Before I start, let me say this: it should come as no surprise to anybody that the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers have struggled out of the gate. It’s proven time and time again in sports that simply putting together immensely talented players doesn’t necessarily pay immediate dividends. Time is required for chemistry to develop, and most great teams go through adversity before achieving success. The Cavaliers’ record is no surprise and, frankly, no problem at this early stage.
But the creeping hints of turmoil surrounding the team may turn out to be big problems.
For starters, the injury bug has already been a huge concern, and Cleveland just can’t keep its stars on the floor at the same time. Kyrie Irving is a virtual guarantee to miss a couple games here and there throughout the season; at the time of this writing, Lebron James is missing his second game this season due to soreness in his left knee, per ESPN; Anderson Varejao is out for an extended period; and the group of title-chasing veterans and Lebron’s buddies from Miami (Mike Miller, James Jones, and Shawn Marion) don’t appear able to put up quality minutes in bulk. Poor chemistry can be improved over time, but when half the roster either struggles to stay on the court or can’t contribute meaningful minutes, there’s a deeper problem.
Additionally, this team was never prepared to protect the rim, particularly in the event of Varejao’s (predictable) injury. In a preview of the Cavs’ recent game against the Detroit Pistons, which was a humiliating loss for Cleveland, bet fair analyst Sumeet Paul wrote, “Cleveland already had a lack of rim protection and Varejao’s absence makes that a glaring weakness in their team.” This point is dead-on, and it proved fatal that night against the Pistons. And there’s no real solution at hand.
Of the Cavs’ big men, Kevin Love is at his best when he’s allowed to use the whole floor, Tristan Thompson is not a reliable rim protector, and Brendan Haywood looks as if he should have retired four seasons ago. Granted, none of Lebron’s Heat teams had dominant rim protection either. When the Cavs also struggle at other positions on defense, though, the problem is emphasized. This team needs to acquire a big man or it isn’t going anywhere.
Beyond personnel issues, it’s also worth considering the recently reported disconnect between first-year NBA coach David Blatt and the Cavaliers’ star players, most notably Lebron James. Blatt is known as something of a basketball genius, having been a very effective coach in Europe for years, but the NBA is a different game. Thus far, he hasn’t demonstrated that he’s necessarily doing anything to help, though the struggles certainly shouldn’t be placed entirely on his shoulders.
Now, reports online indicate there is growing tension between Blatt and his players. USA Today quoted an excerpt from an ESPN interview in which Lebron James claimed he was “past those days where I have to ask” about changing plays and directing the team on his own. Most would agree that James ought to assume a certain level of play-calling responsibility, but to undermine the coach like that is not a good sign.
And then, finally, there are the opt-out clauses that will loom larger and larger over the Cavaliers if they continue to underperform. While Kyrie Irving appears to be in it for the long haul in Cleveland, both Kevin Love and Lebron James will have the option of opting out of their contracts to pursue other roads at the end of the season. In all likelihood, both will stay. James in particular would take a gigantic public image hit for abandoning Cleveland, and Love would be wrong to assume there’s any quicker path to championships than staying in Cleveland. Nevertheless, the options are there. If this season continues at its current pace, or gets worse, they could become at least slightly more realistic.
So, is the Cleveland experiment a disaster? Not yet. To say so would be hasty and unfair. But given all these concerns, there’s certainly some potential that, in a few months’ time, it will begin to look more like one.