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The Never-Ending Cleveland Chemistry Experiment

With multiple roster overhauls, young players, old players, hurt players, a tinkering coach, and LeBron James’s impending free agency, the Cavs are doing everything they can to make a fourth straight Finals trip as hard as humanly possible

Jordan Clarkson, Tyron Lue, and LeBron James Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Kyle Korver was in the way. Not all of him—just his toes, which were inconveniently attached to his foot, which happened to be in proximity to LeBron James. Korver was just sitting there after the Cavaliers lost to the Clippers on Friday when the doors to the cramped visitors locker room at Staples Center flew open and a stampede of reporters rushed toward James. That’s when Korver’s foot got trampled by an overeager cameraman who did not seem to notice even after Korver yelped about his toes.

Casualties aside, the media mass that followed James around Los Angeles last weekend was noticeably large, even for him—the kind of heavy turnout usually reserved for the playoffs rather than a mid-March road trip. Early Friday morning, a supersized bulge of journalists crowded around James at the UCLA Student Activities Center for the Cavs’ much-anticipated shootaround. Pretty much everyone in the double-wide assembly was armed with variations of the same question: Will LeBron come to town next season—not just for another visit, but for good?

People around the league don’t so much whisper rumors about where LeBron will land during the offseason as scream them to each other. The LeBron free-agency feedback is one loud loop. Before anyone mentioned Houston or Philly as possible destinations, the hot hypothetical had him leaving Cleveland (again) to join the Lakers. And that was before he bought a second home in Brentwood and the latest round of billboards designed to court the king went up in L.A. One of those billboards is just off Wilshire on Westwood Boulevard, strategically positioned not far from where the Cavs practiced at UCLA.

James knew the questions were coming. Everyone knew the questions were coming. Which is probably why James cut off a reporter when he began a query by asking, Do you understand that there is L.A. hype more than … That’s as far as the dude got before James jumped in.

“I understand that I’m a free agent at the end of the summer, so I understand there’s a lot of frenzy that comes with it,” LeBron explained. “It’s not my first rodeo.” Indeed. There was a televised rodeo that came first, and then a written rodeo after that. LeBron pointed out that the Lakers have cap space, which serves to fuel the speculation. Besides, he added, the league is better when the Lakers, Knicks, and Celtics are all good at the same time. He said that also “creates the frenzy.”

“But it doesn’t bother me,” James insisted. “I don’t talk about it too much.”

That was an interesting assertion, particularly because he spent much of the interview addressing his pending free agency. Yes, he checked in on some of his L.A.-based business concerns while he was in town. No, he wouldn’t elaborate. (“I prioritize my life,” he said.) Yes, he’s aware of the newest Lakers-themed billboards. No, he didn’t think they were a distraction. In fact, he thought that, 15 years into his career, it was “pretty cool” and “very flattering” that other fans in other cities want him to play for them. He said his kids see stuff like that and they think it’s cool, too. It was pretty much exactly what he said about the Sixers billboards the week before.

When James was pressed on whether he knows where he’s going in the summer, or even whether he’s narrowed it down, he said no—actually, he said “no” twice—and swore he still has “too much work to do here.”

“One thing about me and my career, you probably don’t know, you’re not around me enough, but I handle my business accordingly,” James told a reporter. “And when that time comes, I’ll take care of that.”

For a guy who said he doesn’t talk about his pending plans too much, he sure does talk about them a lot. It’s all part of the never-ending LeBron narrative that has dominated the NBA news cycle for years. LeBron is leaving. LeBron is coming home. LeBron might leave again. Fold in the rest of the recent-vintage Cavs drama—from David Blatt getting pushed out, to Kyrie Irving demanding a trade, to the aborted integration of Isaiah Thomas that led to general manager Koby Altman attempting a rebuild on the fly, to James reportedly having a fractured relationship with owner Dan Gilbert and the front office—and what you have is an organization that has operated in a state of almost perpetual uncertainty and chaos these past few seasons.

In the past, the Cavs overcame all those self-inflicted impediments. It was easy to ignore old axioms about needing a top-tier defense or quality chemistry in order to contend for a championship because they had one of the greatest players in league history. Who needs to be at the top of various regular-season rankings when everyone knows James will flip the switch and power his team in the postseason? Except this version of the Cavs is dangerously close to testing the theory that regular-season records and playoff seeding don’t matter as long as you have LeBron.

The Cavs are 7-6 since February 11, when George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance Jr. made their Cavs debuts. Even after a spa day in Phoenix on Tuesday that featured a relaxing win over the Suns—during which LeBron treated himself to a triple-double and helped stop a mini two-game skid—the Cavs don’t have much margin for error. Heading into a tough game at Portland on Thursday night, they’re one game up on the Wizards for the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. That puts them right on the edge of having home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs—or not.

Which is why it’s fair to wonder how all the buzz about what James might do tomorrow is affecting the Cavs today. He isn’t the only Cavalier who gets asked about it, after all. And with good reason. While the Lakers smacked the Cavs, Magic Johnson made a very public showing of saying hello to Rich Paul and Maverick Carter, LeBron’s agent and business manager, who were seated on the baseline in full view of Cleveland’s bench. It was a hell of a flex by Magic (at this point, he should set up direct deposit with the league office to expedite tampering payments), and it somehow increased activity on the always-frantic LeBron gossip market.

For a franchise that has four fresh faces and still doesn’t know if it got any better following the big trade-deadline overhaul, isn’t it possible that the never-ending chatter about LeBron’s next team has at least some impact on his current one? It’s a complicated question, but James had a simple answer.

“No,” he said flatly.

The Cavs practice more these days than they have in a while. When Isaiah Thomas was traded to L.A., he said his first practice with the Lakers was his first of the entire season because “when I was in Cleveland, we didn’t practice.”

They do now. If it’s true that L.A. nightlife is undefeated, Tyronn Lue wasn’t taking any chances. The Cavs head coach called a 9:30 a.m. shoot-around last Friday—a bold move for any team that had the previous night off in Hollywood—and then followed it up by waiting until Saturday morning to tell his players that, yes, they would indeed have practice later that day. Any leeway Lue used to afford his team of veterans has been revoked. The way he made it sound, he didn’t really have much of a choice. Between trades and injuries, he said the Cavs have basically had “three different teams in one season.” This latest version is still so green that Lue revealed everything they do these days is “simplified.”

That approach has so far produced mixed results. Prior to the trade deadline, the Cavs were fifth in offensive rating, 29th in defensive rating, and 19th in net rating. In the 13 games with their reconfigured roster, they’re eighth in offensive rating, 13th in defensive rating, and 10th in net rating (numbers that improved considerably thanks to the Suns game). Because the Cavs have lately been without the regular services of Kevin Love (broken left hand), Tristan Thompson (sprained right ankle), Cedi Osman (left hip flexor), and Hood (back strain), it’s tough to tell what they actually are or might be capable of moving forward. That has clearly frustrated James. After the Lakers game—during which Cleveland threw up its collective hands and sat most of its remaining quality players for much of the fourth quarter—James was asked whether the Cavs’ recent roster maneuvers made them any better. He responded by repeating “you don’t know” three times.

There seemed to be some sentiment among the people I talked to in and around the organization that, at the very least, the Cavs are better off in the locker room right now than they were a month ago. As someone close to the Cavs put it, they were “spiritually dead” before the trade deadline. As recently as mid-January, Lue called out unnamed players for having “agendas.” There was reportedly a dreaded team meeting full of ugly accusations. And after LeBron got in a heated on-camera conversation with an assistant coach, he said the Cavs were in a “funk” and explained that “family’s not always about a bed of roses.” So, yeah. Whatever this version of the Cavs might ultimately be, it’s got to be better than what they were. “At least the story lines are different,” a staffer told me.

True enough. They are not that far removed from Thomas, who wore a Cleveland jersey for all of 15 games, during which he openly questioned his coach and crushed his teammates. (Thomas still can’t help himself; after hitting a shot in the fourth quarter of the Lakers’ win over the Cavs, he barked at Cleveland’s bench while walking off the court.) When Lue was reminded about all that after practice at UCLA’s Mo Ostin Basketball Center, he became noticeably aggravated. He insisted he doesn’t “read or listen to the comments, so it doesn’t matter to me,” and said, “I don’t know,” when asked whether Thomas’s remarks while he was still a Cavalier hurt the locker room. Then Lue abruptly ended the press conference, if you can call it that. He talked for less than a minute and a half before walking off.

At least the mere mention of the team’s recent additions doesn’t cause Lue to put himself in timeout to cool off. Lue and LeBron seem to like the new guys—Lue called them “quiet,” which was evidently a compliment, while James had Clarkson’s 3-point celebration down the moment the former Laker joined the Cavs and was immediately comfortable enough to laugh about his lucky rolls—perhaps, in part, because they aren’t the old guys. “[LeBron] just wants us to go out there and do us, and he’s going to adjust,” Clarkson said. “I think that’s why I transitioned so easy. He going to adjust to how we playing.”

Even so, Cleveland is still searching for the right lineups in the right situations. As Lue said, “I’m a little unpredictable right now. I might do anything.” Since February 11, he has tried more than 60 different five-man combinations, according to NBA.com/Stats, but only three of those have logged more than 50 minutes together. (Part of that is due to the injuries; at practice one afternoon, J.R. Smith—who was shifted to the bench for the Suns game in favor of starting Korver—joked that “before you know it, I might be the center.”) That process of moving different pieces around will get more complicated when Love and Thompson finally rejoin the team.

Beyond trying to weave everyone into the on-floor fabric, the roster changes didn’t exactly put an end to lingering questions about snags in the Cavs’ culture. Only two weeks ago, Smith was suspended for reportedly hurling soup at an assistant coach. When simmering frustration boils into a food fight, it’s hard to make the case that all is well and there’s nothing to see here anymore so everyone can move along.

“Every day is a process for us,” James admitted, “trying to be as complete of a basketball team as we’d like to be going down the stretch and into the postseason. Every day has gotten better for us. We’ve had some bumps. We’ve had some goods. We’ve had some bads. But that comes with when you add four new guys. And that goes with just the season, too.”

The Cavs clearly have a lot going on right now. Then again, they always have a lot going on. Which has made some people around the NBA wonder why James keeps fueling the free-agency fire by talking about adoring fans and their recruitment advertisements at every turn. As a longtime league executive put it, “He could make it all go away very easily by just saying, ‘I’m a Cav, and I’m only thinking about this season right now.’ Wouldn’t that make it easier on him and his teammates?”

In fairness to James, he essentially said as much earlier in the season, but lately he’s been all too happy to talk about his situation (while simultaneously claiming to not talk about it). Certain people close to the Cavs have noticed that shift in his approach. One of LeBron’s greatest gifts on the court is making his teammates better, which stands somewhat in contrast to one of his principal off-court skills: an unmatched ability to command the spotlight. It’s impossible for a player of his stature to not be talked about, but there’s a sentiment that perhaps he courts and covets that conversation a touch too much, which makes some wonder about the residual effects.

Despite LeBron’s insistence that his pending free agency and the incessant discussion about it have had no effect on the team, the Cavs are constantly asked about his situation. Tristan Thompson said that’s what happens when the best player in the world is on your team, and he predicted “the new guys will get used to it.” Maybe, but right now some of them are still adjusting.

“I don’t think there’s ever been anything like this, has there?” Nance asked rhetorically. “In the middle of the season. Yeah, it’s crazy.” The Sixers billboards that were reportedly on LeBron’s way home were on Nance’s way home, too. “I’m driving by and I’m like, ‘Oh, I didn’t even know you’re allowed to do that.’ So, yeah, it’s been weird. But at the same time, it’s not my weird to deal with. It’s his.”

Except it kind of is their weird to deal with. All of them. As Nance acknowledged, “It definitely gives us plenty to talk about.” He went through a similar situation when he played in Los Angeles, only from the other side. The Lakers were always trying to court free agents. Now that he’s with the Cavs, they’re trying to keep the biggest one. “I don’t want to say distracting, but free agency is … it takes a toll,” Nance said.

The question is how big a toll, and whether the Cavs can overcome it while also finding their identity in time for the rapidly approaching playoffs. None of that will be easy, which is fitting considering how everything has gone for them. As James acknowledged, the season has been “a test for everybody’s patience.” That’s maybe the only thing the Cavs have been consistent on all year.