The Cleveland Cavaliers’ Big Three combined for 97 points on Monday, including a triple-double from LeBron James and 49 points from Kyrie Irving. The defending NBA champions still somehow lost to the New Orleans Pelicans sans Anthony Davis.
James played all but four minutes, Irving all but six, and yet the Cavs lost their fifth game in seven tries for the first time since LeBron returned to Northeast Ohio. And the four-time MVP isn’t happy about it, not in the slightest.
James spared Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue from much criticism for his heavy minutes load, if only because, “What else are we going to do?” But his teammates didn’t escape the wrath, and Cleveland general manager David Griffin fared even worse in LeBron’s lengthy plea to reporters for more playmaking help beyond Irving and Kevin Love.
Getting right to the point, James said, “It’s been a s***** 2017 so far.” And that was only the beginning:
“We’re not better than last year, from a personnel standpoint … we’re a top-heavy team. I just hope that we’re not satisfied as an organization,” James said of winning the franchise’s first-ever NBA championship, according to the Akron Beacon Journal’s Jason Lloyd. “I just hope we not satisfied. How hard it was to do that s***. I just hope we’re not satisfied.”
James added following the 124-122 loss in New Orleans, via ESPN.com’s Dave McMenamin: “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.”
LeBron listed Los Angeles Clippers guard Raymond Felton and Milwaukee Bucks forward Michael Beasley as veterans on minimum contracts who could have helped extend Cleveland’s bench in the absence of the injured J.R. Smith and departed Mo Williams, whose abrupt retirement this past offseason elicited this from James on Monday night: “We got f***ed with that.” LeBron even mentioned 36-year-old Dahntay Jones, a seldom-used member of last year’s team, as someone who could help.
All of this was a not-so-veiled shot at rookie second-round pick Kay Felder and D-League pickup DeAndre Liggins, both of whom have seen significant minutes on the defending champs and neither of whom James sees fit for another playoff run. Here’s more from James via the Akron Beacon Journal:
“No disrespect to DeAndre and to Kay, you think we can rely on them to help us win a playoff game right now? And it’s no disrespect to them. But it’s like, it’s not fair to them.”
“It’s tough for Coach because we’re in the process of trying to win a f***ing championship. It would’ve been unfair to [Matthew Dellavedova] to ask him his rookie year to play on a championship-level team. So that’s why you got guys in front of him that allows him to [grow]. We telling Kay to be a backup point guard to a f***ing superstar right now, instead of being a backup point guard to a guy that’s proven in the league. You know what I’m saying?”
James has been steaming about the team’s lack of a legitimate backup point guard and a rim-protecting big man for some time now, and frustration boiled over after recent losses to the title-contending Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs (the latter of which also saw James and Irving play more than 40 minutes). The Warriors added Zaza Pachulia, David West and JaVale McGee on short money this past summer, just as the Spurs did with David Lee and Dewayne Dedmon. These guys aren’t exactly playmakers, but they are bodies, and James seems envious of the depth they provide.
Meanwhile, the Cavs (understandably) let Dellavedova and Timofey Mozgov walk for a combined $102.4 million in free agency, and then replaced them with Felder and Chris Andersen, whose torn ACL last month ended his season. If LeBron’s cathartic postgame interview seems like a wakeup call to Griffin, that’s because it is, and James insists it’s not the first time he’s addressed this subject with the Cavs GM:
“I ain’t got no problems with the front office,” said James, via the Akron Beacon Journal. “I told (Griffin) to his face, so it ain’t like I’m telling y’all to put it on record. I see Griff all the time. One thing about me, if I got something to say, I’m going to tell it to your face. We need a f***ing playmaker. I’m not saying you can just go find one, like you can go outside and see trees. I didn’t say that.”
“For the most part, all championship-contending teams has got guys that are ready to step in. Knock on wood, what if Ky goes down? For two weeks. Let’s say two. What if I went down for three weeks?”
When most teams lose their best or second-best player for extended time — in this case the greatest basketball player in the world and a four-time All-Star — it’s going to put a strain on the roster. Golden State is one possible exception to that rule, and perhaps that’s where LeBron’s frustration is rooted. Even if he’s not willing to call them his rivals, James knows full well the Warriors are the team to beat.
But what is the front office to do? At LeBron’s behest, Griffin signed Smith and Tristan Thompson to mega-deals, and the Cavaliers will be paying heavy luxury taxes for a second straight season. Still, they’ve managed to acquire Channing Frye and Kyle Korver for future draft picks the past two years.
To rip a roster for being “top-heavy as s***” is to not understand the salary cap and roster-building implications of featuring three deserved max contract players along with two more eight-figure salaried teammates. LeBron chose to play with Irving, urged the Cavs to trade for Love and publicly lobbied for the signings of Smith and Thompson at whatever cost. This is his team, for better or worse. Of course, that shouldn’t excuse Griffin from signing Williams and Andersen over more viable options.
It’s just hard. The Cavs have no first-round pick to trade and no cap space to sign anyone beyond the minimum, and their only tradable asset of value is Felder. Would Cleveland be willing to part with helpful 3-and-D specialist Iman Shumpert in a deal for unhappy Chicago Bulls point guard Rajon Rondo? Because they’re probably not going to find much better without tinkering with their core.
James clarified his postgame comments with a pair of Twitter posts along the same lines on Tuesday:
I not mad or upset at management cause Griff and staff have done a great job, I just feel we still need to improve in order to repeat…
— LeBron James (@KingJames) January 24, 2017
if that's what we wanna do.
— LeBron James (@KingJames) January 24, 2017
LeBron isn’t too concerned with how the Cavs improve his current crop of teammates. He just knows they need to get better if he has any hope of adding a fourth NBA title in his 14th season and beyond.
“I don’t know what we got to offer,” he said, via ESPN.com. “I just know me, personally? I don’t got no time to waste. I’ll be 33 in the winter, and I ain’t got time to waste. That’s what I’m talking about. Listen, when I feel like physically and mentally, me personally, can’t compete for a championship no more or I feel like I can’t do it, then I won’t have this problem.”
Then, the Cavaliers will have an even bigger problem, so it’s in their best interest to satisfy their franchise player’s desires while he’s still in his prime. At the same time, meeting those demands is a whole lot harder than LeBron makes it sound.
Outside of James usurping Griffin as GM and finding out for himself how difficult it is to land playmakers at bargain basement prices, the Cavs might just have to break it to their hometown hero that he’s got to live with the roster he’s been given. Whether or not James softens on his stance should give us an idea of how equipped he feels they are to repeat.
More NBA coverage:
– – – – – – –