While the team reportedly accepted Love’s explanation, Wojnarowski said much of the locker room remained divided.
That may have undersold things. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst on Tuesday told ESPN Radio that it was one of the most intense incidents with the team since James returned to Cleveland in 2014.
“Nobody had their cool yesterday – it was really, really intense,” Windhorst said, adding, “If yesterday went as bad as I heard it, they have to make changes just to shake things up, just to try to get the team refocused.”
Tuesday night, the Cavaliers didn’t do much to show they had solved anything in the team meeting. In a 114-102 loss to the short-handed San Antonio Spurs, the Cavs stood out mostly for barely trying on defense.
After the game, Cavs coach Ty Lue said he would look into possible changes to the Cavs’ starting lineup. The team’s latest starting five, of James, Love, Isaiah Thomas, J.R. Smith, and Jae Crowder, has a net rating of -22.8, meaning it is outscored by 22.8 points per 100 possessions.
Dwyane Wade, while congratulating James for scoring his 30,000th career point in the loss to the Spurs, referred to the Cavs’ recent stretch as “the darkness we’re experiencing as a team.”
The problem for the Cavs is the number of their major role-players who are having disappointing seasons. Smith, for the second year in a row, is shooting below 38% from the field. Crowder, one of the big acquisitions in the Kyrie Irving trade, is shooting his worst percentage from the field since his rookie season and hasn’t defended up to snuff. Tristan Thompson, relegated to the bench with Love at center, has lost his trademark hustle and savvy on the boards.
Thomas and Love have shouldered blame for the Cavs’ recent woes, perhaps unsurprisingly. Thomas missed seven months of action with a hip injury so worrisome that the Cavs almost didn’t trade for him. He has been rusty this season and is still learning the give-and-take of sharing the ball with James. Love has put together a fine offensive season but has been badly miscast as a rim protector on defense.
Windhorst reported that a trade for Kings guard George Hill was at the “1-yard line” and seemed likely to go through. Hill is a long, versatile guard who can handle the ball and spread the floor. His defense, once one of his calling cards, has slipped this season, though perhaps he would ramp up the effort for a team in the playoff hunt. He’d be a welcome addition to the Cavs.
And if the Cavs pull off the Hill deal for the reported price – Iman Shumpert, Channing Frye, and a draft pick (most likely a second-rounder) – they’ll still have their first-round pick and the valuable Brooklyn Nets pick to offer in a trade to address other needs.
Midseason trades have rejuvenated slumping teams before – the Cavs experienced this in 2014-2015 when they traded for Smith, Shumpert, and Timofey Mozgov in the midst of a spiral. While new blood could help turn things around, some of the problems will still persist.
The Cavs haven’t defended at a high level in years; they look incapable of changing that this year. James is a year older, and his hot 3-point shooting has predictably fallen back to earth. Barring any dramatic trades, this team still has less shooting and defense than last year’s team that lost to the Golden State Warriors in the Finals in five games.
How the Cavs move forward remains to be seen. Some big trades and some return to the mean from players like Thomas, Smith, and Crowder could have the Cavs looking more the way they did in December.
But the Cavs are just four games ahead of eighth place in the East. That doesn’t bode well for a team with its eyes on the Warriors, and it looks even worse ahead of a bigger date: James’ free agency.