The Cleveland Cavaliers, not to be outdone by the Wizards, Wolves, or Lakers, have made dysfunction an operating principle. It’s not enough to be a bad basketball team. Cleveland is the sort of bad basketball team that re-signs a star player to a four-year deal under the pretense of remaining competitive, only to then win just one of their first nine games. It’s the sort of bad basketball team that fires its coach six games into the season only to be left, for a moment in time, without any head coach at all.
Then-assistant Larry Drew all but refused to assume the interim role until his contract could be renegotiated. Drew’s insistence was an indictment of the fickle whims that seem to guide the Cavs. This is the sort of outfit that manages to both alienate its veterans and sell out its younger players; to piss off long-tenured coaches to the point of litigation; to botch what seems to be every major decision facing the franchise for a month straight.
It’s not enough to be a bad basketball team, because Cleveland has found room to be exceptionally so. They are an unstoppable juggernaut of painful, dispiriting losses. On Monday night, the Cavs were up by three points against the Magic with control of the ball and fewer than 24 seconds left in the game. Finishing out the win should have been a formality. After a turnover, the Cavs still held a one-point lead with under 20 seconds remaining and the game in hand.
After another turnover, they still had a chance for a final shot with 13 seconds on the clock and the game tied. Cleveland found a way to lose in regulation anyway. Their defense rates as the worst on record in NBA.com’s entire database, which stretches back to 1996. By net rating, these Cavs have been the inverse of the 73-win Warriors—a walking blowout without the slightest recourse.
This doesn’t look like a stable basketball team with a hole where LeBron James should be. It’s a crater strewn with spare parts, none of which seem to function the same way as before. More than 70% of last season’s playoff minutes are accounted for on Cleveland’s roster. Absent is the winning, and with it any call for resolution. Where, exactly, is the harm in a team’s implosion when every double-digit loss seems perfectly in character?
From here, the Arthur memes must seem so quaint. There are certain costs of doing business with LeBron, beginning with his tendency to stir the pot whenever he feels it necessary. During his time in Cleveland, James sent barely-coded messages to Kevin Love about his role, prodded the front office this way or that, and doled vague proverbs that could easily be interpreted as shots at Kyrie Irving—and then plausibly denied it all.
No player in the NBA has a more active hand in crafting the messaging around his team, largely because everything LeBron says becomes news. This can be inconvenient for a franchise to deal with on a daily basis, though it is undeniably deserved. What power James has made for himself. Some came by playing, some by speaking, some by exercising his free agency and more from using the power of that choice to apply pressure.
The gravity that surrounds LeBron can prove tiresome to those in his immediate orbit. It also, in the case of the Cavs, may have been the only thing holding the franchise together. That much was obvious on the court—especially in the playoffs—but has proven to be true in a larger, organizational sense. Zoom out and it’s a wonder that a franchise so carelessly cycling through coaches and general managers ever became a fixture in the Finals.
The best of LeBron’s Cavs may have been adversarial, but with their best player came explicit direction and a natural sense of order. Cleveland wouldn’t be so indecisive about whether to lean on veterans or prospects if LeBron were still around, because the answer would be self-evident. The farcical miscommunication that seems to have cost Tyronn Lue his job would never have occurred. There would be no reason for the Cavs to reportedly flake on a handshake agreement made with Kyle Korver and no cause to (twice!) tell J.R. Smith he would be pulled from the rotation only to backtrack in a matter of days. There would be an entirely different sort of pressure on rookie Collin Sexton, but his every flaw might not be aired out so publicly by his teammates.
LeBron is not a cure-all—as was made clear during his eventful time with the Cavs, and has been suggested by a rocky start with the Lakers. Some players, however, cast such a long shadow as to give a bumbling franchise cover. One could rightly regard James Harden or Giannis Antetokounmpo as a system in themselves. LeBron is a somewhat larger figure: an institution all his own, one with the apparent capacity to disguise what the Cavs have been.