You have to be in a special kind of mess as a franchise to be playing the Knicks and be considered the more dysfunctional team in the matchup. That’s what happened to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday. The Cavs may be in the worst situation among any NBA team, a hot mess and a dumpster fire in a frigid North American winter.
There are doubts about whether their franchise cornerstone, Kyrie Irving, wants to stay with the team long term. The coach, Mike Brown, is being asked whether his players still listen to him. The man the heavily scrutinized general manager just traded two first-round picks for questioned the team’s manhood after a lopsided loss to New York. Luol Deng may not stay with the Cavs beyond this season, and Brown and general manager Chris Grant could go out with him this summer.
There are too many unhappy players, too many botched draft picks and too much negativity surrounding the Cleveland Cavaliers to simply ignore it.
It starts with their superstar, Irving, voted as an All-Star starter for this month’s game in New Orleans.
ESPN’s Chad Ford started off his weekly web chat by saying that Irving was unhappy in Cleveland and wanted out. A barrage of rumors metaphorically engulfed the Cavaliers locker room after an embarrassing 117-86 loss to the Knicks in which the defense was far worse than the lackluster effort and 35 percent shooting.
After the game, Irving addressed the issue. “It’s not about me and it’s not about this controversy surrounding do I want to privately come out when my contract is up,” he said. “I’m still in my rookie contract and I’m happy to be here and I’m pretty sure that I’m going to be here for a long time.”
He did not say that very enthusiastically, almost seeming forced or rehearsed. “There’s so much negative attention on me. I know we’re struggling but it’s not about me. It’s about our team. It’s about us fighting every day for each other, me fighting for my teammates,” Irving said in a quote pulled right from cliche central casting.
Irving will ultimately prove whether he’s happy in Cleveland with his actions. He’ll likely get offered a five-year max level contract extension this summer. All he has to do is take the money and he’ll prove he’s happy enough to stay. But the root of Irving’s reported unhappiness is likely the talent Grant has placed around him.
It’s not panning out, and it could get even uglier soon.
Luol Deng is not used to losing, and it showed in the Cavs locker room after Thursday’s loss.
Acquired from Chicago for Andrew Bynum and draft picks, Deng was supposed to be an ideal, team-first complement to Irving and a strong veteran influence to the team’s younger players. But Deng has unexpectedly struggled with the Cavs compared to how well he was playing with the Bulls.
|Deng 13-14||Min||FG %||3 FG %||Points||Reb||Assists||PER||D Rtg||O Rtg||WS/48|
Deng has gone from hitting 49 percent of his two-point shots with the Bulls to just 43.9 with the Cavs, which is the root of his field goal troubles in Cleveland. “I just haven’t made shots,” Deng said. “I’ve made some threes and I’ve missed some twos.” His defense has likely sagged because the Cavs are such a poor defensive team, but his win share numbers have dropped off quite a bit.
“You gotta fight. It’s one thing to play hard and lose and it’s another thing to just let the team do whatever they want,” Deng said. “As a person, as a man you at some point have to stand up and battle your heart out.”
Deng said they wouldn’t have lost that way if the team was at that point.
Deng, a free agent after the season, has to wonder if the team will ever get to that point as currently constructed. When asked by SheridanHoops if Deng thought about his long-term status with the team, he gave reporters a dark mean glare and said “no.”
It would be a severely damaging blow to a franchise that’s had quite the rough season.
Grant built this team to reach the playoffs this year with Eastern teams like Philadelphia, Orlando, Boston, Milwaukee and Charlotte in obvious rebuilding modes, knowing that he would likely be fired this summer if things went wrong.
Things have gone wrong. Spectacularly wrong.
The high-risk Andrew Bynum signing resulted in his trade from the team last month that was essentially a release. Jarrett Jack and Earl Clark have not made the impact management envisioned when they were signed from the Warriors and the Lakers over the summer. And then there are the draft picks.
Tristan Thompson is a solid rebounder, but not much more at this point. He’s a poor defender, having been embarrassed by J.R. Smith of the Knicks on Thursday, whose defensive rating has never been better than 108 for a full season and whose field goal percentage (45.7 percent) is not good for a big man.
Dion Waiters may never be more than a scoring 6th man off the bench, an inefficient offensive player and an even worse defender. ESPN’s Zach Lowe even made up a drinking game to emphasize how frustrating Waiters is as a player.
And then there’s Anthony Bennett. The top overall pick in last June’s draft didn’t hit a single shot from the field until his fifth NBA game, and never reached double figures in scoring until his 15-point “outburst” against New Orleans on Tuesday, his 33rd professional game. Bennett currently sports a minus-36 net rating, which is the difference between his points scored and allowed per 100 possessions. No other top overall pick had a net rating worse than minus-10 in their rookie season since Michael Olowokandi in the 1998-1999 season, making it safe to say (in this respect) that Bennett may have been the worst top pick in 15 years.
Head coach Mike Brown blames it on Bennett missing the summer with injury, slowing and possibly stunting his development. Yet Brown adamantly told reporters that the team had never considered sending Bennett to the D-League to hone his skills, saying that he was doing well in practice and that the New Orleans game started to scratch the surface of what he could do.
Is this just a random case of misplaced hubris and machismo, or one of the many signs that Grant is misguided in how to run this Cleveland franchise?
Grant whiffed on top-five picks Thompson, Waiters and now Bennett. Will Cleveland call Grant out after his third strike?
Would Deng stay even though the highly touted young talent hasn’t panned out and the team’s losing ways have continued?
There’s likely little to no chance Irving would leave if he was offered a max contract, but it’s easy to imagine how he would be extremely unhappy. He was promised a talented young core to surround him, and those promises have proven empty.
“I enjoy going out there and competing at the highest level for the Cleveland Cavaliers. That’s what it’s about,” Irving said. “I’m not saying anything to foretell the future, but I’m pretty sure the relationship I have with Dan Gilbert and management extends off the court and I enjoy being here.”
It seems like Irving will stay, but it doesn’t seem like Deng, Grant, Brown and any hope for a bright future for this team will be around at this time next year.
Shlomo Sprung is a national columnist for Sheridan Hoops who loves advanced statistics and the way they explain what happens on the court. He is also the web editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. A 2011 graduate of Columbia University’s Journalism School, he has previously worked for the New York Knicks, The Sporting News, Business Insider and other publications. His website is SprungOnSports.com. You should follow him on Twitter.