Before the earth-shattering report emerged that he had requested a trade, Kyrie Irving told Sports Illustrated that the Cavaliers are “in a peculiar place.” At the time, Cleveland was coming off a month of missed free agent opportunities, weird low-impact signings, and a futile search for a new GM. Now, after ESPN reported last week that Kyrie wants out, “peculiar” seems like an understatement.
If you’re a Cleveland fan, you’ve probably spent the summer sitting there like the “This is fine” dog. How did a team that has gone to three straight Finals turn so dysfunctional? Let’s take a look at what led up to the Cavs’ current state.
Who’s driving this thing?
Just one week after the Finals ended, Cleveland announced they would be parting ways with GM David Griffin. In his 12 years as an owner, Dan Gilbert has never extended a GM’s contract, not even for Griffin, who engineered the Wiggins-Love trade and helped bring the Cavaliers their first title (I hear LeBron may have had something to do with this too). Gilbert clearly doesn’t value the GM position and may have lowballed Griffin during their extension talks. With free agency heating up, this could not have happened at a worse time.
Chauncey Billups emerged as a top candidate to replace Griffin, but Gilbert proceeded to lowball him as well. One month after Griffin left, the Cavs still didn’t have a new GM. On Monday, Cleveland finally announced assistant GM Koby Altman would be taking over the reins.
Griffin’s departure and the lack of a replacement left everyone in disarray. LeBron was clearly pro-Griffin and it’s possible front office instability was a factor in Kyrie’s decision to ask for a trade. For the last month, it seemed like no one had their hands on the wheel in Cleveland.
Close, but no cigar
Without anyone in the GM position, the Cavs missed out on two pieces that could’ve been instrumental in challenging the Warriors. According to USA TODAY Sports, they were thisclose to making a deal for Jimmy Butler on the day Griffin left. It fell through and, of course, Butler will not be wearing a Cavs jersey next season.
In a similar story recently reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojarnowski (it’s weird seeing Woj’s full name, isn’t it?), Indiana was just about to give Paul George permission to talk to Dan Gilbert before ultimately pulling out of the deal in order to trade him to OKC. Indiana’s embarrassment of riches in return? Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis… Apparently the Pacers thought it was better to get fleeced by Sam Presti than to send George to a title contender.
This had to be bitterly disappointing for Cavs fans. Butler or George would’ve been exactly what they needed to counter the Warriors. Both are athletic scorers who play stellar defense, perfect for going up against Klay and/or Durant. Cleveland could’ve trotted out a lineup of Kyrie-JR-Butler/George-LeBron-Tristan. That starting five stands a much better chance to combat Golden State’s world-conquering lineup. Of course, the million-dollar Sliding Doors question is if Kyrie changes his mind about leaving if they land Butler or George. We’ll never know.
After falling to the nearly-invincible Warriors in five games, you’d assume Dan Gilbert and his organization would be doing all they can to bring in reinforcements to better match up against Golden State. That hasn’t happened. Instead, Cleveland had added a few lukewarm pieces that won’t make much of a difference in a hypothetical fourth consecutive Warriors-Cavs Finals.
First, they signed Jose Calderon, who will be 36 next season and is most likely thoroughly washed up. Sure, he can handle the ball and knock down some open 3s (career 41% 3-point shooter), but he can’t play defense and he certainly won’t be on the court much against the Warriors. Next.
Then they signed NBA enigma Jeff Green. Drafted 5th overall in 2007, Green has bounced around the league and now finds himself on a contender. Last season in Orlando was possibly the worst of his career from an efficiency standpoint, and, like their other two signings, he isn’t exactly known for his defense.
Yesterday, Cleveland officially signed Derrick Rose. Sigh. While D-Rose will be able to provide some offensive firepower, he’s a weird fit next to LeBron. He can’t shoot from 3, so defenses don’t have to worry much about covering him when LeBron has the ball. Rose also has limited defensive skills, which means he doesn’t bring much value in a matchup against Golden State.
While all of these players come relatively cheap, none of them are bringing Cleveland much closer to knocking off Golden State. It’s still possible the Cavs will get a pile of riches in return for Kyrie (although not probable considering the returns for Butler and George), but as currently constructed, this is not a team designed to take out the Warriors.
LeBron to LA looms
Even before the Kyrie news, there was a specter that loomed over the Cavs’ offseason. It’s not one Cleveland wants to acknowledge, but it’s there nonetheless: LeBron playing in Los Angeles next year. The uncertainty over LeBron’s future in Cleveland has contributed to the team’s dysfunction. It likely played a part in Kyrie wanting to move on now, as opposed to getting left behind next season.
One of the league’s best duos, LeBron and Kyrie once seemed like they were set up for several years of Eastern Conference dominance, with LeBron aging gracefully into his 30s as Kyrie entered his prime and took over primary control of the offense. Now they are on the verge of splitting up after three successful, yet not-so-secretly dissatisfied years.
Where does this leave the LeBron-to-LA rumors? We already know LeBron has a shaky relationship with Gilbert (you haven’t forgotten about the infamous Comic Sans Letter, have you?). Now with Griffin gone and Kyrie on the way out, it would seem to be even more likely for LeBron to head to the West Coast. He brought Cleveland its championship and now this team is coming apart at the seams.
What was once a strange summer for a title contender has morphed into full-on dysfunction. The latest reports claim Kyrie believes it was LeBron’s camp that leaked his trade request. Who knows if there’s any truth to that, but one thing is for certain: Cleveland’s crazy summer isn’t over yet.