Sunday, February 4, 2018 

Cleveland knows what the problem is

The issue in Cleveland is that it is different for the Cavaliers, this year. This isn’t the typical swoon, these aren’t the same clapbacks, this has not been a season like 2015’s, or last year’s, or the one they won. This doesn’t remind of Miami, the enmity is genuine and the basketball is ruddy awful.

LeBron James was this league’s MVP for a stretch of this season, but James Harden’s most valuable appearance on Saturday had almost no significance: Cleveland splats this way against the good teams, now, the Rockets led by as many as 35 before the victory became official.  A similarly-totemic Cavalier win could have sprung from James’ shoulders, even in this disarray, but he hasn’t been about that since Christmas.

Even images of LeBron and his team getting it right on Saturday, with James hounding both ends through career minutes 52,250 through 52,282, that woulda looked unsustainable. It would have scanned as treat with just enough permanence to outlast ABC’s time in Ohio, and these Cavs have earned that cynicism even if Peter plus the herd had run it right – what happens when Minnesota visits, on Wednesday?

The Cavs are excused from statement wins, currently, but that won’t stop the blockquotes. Kevin Love’s injury and the group’s plenty-for-now 30-21 record gives the group all the space it needs, but there are still going to be cameras and expectations at every stop and the Tomas Satoransky-led Washington Wizards to hold off. Cleveland still has to report to the building, when just about the whole of the NBA wants them to go away for a while.

"You've got LeBron James over there in that locker room. You know what I mean? What else the man need to do?" Paul said. "Don't take it for granted, man, don't take it for granted.”

That’s Chris Paul, a fella with a starting center that can get rim, condensing an off-and-regular season’s worth of thoughts into one comment delivered to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst.

The Man needs to act like one. Submitting to the thrill of exhibiting competent defense in games broadcast by either ABC or FOX Whatever would be a strong start.

LeBron James isn’t saving himself playoff gulps with every possession that he lets get away in January, or February. He isn’t cultivating fiber strength for June’s fadeaway three-pointers against the Warriors, when it comes time to let the Rockets or Spurs or Thunder run anywhere they want. He isn’t cannily playing the long game in response to a league that has demanded consistent excellence, with strong pretext, since he lined up to change things in 2003.

James is just poking through the year, this time. Too aware that even his most ferocious defensive effort wouldn’t mean a damn thing, even at home, in front of a team like the Rockets. Dr. Harden didn’t have to play well on Saturday – he missed 10 of 11 threes and turned it over four times – no star from a great team truly needs to exceed expectation to win against this version of the Cavaliers.

The Cavaliers can’t hide. That’s why each of the club’s explainers relies on what they know best, which is often the worst way to handle things.

Whether it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy or not is left for the next team to decide, but the spank of Isaiah Thomas’ way of doing things is now barreling through its fourth team since the summer of 2014.

At every stop the guard has had to explain in detail why the last team wasn’t having it, and he just spent a summer and fall and winter in Cleveland watching as everyone else got to play basketball, with Kyrie Irving off in Boston somehow developing MVP validity solely due to a uniform change.

That’s an inaccurate representation, but snipes and half-truths are sometimes a powerless person’s attempt at proud.

Suddenly, the too-short and shot-happy Cavs have an avatar, and Thomas makes it worse with every snort he sends at the sportswriters following each lousy performance. Isaiah’s played only 345 minutes this season, that’s two weeks for LeBron, Thomas has noticed Jae Crowder turning into a shell of himself and Isaiah can still see over the top of his coach, his words are not without meaning. He lost his sister a few months ago, he’s fighting for a contract and for his legacy and for something, anything, that will take him in without lingering caveat.

Decade-old creature comforts inspire Kevin Love’s irascible reactions, he sees every part of an amateur team that won’t be home for long when he decides to chuck a towel, and good on him. Somehow the Cavaliers turned the blue-eyed guy into the martyr, here, the NBA hasn’t excused a crumbled hand like this since Isiah Thomas arrowed his into Bill Laimbeer’s grinning face back in 1993.

They’re all waiting for the Cavs to make the Mad Lib move, for general manager Koby Altman to turn Brooklyn’s draft pick back into any number of Nets once traded away – say, 2012-era Gerald Wallace.  

Give Altman all the room in the world, no personnel chief has ever dealt with he’s working through, but he also has some credibility to earn. Plenty of GMs have led top-heavy teams with zero cap space and significant tax concerns. Only one of them, so far, thought Derrick Rose would help.

The pick is still at eighth, and the top ten in June’s draft is only full of prospects born during LeBron’s first year with underarm hair. If the Cavs explained to James at any point that the selection would be exchanged for a hypothetical 20-something stud, then this is on them. Most likely they didn’t, letting the sheen from we-chose-you Kyrie Irving transaction and the unrelenting promise of whatever to do the communicating for them.

These are the alerts that LeBron is used to, in place since Dan Gilbert shoved Usher onto the Cavalier sidelines just to prove that he could. Showing up in time to give LeBron the Yeah! compact disc for Christmas, all this stuff sounds the same anyway, when what he really wanted was Jesus Walks.

James’ passive/aggressive streak was treated to a finishing school, in this league, people like Dan Gilbert and Pat Riley are at heart more fearful than anything. You can read it on the risible red hats that they were gifted.

The NBA rules now apply to everyone in Cleveland, all at once, and nobody can handle it. The Cavaliers are beholden to the same extended schedule they helped shape, the transaction guidelines that they argued for, carping about the five-figure gift bags that they’ll leave in the limo. Gilbert was born on third base when LeBron James was delivered in Northern Ohio, and nobody is carrying him off this diamond.

Two paths remain, and the more likely one has the Cavaliers stuck with each other until spring. Beholden, for the first time, to similar experiences in waiting out the thaw.

FOUND A CURE

Every time this song comes on, I have to pull over to the side of the road.

(More to come.)