Impatience, frustration, and discontent can infect even the most resilient NBA locker rooms this time of year, including LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers.
Amid a porous stretch that included losses to the Portland Trail Blazers, the New Orleans Pelicans, and the Sacramento Kings, Cleveland's hometown hero publicly questioned his team's desire to repeat as champions last week.
"I just hope that we're not satisfied as an organization," he told reporters after the Cavs lost to an Anthony Davis-less New Orleans squad last Monday. "We're not better than last year from a personnel standpoint," he added—a punch in the gut to owner Dan Gilbert, who has paid $61 million in luxury tax penalties alone over the past two years trying to build a roster worthy of the NBA's biggest star. "We need a fucking playmaker."
James' criticism is valid in that recent additions like DeAndre Liggins, Kay Felder, and Jordan McRae are simply not as good as the guys they replaced: Timofey Mozgov, Matthew Dellavedova, Mo Williams, Dahntay Jones—even Ray Felton and Michael Beasley, for that matter. The rookie Felder may be cheaper than an eight-year veteran, but he can't do anything to help the Cavaliers right now. And James is left picking up the slack: the 32-year-old has logged more time than 22-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo, and he's averaging more than 37.6 minutes per game, more than anyone else in the league. His turnover rate is at a career high, meanwhile, and his usage percentage hasn't been this low since his rookie year.
Given the war of attrition that is the NBA's 82-game regular season, this should be a source of legitimate concern for the Cavs—even though James actually clocks in as one of the league's slowest players. While other contenders like San Antonio or Golden State activate their offense with inspiring ball movement and a confident belief in system basketball that allows them to access their depth without skipping a beat, LeBron James is Cleveland. Everything revolves around him: Kyle Korver, acquired from the Hawks earlier this month, spaces the floor and unwraps pin-point passes nobody else would dare throw; Tristan Thompson creates second opportunities on the offensive glass and is rewarded on hard dives through the paint; Kyrie Irving assumes scoring responsibilities against defenses that always have one eye locked on James.
It's a personnel-acquisition strategy that's always made total sense, but James now desires a role player who can operate outside his orbit. A break-glass-in-case-of-emergency creator who needs the ball in his hands. Those are tough to find, and the Cavs aren't helped by a bloated payroll that limits flexibility, but general manager David Griffin is doing the best he can with the resources he has. Cleveland has nothing to trade, nor should they be willing to part with rotation players who are necessary in a potential showdown against the Golden State Warriors. So where does that leave them?
Griffin still has some options over the next six weeks. It's understandable for the Cavs to want some youth on their roster, but they're in red-alert win-now mode, and there's a long list of players on veteran's minimum contracts who are better suited for Cleveland's timeline. If they can't find a worthy trade partner, they can fill their empty roster spot with a newly bought-out veteran (the Playoff Eligibility Waiver Deadline is March 1). It isn't the most fruitful path, but the capped-out Cavs can't just go out and purchase whomever they want. A few potential candidates who can allegedly help are: Deron Williams, Jeff Green, Randy Foye, P.J. Tucker, Derrick Rose, Beno Udrih, Jose Calderon, or Michael Carter-Williams. Nate Robinson, Lance Stephenson, Norris Cole, Jarrett Jack, and Mario Chalmers are available tomorrow if the Cavaliers want them.
And then there's Rajon Rondo. The Chicago Bulls reportedly prefer to auction him off at the trade deadline before they waive him, but let's be serious: anybody who knows anything understands that no team in the league will give up anything of value for Rondo at this point. If Cleveland feels the 30-year-old four-time All-Star can help (and he can!), Griffin may simply call Chicago's bluff and do nothing with his roster spot until Rondo is available.
Rondo can still run a quality NBA offense when surrounded by specific pieces, and the Cavaliers already have those pieces in place. Put him on the floor with Kevin Love, Thompson, Korver, and Iman Shumpert—three deadly outside threats and a lob threat at the rim—and that offense will hum while James and Irving get their rest. Rondo's high turnover rate, lackadaisical defense, and complete ineptitude as a scorer would also come along for the ride, but the Cavaliers would be better off with him than without.
Another avenue: the wonderful world of trade exceptions! Cleveland has a few to use, including a $4.83 million exception from the Mike Dunleavy deal and a $4.39 million exception from Anderson Varejao (which expires February 18th). These are enough to fit in a couple backup point guards who are reportedly on the Cavs' radar, like Shelvin Mack and Jameer Nelson, along with pure shot creators like Will Barton. Barton may not be on the market, considering the Denver Nuggets are in a playoff race and he's their fourth-leading scorer, but that's exactly the type of player James wants.
Losing stinks, and James' aggravation, spurred on by Gilbert's checking account more than anything else, is understandable. Few know what it takes to reach the summit as well as he does. The beauty of being Cleveland right now, though, is that there's no rush. Even if the Cavaliers simply wait until the buyout market commences to fill their final roster spot with a subpar contributor who ultimately fails to crack the rotation, so long as James, Love, and Irving are healthy come springtime, they still have more than a puncher's chance to defend their crown.
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