The Cleveland Cavaliers, barring some very unforeseen events, know how the next few months will play out. After slogging through the second half of their regular season schedule, they’ll roll through the Eastern Conference playoffs and face the Golden State Warriors for an unprecedented third straight time in June’s NBA Finals as they attempt to defend their title.
But LeBron James sees a big problem with their potential title defense, a missing piece that has plagued them over their second-worst regular season stretch since James returned to Cleveland.
“We need a f—king playmaker,” James said.
James’s comments followed what might be the low point of a stretch in which the Cavs have lost five of their last seven games. Playing in New Orleans against a bad Pelicans team missing injured All-World forward Anthony Davis, the Cavaliers allowed 70 first-half points en route to a 124-122 loss in a game where Kyrie Irving scored 49 points in 42 minutes and LeBron James finished with a triple-double in 44 minutes.
The Cavs’ recent dismal stretch includes a blowout last week in Oakland against the Golden State Warriors and an overtime loss to the San Antonio Spurs in Cleveland on Saturday night. It’s the worst series of games for Cleveland since the Cavs lost nine of 10 during the 2014-15 season, though James sat out nearly all of those games. After Monday’s defeat, James made it clear to the team’s traveling beat writers that he’d had enough.
“We’re not better than last year,” James told those reporters in New Orleans after the game, “from a personnel standpoint.”
This is a familiar refrain from James, one he’s made repeatedly since the start of the season. Despite the fact Cleveland has an NBA-high payroll of roughly $130 million, James hasn’t been happy with the composition of the roster — specifically with a lack of playmakers besides himself and Irving.
Even after Cavaliers general manager David Griffin — widely praised for maximizing the assets he has at his disposal over the past two-plus seasons — swung a trade for sharpshooter Kyle Korver earlier this month, James immediately banged the drum for a backup point guard, something the Cavaliers have lacked ever since Mo Williams abruptly retired before the start of the season.
“I’m not saying you can just go find one, like you can go outside and see trees. I didn’t say that [to Griffin],” James said.
Even James, however, admitted he doesn’t know exactly how the Cavaliers will be able to get the playmaker they need.
And that, in the end, is the problem for Cleveland. Even as the Cavaliers stormed back from a 14-point deficit to beat the Warriors in Cleveland on Christmas Day, it was clear to those watching the game from a neutral perspective — and to Cleveland’s front office — that the Cavaliers were undermanned against their archrivals. Yes, J.R. Smith was out — and remains out — with a thumb injury, but the Cavaliers still played just eight players against Golden State that day. They used a short rotation during a part of the calendar when bench players see plenty of minutes.
Cleveland simply didn’t have enough bodies that Coach Tyronn Lue could trust against the Warriors. In the end, that’s the only thing the Cavaliers are focused on this season. So Griffin tried to add a couple of pieces to the roster, and found one by trading for Korver, one of the best spot-up shooters in the league and another option to help spread the floor for James.
Still, Korver’s addition didn’t address James’s ongoing concern: there are only two players — himself and Irving — who can create shots for others in a critical situation. When he looks at the Warriors, he sees a host of them, from Stephen Curry to Kevin Durant to Draymond Green to Klay Thompson to Andre Iguodala to Shaun Livingston.
This is why James stressed Monday that Cleveland is too top heavy, too reliant on James, Irving and Kevin Love to carry the burden for this team, even through the dog days of January and February.
“It’s great to have bodies,” James said. “Obviously, in the playoffs, you go down to what, eight [players] max? And, if somebody gets in foul trouble, you go to nine. You’re not playing back-to-backs. You have two days in between. You’re able to lock in.
“It’s like when you don’t have bodies, it’s tough . . . the f—ing grind of the regular season. We’re a top-heavy team. We have a top-heavy team. We top-heavy as s—. It’s me, [Irving], [Love]. It’s top-heavy.”
Griffin has managed to create multiple trade exceptions the Cavaliers can try to use to their advantage, and when the buyout market heats up after next month’s trade deadline, Cleveland will likely be an interesting option for any player looking to chase a championship.
But while buyout candidates can occasionally help a team, that market is unlikely to produce the kind of difference-maker James would like to find — even as he admits it’s no simple task to try to do so for a team that’s traded away multiple future first-round picks already, including one in the Korver deal.
All of this comes against the backdrop of James moving into the latter stages of his career. Now in his 14th NBA season, James — who will be 33 in December — is averaging 37.5 minutes per game this season, a number which leads the NBA at the moment, and is the most he’s averaged by over a full minute since he returned to Cleveland in 2014.
No wonder James is grumbling, and wondering why he needs to play so many minutes while falling to teams like the lowly Pelicans without their best player. And what would happen if something were to happen to either James or Irving from a health standpoint?
“For the most part, all championship-contending teams has got guys that are ready to step in,” he said. “Knock on wood, what if Ky goes down? For two weeks. Let’s say two. What if I went down for three weeks?”
Given the Cavaliers have already lost five out of seven with all of their stars available, that’s not something they want to think about. And, assuming they remain healthy, this is likely to be nothing more than a momentary blip in a long and inexorable climb back to the NBA Finals in June.
But James is already looking ahead to that impending showdown with the Warriors, and he doesn’t like what he sees.
The question now is whether Griffin and the rest of Cleveland’s front office will be able to do anything about it — and, if they can’t, will James wind up being proven right sometime this spring.
“We got to figure it out,” James said. “It’s been a s—ty 2017 so far.”