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LeBron James and the Earliest Cavs Struggles Yet

The Cavaliers have struggled mightily to start the season. Is this part of their typical melodrama? Or is there cause for concern?

In the latest Open Floor Podcast, Andrew Sharp and Ben Golliver discuss the Cavaliers' early struggles, LeBron's future and much more. Click here to subscribe to the podcast. 

Andrew Sharp: This is a degree of struggle that I don't think anyone expected, and I do think there's some cause for alarm here that goes beyond the typical Cavs melodrama. And it's funny because I thought about mentioning the Cavs on Friday and congratulating us for not falling for their trap and freaking out, because the Warriors have also been losing. I think everyone around the league was kind of willing to shrug it off, but it's funny how a loss to the Knicks changes everything, and now I think we need to at least talk about what's going on. 

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Ben Golliver: I got it. So they lose to the Knicks and now you're going to fall into a trap that you knew was there?

Andrew Sharp: Do you think it's a trap, though? Let's start there. 

Ben Golliver: I want to draw a distinction between looking at how they're playing here in the first week—the gradation of how bad that is—versus what does it mean bigger picture. I think if you look solely at the beginning of the season, I'm not surprised in the slightest. I don't know how much more we could have done to get people to realize that, yeah, this could definitely happen. I mean, LeBron's playing 37 minutes a night, they don't have the depth, they don't feel comfortable taking him off the court. That means they're not going to be good defensively until down the stretch of the season. To everyone who wants to GIF their defensive breakdowns in October, it's sort of self evident. We already know that it was going to happen. 

I think until they have Isaiah Thomas back, you can't truly judge the ceiling of this team. Now, at the same time, I do think that there are some things that we can take away from this, not necessarily panic-related, but conclusions that we can draw that are sort of negative big picture:

No. 1: Regardless of whether they've been playing bad or whether you're going to let their guys who have been underperforming to be their best selves, is this a team you can see in any way hanging with Golden State in the Finals? Even in their best-case scenario? Isaiah comes back, Jae Crowder balls, Dwyane Wade plays well, is this a team that's ready to compete for a title, yes or now? For me, the answer is no. I don't see any way they can do it. 

Sharp: Definitely not, and I don't think that's even a useful discussion because a month ago, even the people who bought in on this team all the way, didn't think that they were going to go beat the Warriors. But I do think that the above the line/below the line standard is going to be the Finals. Is this a team that's going to make it out of the East and go to the Finals, and they're still the favorite. 

Golliver: And that's an important standard for them because LeBron always wants to win a title and LeBron's a free agent, so that is a standard that we have to look at. And if we're saying after two weeks we now have the evidence. 

Sharp: Life is getting real, Dwyane Wade is playing 30 minutes per game next to Jeff Green. 

Golliver: And that is a bad formula, and that's not going to be good enough to go against the Golden State. So that's one takeaway I think we can make without being accused of panicking, right? I don't think that's a panic, that's not hammering them for their October play. 

Here's my second takeaway, and tell me if you're with me on this one, because it might be a little bit more of a reach: Viscerally, they are even more depressing than I kind of thought they might be. They're even less entertaining, they're less cool, they're less trendy, they're less everything. And again, if I'm looking at sort of the best-case scenario for bouncing back, we're going to cut Derrick Rose out of the rotation at some point, we're going to limit Dwyane Wade's role, pray that J.R. Smith gets his game together, hope that Tristan Thompson can get back to his previous Finals level.

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Even in that scenario, if we're bored from the outside or if we don't view that as the cutting edge of the NBA or the newest, coolest thing, what does LeBron think in the middle of it? And he's been very careful not to kind of slam anyone. I think he's trying to keep that upbeat tone that he brought to media day, which I think was completely the right message for this group given all the changes and so forth.

Is this going to get boring to him, and what does that mean for their future? If I'm him, I'm bored. I'm not engaged, I'm not excited, this isn't cool. It's fun to hangout with D. Wade and drink the wine on Instagram. That's the fun part of life, right? That's the cool, entertaining part, not what's happening on the court. And I think that's a huge problem for the Cavaliers. I give Koby Altman all the credit in the world for what he did this summer. I think he had an incredible summer. That doesn't mean he made a cool, cutting edge team, and I think that means, after a couple more weeks here, I am more convinced than ever LeBron's gone. There's just not any way to turn this into the center of the NBA universe in Cleveland for next season. I think he's gone. 


Sharp: That is a very fair point, because I think if you're selling me on LeBron leaving Cleveland, I've kind of gone back and forth over the last year or so in terms of how realistic that is. But I think if he were going to leave, the reason he's go somewhere is because if all roads lead to the Warriors regardless, at least it's interesting to sort of switch up the scenery and add a new chapter to the narrative, as opposed to just staying in Cleveland as the team around him gets older and less competitive every year and a little bit more depressing.

That's the reason I could see him leaving, not because he's going to go and create some sort of superteam Avengers squad that takes down the Warriors, but it may make sense for him to just sort of start a new chapter somewhere else. From a marketing standpoint and a legacy standpoint, all sorts of things that LeBron cares about, leaving might be a good option. 

Golliver: A couple years ago he got a little jealous of the Warriors' attention, right? He started sort of putting himself into stories. There's not going to be any scenario where he goes into next year without being a top three or four story, and if he stays in Cleveland, I don't see them being that top three or four story heading into next season. 

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One other theory I want to throw by you. We've seen, over the last six months, the serious compromises of the banana boat squad. You look at Chris, he couldn't have it all. He couldn't stay in L.A., he couldn't get the max contract and compete for a title so he had to make a choice. He chose to go to be No. 2 in Houston with James Harden. You look at Carmelo Anthony. He couldn't use that leverage that he had to get to one of these top-flight organizations that he wanted to get to, so he goes and "settles" for a small market in Oklahoma City. I'm sure, deep in his heart, Carmelo viewed that as serious compromise. I'm sure Mr. Manhattan didn't see himself at the Cracker Barrel. 

Sharp: He's looking around at the Boot Barn and the Ghost Hotel and saying, "Man, I really put all my chips on the table here."

Golliver: And then you look at Dwyane Wade, same thing. He got paid by Chicago. That was a fleecing of Gar Forman. Well, he had to compromise, look at his role in Cleveland. He gets to play with LeBron, maybe he's not playing starter's minutes. There's a compromise. LeBron is not going to be in a situation next summer where he can have it all. I don't think he can have that hometown hero vibe and competing for a title and being on this cool, awesome, talked about team and being in the ideal market. He is going to have to make a choose, he's going to have to make some level of compromise.