Since last summer, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been playing catch-up with the rest of the NBA. Once the Cavaliers chose to trade Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics, they have been engaged in a race against time to get whole before the postseason begins.
Lately, in a season in which the team hopes to make a run at a fourth consecutive NBA Finals, it’s simply been one thing after another.
Their season hit yet another snag Monday, when the Cavaliers announced Coach Tyronn Lue would be leaving the team for an undetermined period of time to address the health issues that have plagued him virtually the entire season.
In a statement, Lue said this leave of absence is intended to create the opportunity for him to return to coaching the Cavaliers this season. Sources said the goal — or, more accurately, the hope — is for Lue to get healthy and return to the team well before the start of the playoffs, which begin in less than four weeks.
Even if that occurs, nothing else has gone according to plan for the Cavaliers this season. A campaign that was always going to be defined by the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming free agency of LeBron James has become more like a death march, with Cleveland trudging from one issue to the next.
Yes, the Cavs still have a valuable unprotected first-round pick in the upcoming NBA draft (via the Brooklyn Nets), which they hope will either net them a star to pair with James or serve as the bridge to a future without him. But the players Cleveland received in exchange for Irving — Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder — were expected to help them this season and instead turned into unmitigated disasters.
Thomas missed the first 2 1/2 months of the season recovering from a hip injury, then struggled mightily and made several controversial comments to the media. Crowder — whose mother died the same day he was traded to Cleveland — never came close to the form he displayed under Coach Brad Stevens in Boston, repeatedly discussing how uncomfortable he felt within Cleveland’s offense.
Both were shipped out of town on trade deadline day — Thomas to the Los Angeles Lakers, Crowder to the Utah Jazz — as Cleveland reshuffled its deck and brought in four new players — George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr.
Despite a hot start with the new guys that provided hope that the Cavs had discovered a second wind, Cleveland has been virtually the same team since the trade deadline (9-7, good for a .563 winning percentage) as it was before (31-22, .585).
Before the season, if Cleveland was hovering in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, the assumption would have been James — in his 15th NBA season — had finally missed significant time with an injury. But the most remarkable thing about all of the chaos and drama that’s engulfed the Cavaliers this season is that James hasn’t missed a moment of it.
James, who has never played all 82 games in a season, will go 70 for 70 when the Cavaliers take on the Milwaukee Bucks at home Monday night.
Speaking of the Bucks, there’s more than a bit of irony in them being the opponent for Cleveland in associate head coach Larry Drew’s first game in place of Lue. Drew spent nearly two decades as a journeyman NBA assistant — following a decade as a journeyman NBA player — before getting a chance as the head man first with the Atlanta Hawks for three seasons, and then with the Bucks in 2013-14.
After that first season in Milwaukee, though, he was shoved aside for Jason Kidd — with both Drew and General Manager John Hammond having no idea ownership, which had prior ties to Kidd, had begun pursuing him.
Their confusion was understandable, given Kidd already had a job at the time — as coach of the Brooklyn Nets.
But Drew was displaced by Kidd and eventually joined the Cavaliers as part of David Blatt’s coaching staff later that summer.
Now, after being part of three straight trips to the NBA Finals and winning a championship in 2016, Drew suddenly finds himself at the helm of a team with no sense of direction and plenty of problems to address.
He’ll have a healthy James, but not much else. Cleveland, which has been dealing with an injury crisis for weeks now, has at least four players — Hood, Nance, Tristan Thompson and Cedi Osman — who will miss Monday’s game. The Cavaliers will get back Kevin Love, who had been out more than six weeks with a broken hand, and Kyle Korver, who missed Saturday’s game in Chicago and has been dealing with a sore right foot.
Cleveland has only had its full roster on a handful of occasions this season — and, with Love having been out since before the trade deadline moves, hasn’t had its current roster whole at any point. The Cavaliers remain a wretched defensive team, ranking 28th in the league by allowing 109.5 points per 100 possessions.
No team in NBA history has ever made the NBA Finals while being that easy to score against.
In truth, the only reason to keep any faith in Cleveland’s ability to extend its Finals streak to four straight appearances — and to increase James’s personal streak to eight — is the presence of the game’s greatest player on its roster. Nothing else in the Cavaliers’ profile, from injury issues to lack of time together to on-court production, can justify it.
And that was before Monday, when Lue’s departure became the latest setback for a Cavaliers team that has to lead the league in them.
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