There’s no doubt that the Cavs were the second best team in the NBA last season: they only lost one game in the Eastern Conference Playoffs. They still have the best player in the league, LeBron James. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love performed well in the playoffs, and the Cavs actually had a few assets to bring in some more talent this offseason.
But in just a few months’ time, the Cavaliers’ fortune has taken a nosedive. Both Kyrie Irving and LeBron James’ futures with the team are in limbo, and the team has few ways to improve in order to compete better with the Warriors. Let’s review how the disastrous Cavs’ offseason unfolded.
Owner Dan Gilbert lets go GM David Griffin
One of the unsung heroes of the Cavs’ resurgence in the past three years is general manager David Griffin. He’s masterfully managed the cap, and amassed talent with few assets. He’s the one who traded for All-Star Kevin Love, and acquired J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, and Richard Jefferson at tremendous bargains.
But owner Dan Gilbert opted not to re-sign Griffin as general manager in late June. Reports say that Gilbert wasn’t open to offering Griffin a raise or giving him more control of the team. This decision was also made in the worst of times, right before the craze of the offseason.
Over his tenure as owner of the Cavaliers, Gilbert has shown that he hasn’t valued general managers highly: he’s never re-signed one to a second contract, and doesn’t pay for expensive ones. But Griffin deserved a new, better contract: he’s one of the best GM’s in the league.
Releasing Griffin meant that the Cavs was without a leader in the front office for the most important weeks of the offseason. He reportedly was working on trades for Jimmy Butler and Paul George before he was canned. As a result, Dan Gilbert himself was effectively managing the Cavs until Koby Altman was promoted to General Manager more than two weeks after free agency began.
Why Gilbert was so adamant against giving Griffin more power and money is part misjudgment, part ego: he just doesn’t believe a good front office is necessary for the Cavaliers, that he can manage a team by himself pretty much just fine. Welp.
A lackluster offseason
Instead of trades for Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler, and Paul George, the Cavaliers largely stood pat this offseason. For a team whose sole goal is to defeat the Warriors, that won’t be enough.
The Cavaliers had a variety of weaknesses against the Warriors in the Finals, but most of them are related to their lack of talent and precision on defense. On offense, Kyrie and LeBron were exceptional offensively, and their role players were able to get open shots (even if they didn’t always hit them).
The one area they could’ve really used an upgrade this offseason was a wing defender. Though Richard Jefferson and Iman Shumpert tried to guard Kevin Durant; the only Cavalier would could guard KD was LeBron James.
But LeBron James is a tiny step slower, at age 32, than he was in his prime. He also has enough responsibilities offensively, and focuses so much on help defense to cover up his teammate’s defensive weaknesses. Durant was able to steamroll through the Cavaliers en route to his first Finals MVP.
The Cavaliers’ most expensive move this offseason was retaining Kyle Korver on a three-year, $22 million deal. Though Korver is one of the best pure shooters in the league, he’s weak defensively and already 36 years old. He’s simply more of the same, and overpaid as well.
The Cavs brought over Cedi Osman, a Turkish wing, this offseason, but I’d be surprised if he finds a consistent role on the team’s crowded bench. Their three minimum contract signings—Derrick Rose, Jose Calderon, and Jeff Green—are all good values for such cheap prices, but none have shown a focus on defensive intensity or a high enough ceiling on that end of the court during their NBA careers.
Overall, their roster moves failed to correct their most significant issue. Whether it was due to a misdiagnosis of issues or lack of possibility, it was disappointing for a team that needed an urgent approach going into the offseason.
Kyrie Irving asked to be traded
On July 24th, the basketball world was shocked to learn that Kyrie Irving had requested a trade a couple of weeks before. Irving had been thinking about wanting out for some time, saying that he wanted to helm his own team.
At first glance, this request seems absurd. LeBron James is the best player in the world, and Kyrie’s best shot at a championship is alongside him. LeBron covers up Kyrie’s biggest weaknesses—namely, his team playmaking and defense—and has strong on-court chemistry with him.
But Kyrie is only 25, and likely believes he can be a franchise cornerstone by himself. He’s felt that being on the same team as LeBron has robbed him of the attention he thinks he deserves. He’s already won a championship; now it’s time for him to succeed on his own terms. Who can blame him?
He has asked to be traded to either the Minnesota Timberwolves, San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat, or New York Knicks, and been mentioned in trade talks with the Phoenix Suns and L.A. Clippers. All signs point to a deal sending him out to be made sooner rather than later.
There are real questions about how good a team can be with Kyrie Irving as its best player. But given the choices of his preferred destinations (Irving would likely not be the best player on the Timberwolves, and definitely not on the Spurs), it seems like Irving doesn’t necessarily want to be the clear-cut best player on his new team. He just wants to be respected as one of the top guys, away from the shadow of perhaps the greatest player of all time.
LeBron James is likely on his way out
That isn’t all. LeBron James has a player option next offseason that he’s expected to opt out of, and reports are that he is likely to leave. As both the roster and front office have become more and more chaotic, LeBron has reportedly had enough of Cleveland.
Next season would be as good a time for LeBron to leave as any. He brought Cleveland their first championship in decades, and at 33, he’ll be heading into the evening of his career. He’s been especially tied to the Lakers, which will likely have enough cap space to sign him and one more star next offseason.
There are many reasons why LeBron might want to leave Cleveland. Part of it is two uninspiring offseasons in a row, when the Cavs failed to make substantial upgrades despite the Warriors’ addition of Kevin Durant. Another catalyst might be Kyrie Irving’s desire to leave, and how that would likely make the Cavs worse.
But the most important reason for LeBron’s dissatisfaction with the Cleveland Cavaliers? It’s owner Dan Gilbert. He’s been behind most of the Cavs’ dysfunction, and their relationship is quickly unraveling.
Why it all goes back to Dan Gilbert
LeBron James and Dan Gilbert have long had an uneasy relationship. When LeBron left the Cavs for Miami in 2010, Gilbert wrote a mean-spirited letter that upset James deeply. In recent times, their political views have clashed: while Gilbert supports and has donated money to Donald Trump, LeBron has publicly condemned Trump multiple times.
The recent front office drama could’ve easily been avoided had Gilbert simply re-signed GM David Griffin. An ask for a raise and more decision-making power should not cause a rich owner to dispense of one of the best GM’s in the league.
As a result, many of the daring Cavs’ plans for the offseason were lost once Griffin left, leaving the team leaderless and lost during a time when the Cavs could’ve landed another big star.
Thanks to Dan Gilbert, and indirectly, the fearsome Golden State Warriors, this Cavaliers era is quickly nearing an end. Let this be a lesson to owners everywhere: please don’t mess up a great team.