LeBron James pulled no punches after the Cleveland Cavaliers’ disappointing Monday night loss to the Anthony Davis-less New Orleans Pelicans. In lamenting a run that had seen the defending NBA champions lose five times in seven games, the four-time NBA Most Valuable Player proclaimed his team “not better than last year, from a personnel standpoint” and “top-heavy as s***,” making it very plain that he believes the Cavs need an infusion of talent: “We need a f***ing playmaker.”
Despite an after-the-fact Twitter clarification (of sorts) that he wasn’t firing shots, James’ strong words certainly seemed to apply public pressure to David Griffin. The Cavaliers general manager pulled off midstream deals in each of the last two seasons — importing J.R. Smith, Timofey Mozgov and Iman Shumpert before the 2015 trade deadline, adding sniper Channing Frye at the 2016 deadline — to help propel Cleveland to the NBA Finals, but the NBA is a “what have you done for me lately?” kind of enterprise, and when James derides the Cavs’ roster as perilously thin, Griffin’s the one who must face the questions about how he plans to bulk it up.
Griffin told reporters before the Cavs’ Wednesday home game against the Sacramento Kings that he’d spoken with James about his remarks, that he found the suggestion that the organization might be “satisfied” with last year’s achievements to be off-the-mark, and that from where he sits, off-court self-satisfaction hasn’t been Cleveland’s problem. From Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com:
“The comment about the organization being complacent I think is really misguided,” Griffin said. “Organizationally there is absolutely no lack of clarity on what our goal set is. We are here to win championships and there is no other solution, there is no other outcome that is acceptable and there never has been. But in terms of the on-the-court complacency, I’ve seen a lot of that.” […]
“We’re a team that will create an opportunity for ourselves to have to dig out of a hole,” Griffin said. “We do it in every single game. It’s just how we are. We’re not good from the front. We’re much better when we’re the hunter. I see us every year put ourselves in position to have to fight out of something. It’s what we’ve done as a team and it’s hard for me to tell you we’re dealing with a lot of adversity when we’re No. 1 in the East. But we have a tendency to be our best when our backs are against the wall so I have no reason to believe that won’t be true now.”
More from Griffin, via Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:
Griffin said he hadn’t spoken to majority owner Dan Gilbert about James’ comments, but the team’s executives were clearly irked. “It certainly wasn’t appropriate from a teammate perspective,” Griffin said. […]
Griffin said he doesn’t think James said outright that the organization was not committed to winning a title, but: “Anyone insinuating that this organization is about anything other than that would deeply upset me because ownership has invested in this at an absolutely historic level.”
Only Mikhail Prokhorov keeps Griffin from being dead-on there. Since LeBron’s return, Gilbert has ponied up for maximum-salaried contracts for James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, plus pricey deals for Tristan Thompson, Shumpert and Smith. The Cavs sent the league a $54 million luxury tax check after last season; even after the meteoric spike in this season’s salary cap due to the influx of money from the league’s $24 billion broadcast rights deal, Cleveland’s league-leading $127.5 million payroll means Gilbert is currently $14.3 million over the tax line, on the hook for another $27 million tax payment come the end of the season.
And yet, it’s the money the Cavs didn’t spend that seems to be at the top of James’ mind. Namely, what it would have cost to either retain reserve center Mozgov (who got a stunning four-year, $64 million deal from the Los Angeles Lakers) and backup point guard Matthew Dellavedova (who got $38 million over four years to join the Milwaukee Bucks) or replace them with more credible contributors than veteran-minimum center Chris “Birdman” Andersen (since lost for the season to a torn right ACL) and rookie second-round pick Kay Felder (on whom James, intending “no disrespect,” said the Cavs can’t rely “to help us win a playoff game right now”).
According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, the decision to go with lower-cost and less experienced options on the back end of the roster rather than using any means necessary to restock the cupboard at any cost might smack James as something of a breach of trust:
When James was considering a return to the Cavs in 2014, he pressed Gilbert on if he’d be willing to spend unconditionally on talent, regardless of the luxury-tax cost, sources said. Over the course of several meetings with James and his representatives, Gilbert agreed, and James subsequently signed with the team. […]
When the Cavs traded for Kyle Korver earlier this month, they saved several million by reducing payroll and also opened a roster spot. The team has elected to leave the spot open for the past three weeks.
If the Cavs were to add a player, it would cost them the new salary plus an additional $2.50 per dollar in tax for roughly the next $600,000 they would spend. After that, the penalty would increase to $3.25 in tax per new dollar spent.
In addition to the open roster spot that could be used to sign a player, the Cavs have several trade exceptions — including one for $4.8 million and one for $4.4 million — that could be used to acquire players. The team also has the option to execute a player-for-player trade that could increase payroll.
Griffin said those options remain on the table, but he also made it clear he didn’t feel the team needed to spend.
On one hand, it seems off-base for James to ding Griffin for insufficient support at the bottom of the roster when the GM has done what was necessary to keep the Cavs’ core together for another title push. On the other, though, the imperative to maximize every single roster move is part of the bargain the Cavs signed up for when they brought LeBron home. And to be fair, it’s hard to blame James for feeling spread thin.
Last year, he averaged a career-low 35.6 minutes per game during the regular season. This time around, despite much preseason chatter about the importance of limiting LeBron’s minutes with an eye toward the playoffs as he works through his 14th season, he’s averaging a league-leading 37.6 minutes a night. He’s logged 44 or more minutes in each of the Cavs’ last three games, and Cleveland lost all of them, two in overtime, including a Wednesday loss to the Kings that saw the Cavs fall for the sixth time in eight games despite James posting his fifth triple-double of the season:
After the game, a frustrated James was feeling less talkative than he was on Monday, according to Tom Withers of the Associated Press:
Following the latest troubling loss, James quickly dressed and answered a handful of questions before heading home.
“We gotta get better,” he said. “That’s all.” […]
While Griffin said he was pleased with the meeting, James refused to characterize the talk.
“I’m just trying to win ballgames,” James said. “That’s all that matters.”
On that score, he and Griffin are on the same page. But while James remains insistent that his GM needs to move whatever assets he can — of which there aren’t many, with the Cavs unable to move a first-round pick until 2021 and with few cost-effective players who could be shipped out without significantly changing Cleveland’s core — to get more help yesterday, Griffin seems unwilling to chase a transaction that might cost the Cavs dearly down the line just to placate his superstar now. More from McMenamin:
What Griffin would say was that James’ call for action will not have any effect on his pre-existing plans to address the roster as he deems fit.
“Nothing changes our timeline,” Griffin said. “Nothing changes our game plan and we’re still working the same avenues and we’ll continue to do so.” […]
“I think we have enough if everyone plays significantly better, but we have a very fine margin for error right now,” Griffin said. “I would like to have a greater margin for error, I would like to be more protected against injury in different positions. But if we were 100 percent healthy going into any series I feel pretty good about our situation. We just have a very small margin for error.”
As Griffin works to increase that margin, though, head coach Tyronn Lue says his Cavs — who have allowed a whopping 110.3 points per 100 possessions during their 2-6 slide, and who missed 17 free throws as a team in a four-point loss to Sacramento — have to do their part in the here and now. From Withers of the AP:
“For me, you always want to try to improve the team whether you’re great or not,” Lue said. “Golden State won 73 games last year and they added Kevin Durant. You always want to get better and when you see teams getting better as a competitor you want to get better. But we have enough on this team to win a championship. We can get better. I know Griff is going to make us better and he’s going to do the best he can.
“For me, LeBron James, the best player in the world, took a team that was worse to the NBA Finals two years ago. We have a good team. We just have to start playing better as a unit. No excuses.”
That didn’t happen Wednesday. Until it does, expect James to keep calling for reinforcements, and for Griffin’s gig to keep getting tougher.
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