LeBron James and the Lakers are in crisis mode, but I can think of one place he’d still rather not be. Cleveland’s shambles are in shambles: The Cavs are 1–8, dealing with a coaching change, and confused about the direction they’re headed. “Team is in a very weird place right now,” J.R. Smith told The Athletic’s Joe Vardon this weekend. “And we have to figure it out, whether it’s a players-only meeting or coaches or front office meeting or whatever it is, we have to figure it out and let everyone know what their individual role is and what to expect.” Smith clearly isn’t happy. No one is. But who needs meditation, and who needs a trade? Here’s a ranking of who has it the worst in Cleveland, ordered from severe to mild. Distribute your pity appropriately.
When Tyronn Lue was head coach, the Cavs gave him the chance to work with one of the all-time greats and win a ring. Drew doesn’t have a LeBron or any other reason to grin and bear it. He’s been left with everything that made Lue’s job difficult (including, at the moment, media scrutiny) without the opportunity to coach in the playoffs.
Lue was fired after six games this season because Cleveland wasn’t winning. Ownership hadn’t pulled the plug on LeBron’s leftovers, believing the team could challenge in the East with Kevin Love and a mix of veterans, young players, and its prized rookie, Collin Sexton. The Cavaliers’ approach isn’t unlike that of the Mavericks, who have seen their first-year player incorporate himself quickly with the older group. But Sexton is no Luka Doncic, and disaster is striking elsewhere: Love is out for at least two months after having foot surgery last week.
Cleveland’s veterans aren’t sure how their roles mesh with those of the young players, and even if they were, the younger guys haven’t been anything worth investing in.
It’s unclear what the Cavs even expect out of Drew at this point. Lue wasn’t winning enough, but GM Koby Altman has told his older players that the focus is on the future, per The Athletic. Drew goes in to work each day with everyone under his jurisdiction grumpy and confused. It’s a thankless job, a winless job, a LeBron-less job.
Korver signed his three-year deal with Cleveland in 2017 with one condition: If LeBron James dipped, so could Korver. According to The Athletic, the Cavs agreed that they would trade Korver or buy out the remainder of his deal if LeBron left. It was an understanding Korver had with Altman, who has since not honored it. A handshake isn’t the same as, say, a written-and-signed agreement (which would be binding) (which is the purpose of a contract) (which is what Korver otherwise signed). Altman reasoned with Korver that Cleveland wasn’t ready to start over, and that Korver was part of that charge.
Except, on top of not honoring Korver’s request to leave, Altman and Lue decided to sit Korver two games in (along with J.R. Smith and Channing Frye) to give the younger Cavs more experience. Korver was back in the rotation the following game, and has averaged 17 minutes since, the least since his rookie season. Cleveland could be waiting on the best possible trade for Korver, though that still wasn’t the original deal. But for the moment, he isn’t going elsewhere, and he isn’t playing much, either.
The veterans who are supposed to be molding Sexton don’t have any respect for him, per The Athletic’s report. Their main complaint with the rook is that he doesn’t “know how to play” basketball. As you can imagine, not knowing how to play basketball is quite the issue when playing professional basketball, especially in the best professional basketball league in the world. Sexton is lacking in skills ideally wanted from a future star point guard, like understanding basic defensive fundamentals and playmaking. Midgame on Saturday against the Hornets, as Tony Parker took Sexton to the hole like both were a decade younger, teammate George Hill offered to teach Sexton how to play defense. But The Athletic says that Sexton “doesn’t seem bothered” by the losses or by his poor play, leaving no expectation that the rookie will take Hill up on the offer.
In addition to losing the respect of elders, Sexton is now faced with needing to do damage control. His image at age 19, coming from the first major in-season write-up on him, is that he is obtuse.
The signals were just as mixed for Smith as they were for Korver, but in reverse. Altman told Smith multiple times that his playing time would be cut significantly — so much so that The Athletic reported that Altman offered Smith “paid leave” — only for Lue or Drew to put Smith in the rotation. This song and dance happened twice in the same week. Smith is no longer in the starting position he was in last season, his minutes are cut in half (averaging 14 per game), and he’s spent four of Cleveland’s nine games on the bench. Smith is reportedly asking to be traded as well. (Get in line, dude.)
Love isn’t in the same veteran limbo as Smith and Korver. On the contrary, he’s the Cavs’ best chance at materializing into the competitive team Altman wants. Newly re-signed on a near-max deal, Love won’t be dealing with day-to-day rotation and locker-room issues quite as intimately now as he recovers from surgery. It saves him from a little stress in the short term, but Love is the largest question mark in Cleveland’s far future. He’s their most valuable asset and the centerpiece for the plan to stay relevant. But he could also be traded for future/young assets who better complement Sexton’s timeline, especially considering what Altman is telling Korver and Smith.
Hood is playing on a particularly bad team and still looks particularly bad himself, erasing the illusion that he’s a good-player-wrong-situation guy. Post-Utah, Hood is now less interesting than a previously little-known Macedonian taken in the second round of the 2015 draft who came to fame because LeBron James liked celebrating with him. There aren’t many places a consistently disappointing player from the 2014 draft can go from here, though I hear Chicago is lovely in the fall.
Lue may have been fired, but he doesn’t have it the worst with the Cavs. What he has is a ring, an estimated $15 million buyout, and no contractual obligation to be, ya know, with the Cavs.