The Beyond Disappointing Cleveland Cavaliers are Running out of Answers

I’ve been putting off writing this column for a while now because I keep waiting for things to turn around with the Cleveland Cavaliers this season. But the longer I wait, the worse things get. And every time it feels like they’ve hit rock bottom they bust through that rock and find a new low. So here we are.

I had very high hopes for this team coming into the season. I talked myself into Mike Brown coming back to Cleveland because I thought he would instill a strong defensive mentality and make that the identity of the team. I rested my hat on the fact that despite how things ended for Coach Brown in LA, he’s never had a losing season and five of his six teams played at a 50+ win pace.[1] To this point he’s shown that he can get a team to play tough hard-nosed defense.

My other reason for optimism was my belief that Kyrie Irving would make the third-year jump to a superstar that we’ve seen from recent stars like Derrick Rose who won the MVP in his third season. All the factors and comparables were there to suggest that Kyrie would play like an All-NBA type player this season.

And added to those I liked the team around Irving. I love Dion Waiters and Anderson Varejao. I like Tristan Thompson and CJ Miles a lot. And when you throw Jarrett Jack and Luol Deng into the mix…what’s not to like?

Everything.

Frankly, there’s nothing to like about this team. My buddy Nick said during the latest atrocity of a basketball performance last night “I could not possibly hate this Cavs team more.” I’ve been masking it for a while now but I feel the same way. The way they have played through the first half of the season has been nothing short of embarrassing and downright disrespectful to the fans who love this franchise. And notice that said “franchise”…not “team.” This team has done nothing to earn any love from the fans. It’s not a perfect collection of pieces I’ll give you that and we’ll get into that more in a minute. But they are all talented players. You can’t use the excuse of youth anymore. The rookies hardly play, Kyrie and Tristan are in their third year. Dion and Zeller, while still young being a year and a half into their careers have logged a ton of minutes thus far for how long they’ve been in the league. Those “young guys” are supplemented with a bevy of veteran players in Varejao, Jack, Deng, Miles, and even Earl Clark—all of whom have been in the league for at least five years.

The problem isn’t the roster. Sure, it’s not built to win a championship but that was never an expectation. But there are plenty of teams currently in the place to make the playoffs in the putrid Eastern Conference whose talent pales in comparison to what Cleveland has. Have you looked at the Bobcats roster? There’s only player on that whole team who could even start on the Cavs and that would be Al Jefferson at center. Then go up the list…Toronto, Atlanta, Chicago, Brooklyn…it’s not like the Cavs are competing in the stacked Western Conference. All these East teams suck. But there’s only one team who is doing far less with more than anyone else, and that would be the Cavs.

I can’t pinpoint what the problem is exactly apart from what everyone including Coach Brown and Chris Grant have stated over the past couple days and that’s that this group of players just isn’t competing. That sure has seemed to be the case lately and was certainly the case last night as the guys in Wine jerseys stood around all night and watched the Knicks put on a dunk show for the MSG crowd on national television. Not competing is something that just doesn’t make sense to me. I was a crap player as an athlete in high school. I was no good. But I’d punch anybody in the face if they ever questioned my effort and dedication to the team. The idea that someone who seemingly has had to work hard to get themselves to the place where they are playing professional sports can step onto the field of play and not hardly try is infuriating. I realize that playing in the NBA is a job to these guys and all that. But the levels that this team has sunk to with their lack of effort on a nightly basis goes so far beyond just your typical “bad day at work” narrative. We’ve all had work days were we can’t say we gave everything we’ve had at our jobs…but three months of slacking off???

The problem on the surface I guess is probably just that very thing: they aren’t working hard. But there has to be something going on behind the scenes that is leading to this. The players keep saying all the right things about how they’re working hard for each other and how they support Coach Brown and all that. But it certainly doesn’t look or feel that way.

It might be just as simple as that the players on this team don’t like each other.

Remember those last couple years of LeBron and the camaraderie that team had? They would have all these elaborate dap sessions going around. They were constantly dancing and chest-pumping. Taking faux pregame team photos. Even when LeBron brought up the entire team to accept the MVP with him. You genuinely believed watching that team that they loved each other. You got the sense that no matter what came up in their way that they would have each other’s back.[2] This team feels completely the opposite. This team feels like a bunch of disgruntled union factory workers who only come to their job to punch a ticket and go home in eight hours when their shift is done. They seem to derive no joy from playing the sport of basketball.

Much of the blame for this season rightfully should fall on the two individuals I mentioned at the outset: Coach Brown and Kyrie.

Mike Brown has done an awful job with this team. His handling of No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett has been puzzling at best, insane at worst. Why it took them three months into the season to come to the realization that the guy needed to get minutes to get himself into shape to be able to contribute is beyond me. I wrote this very thing all the way back on November 20th. He’s jerked around his minutes and his position and has never allowed Bennett to get into any sort of a rhythm in his rookie season.

Brown’s general dealing with the roster as a whole has been puzzling. Trying to play Earl Clark at small forward was a doomed experiment from the start. Then after switching him back to power forward and the bench and watching him actually play well for a stretch, it was back to the three and more futility.

Brown spent a lot of time at the beginning of the season talking about how Dion was a shooting guard and that he was definitely a starter. It wasn’t long into the season though before Waiters was coming off the bench where he has at times basically been the point man with Jack playing off the ball.

Brown’s dealing with the rotation on a game-to-game basis has bordered on completely random. I noted on Twitter during the Pelicans game on Tuesday night some of the oddities. Bennett had been completely out of the rotation for almost three weeks, then with Andy out and Zeller starting, the rook became a part of the rotation again. Only he wasn’t just back in the rotation, he was the only backup big in said rotation. Clark was completely cut out. Even more puzzling was what Brown did to “rotate” his bigs in the first half. Tristan and Zeller started. Then Bennett came in for Zeller. When Tristan came out Zeller came in. Now the logical thing to do when Tristan re-entered the game would be for Bennett to come out. That’s how a “rotation” works. But nevermind logic of course, Zeller came out instead and Bennett stayed. The ten first half minutes for Bennett were twice as many as he’d had total in the previous seven games combined. They also represented the most minutes he’d played in a game in almost a month. And mind you this was just in the first half. He would go on to play 31 minutes total, 11 more than he’d ever played in an NBA game to that point. And this is just one example of the seeming randomness at which Brown rotates his players in and out of games and how there seems to be no consistency on a nightly basis.

I could write a whole post about how CJ Miles is one of the most important players on the Cavs. From an advanced metrics standpoint it could be argued that he’s the second most important player on the team behind Andy. Yet Miles’ minutes get jerked around more than anybody’s. I’m gonna run back the past month for how many minutes Miles has played in each game: 28, 31, 37, 31, 24, 25, 15, 12, 38, 27, 20, 15, 20, 12, 13. He went from getting in the 25-30 minute range all the way down to 15 in one game. Then two games later it was all the way up to 38. Three games after that it’s all the way down to 15 again. Does this make sense to anyone? Is it just me? I can’t be the only who finds it odd when Miles will play only like five minutes in the second half of games.

Then there’s the new addition, All-Star small forward Luol Deng…the guy who was supposed to solve so many of the defensive and wing issues that have plagued this team. And yet, a guy who has had success in this league as a slasher and working out of the post and actually doing things on the offensive end, Deng has basically been relegated to a spot-up shooter. And the team defense as a whole hasn’t improved since he joined the team either.

And of course the defense. Brown bragged over the summer about how he’d had a top defense with guys like Damon Jones, Mo Williams, and Donyell Marshall. Yet now he has a team with similar pieces and even some fine to very good defenders in Deng, Thompson, and Varejao and yet the team coached by a supposed “defensive genius” is in the bottom half of the league. You can live with crappy offense if you have a dominant defense. But when your defense sucks it makes the lack of offense even more glaring.

But the biggest issue to me is the lack of leadership. At some point the lack of effort of the players has to fall back on the coach. If the players aren’t working hard and competing then the coach needs to find a way to motivate his players to do so. But instead of motivating them to play harder and better it appears from watching them play that they’ve gone the other way instead. As soon as a game starts to turn they just give up. I wish that instead of benching all the starters late in these blowouts that Brown would keep them all out there so that they have to play out and fully experience the mess they’ve made of this team and these games.

Remember the botched execution scene from The Green Mile where Percy didn’t wet the sponge and it led to one of the most gruesome scenes where the criminal being electrocuted just screamed and fried for several minutes to the horror of everyone watching? (You can watch it on YouTube here if you can stomach it.) Tom Hanks’ character grabbed Percy and made him watch what he had done. He made sure that the reality of his devilish behavior truly sunk into Percy. That’s what I want Coach Brown to do. Make these guys experience the pain of being a laughing stock of the league. Read them every negative quote writers are penning about them. Play them the audio of every one of these broadcasts and let them hear how the commentators are lambasting their effort. But especially make them play out the string in this pathetic losses instead of allowing them to go sit at the end of the bench with towels on their heads. Make sure the bitter taste of losing really sinks in.

From the outside it looks like they’ve completely tuned the coach out. And it certainly doesn’t help that the top culprit is also the most talented player on the team…

Kyrie is a phenomenally talented player. He’s a star. Anyone who denies that isn’t paying attention. But he’s a star only so far as that he’s crazy talented and super popular (voted in as an All-Star starter) because he’s a dazzling player to watch. Every night he provides highlight worthy plays on offense. He can shoot, drive, dish, finish at the rim…he can do everything you would want on offense. But he doesn’t play defense. After showing some improvement to start the season he’s reverted of late to his lazy play on the non-offensive side of the court. I call it that because I’m pretty sure that’s how Kyrie views it. Defense is just that part of the game in between offensive sets where he can showcase his skills. I don’t know that Kyrie is a selfish player necessarily but he certainly has a long way to go to be a true “team player.” I’ve been willfully blind to the notion that Kyrie basically freezes out Dion when they’re on the court together. But it’s becoming more and more obvious and increasingly difficult to ignore how Kyrie would rather do everything on offense himself than allow his backcourt mate to help out from time to time. Dion isn’t as talented as Kyrie. That much is obvious. But we’ve seen plenty of times this season where Dion has taken over games and shown that he’s certainly capable of carrying the team offensively. He also works a heck of a lot harder than Kyrie most of the time and sure seems to care more about winning and losing. A lot of that might be just their personalities, but I can’t get over the thought in my mind that if Kyrie had Dion’s passion he’d be a much better player.

Whether he likes it or not, the Cavs need Kyrie to be a leader. In the NBA that’s how it works. The star player on the team is the de facto leader. It took LeBron a while to buy into that fact. Incidentally it was under Coach Brown that LeBron finally realized not just his defensive potential but also his leadership potential as well. But for Kyrie it seems like he’s resisting his coach rather than embracing his teaching. Kyrie still says all the right things and talks about being a leader. But none of that manifests itself on the court. Instead Kyrie mopes around when he’s playing poorly, looks pissed when his teammates miss shots (especially when he’s passed them the ball), and often looks disinterested during team huddles. I think we all keep waiting for the switch to flip and for Kyrie to start being a leader. But it just isn’t happening. I’m not saying he can’t grow into that role. But nothing we’ve seen from him to this point has given us any reason to believe that he even cares about being a leader. Evidently being a team leader won’t boost the Kyrie Irving brand enough to be worth the trouble.

I think I’ve run out of energy lambasting this team. I can’t fully express how much of a disappointment they are. I had reasonably high expectations for them. Given how terrible the rest of the East is there’s no reason why shouldn’t be in the thick of the playoff race. I’d even go as far as to say that if they fully reached their potential that they could be as high as third in the conference. But they’re not just coming short of their potential they’re going completely the opposite reaction.

It is often said of great teams that they are greater together than the sum of their individual parts. This Cavaliers team is the complete antithesis of that idea. Instead of working together to make themselves great as a whole unit they seem to be fighting against each other and bringing each other down. It’s sad really.

But it’s mostly sad for the dedicated fans who have stuck with this team and supported them through the past three years of tanking losing because of a lack of talent. The fans deserve better than what the players are giving. I’ll even go as far as to say the players don’t deserve how great the fans have been.

I’m generally not a fan of booing your own players because typically it stems out of frustration for them just being bad. I never understood why Browns fans would mercilessly boo Brandon Weeden. It wasn’t like the guy was sucking on purpose. He worked hard, but his shortcomings as a player kept him from being a good QB. Booing him certainly didn’t help anything either. I’m pretty sure he already knew he wasn’t any good. He had a fragile enough psyche as it was that the booing seemed to make him play worse. I never understand booing players who are actually trying.

But in the case of the Cavs? I fully endorse it. If I was going to be at The Q when they come home next Wednesday I’d boo them with every fiber of my being during the pregame introductions and all throughout the game till my voice gave out. This group of players doesn’t deserve the support of the fans until they actually start working hard and coming within a mile of reaching their potential.

I don’t know exactly what needs to change. I don’t know if they need to start benching guys, trading them, cutting them…I’m at a loss. Like I said at the beginning: I just keep waiting for them to click and figure it out. But it’s not getting any better…it’s just getting worse every game.

“Disappointment” doesn’t even begin to quantify how I feel about this Cavs team.


[1] The lockout season Lakers only won 41 games but their pace was 50+ if it would have been a full season.

[2] Anecdotally this is also what made LeBron leaving such a bitter pill to swallow. I really believed that he loved his teammates and looked at them like brothers. But a brother wouldn’t do what LeBron did to his teammates.

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