Jordan Clarkson had to laugh. “People say crazy shit all the time,” Clarkson said with a smirk. “You turn the news on, see Kanye going crazy. The president saying crazy stuff. Pusha and Drake now. There’s a lot of crazy stuff people saying now.”
Clarkson shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. He was surrounded by a knot of reporters at Oracle Arena on Wednesday for NBA Finals media day. “It’s kind of stupid,” he said. “Everybody’s got their own opinions.”
There are two predominant opinions concerning Cleveland right now, and the Cavaliers are well aware of both: (1) LeBron James is really good at basketball and (2) his teammates—save Kevin Love—are really not. You can probably guess which of those takes the Cavs are cool with and which one excites them less.
Cleveland’s supporting cast is fully aware of the narrative. No one pretended to be ignorant of the criticism, and no one regurgitated a bland stock quote that professional athletes sometimes use in these situations to get out of any potentially uncomfortable self-evaluation. That’s not really what these Cavs do. It has been a weird year for them—from the drama surrounding Isaiah Thomas, to the trade-deadline overhaul that created some curious chemistry, to falling behind the Celtics 2-0 to start the Eastern Conference finals, all of which left them feeling a bit on edge. And yet, through it all, the Cavs have remained surprisingly candid about their issues and how they’re perceived. Ask a question and more times than not they provide fairly frank answers.
“You hear it,” Larry Nance Jr. said not far from where Clarkson was doing his “crazy shit” monologue. “You can’t turn on SportsCenter or ESPN without it. At the same time, everyone that’s saying that is …”—here, Nance paused to pick his words, which also served to expose the underlying frustration he and his teammates share on the topic—“ …not playing in the NBA championship. Feel free to judge us. Feel free to make comments on us and do whatever else you like.”
After the Cavs won Game 7 against the Celtics, Jeff Van Gundy remarked on the television broadcast that it was LeBron’s “greatest achievement.” James had just barely missed a triple-double (35 points, 15 rebounds, nine assists, and two blocks) to reach his eighth consecutive Finals. It was an amazing accomplishment all the way around. But James has also won three championships and three Finals MVPs. JVG knows all that. In that moment, when he said making the Finals this year was James’s greatest achievement, what he really meant was “look at who LeBron made it to the Finals with.”
JVG’s broadcast partner Mark Jackson underscored the point by calling the Cavs “LeBron and the Pips.” It was such a lazy, half-hearted dig that I didn’t think much of it—until one of The Ringer’s many millennial staffers asked me who the Pips are. I explained, but he didn’t seem all that interested. I’m not sure which was worse—Jackson throwing weak shade at the Cavs from one end of the generational divide or an otherwise smart, young basketball fan not even caring enough to roll his eyes at the other.
As Nance noted, a lot of people are all too happy to make comments about the Cavs and judge them. On a recent NBA Show podcast, Kevin O’Connor revealed that someone tweeted at him about the Cavs supporting cast being “direct-to-DVD garbage,” while cohost Chris Vernon joked that LeBron would move ahead of Michael Jordan in the never-ending GOAT conversation if James somehow “wins a title with Jeff Green.” Saturday Night Live even took a shot at Cleveland when Donald Glover hosted the show in a skit called “The Other Cavaliers.”
The spoof never made it to air, but it had some pretty good bits. The point guard was a Roomba. The second-leading scorer was “a heavy smoker.” The starting center was an adorable dog named Pancake. They ran an offense called “hot potato” because, as Kenan Thompson explained, “LeBron throws us the ball, we throw it right back—hot potato.”
There’s a reason for the jokes. James has done an awful lot to push the Cavs this far. He has scored 40 or more points seven times so far in this postseason—which is as many 40-point playoff performances as a lot of very talented, very famous players managed in their entire careers. The Cavs have played 18 postseason games this year. LeBron had the game high in points 14 times and the game high in assists 13 times. When the best player of his era shines that bright, it’s easy for all the guys in his company to be overshadowed.
“He does everything for us,” Jeff Green conceded Wednesday.
He’s not kidding. James leads the postseason in total minutes, points, and assists, and he’s fourth in total rebounds. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers bench is 10th (out of 16) in playoff points per game and 11th in plus-minus, per NBA.com. They’re also 11th in defensive rating and 12th in offensive rating during the postseason. The Cavs have a plus-2.9 net rating in the playoffs with LeBron on the floor and fall to minus-8.8 when he sits.
Of the guys who have averaged 20 or more minutes per game for the Cavs this postseason, only George Hill and Jeff Green weren’t on the team a year ago. Everyone else is one of Cleveland’s usual suspects. Green is a good example of how desperate the Cavs have been for someone to help LeBron carry what has been an increasingly heavy load. Green averaged just 5.6 points in 20.8 minutes in the first round against the Pacers. But in games 6 and 7 against the Celtics, he played a combined 73 minutes and scored double digits in both outings. That’s how unpredictable things have been for the Cavs this year: We got a Jeff Green podium game when their season was on the line.
At one point in Game 7 against Boston, when Green was on the bench and the Celtics were making a run, I caught myself thinking that Ty Lue had better get Green back in the game. That’s not a thought I ever expected to have in the playoffs—or even the regular season. It wasn’t that long ago that Green underwent open-heart surgery and missed the entire 2011-12 season. Even when he was healthy, he was oft-maligned and frequently passed around the league, and played for six teams over 11 seasons. Now, at 31, he’s in his first NBA Finals.
“Tough is an understatement,” Green said when asked how difficult it was for the Cavs to make it this far. “You need luck. You need health. Everything has to go almost right to get to this point.”
The irony is that a lot has gone wrong for the Cavs even though they’re one of the last two teams still playing NBA basketball. They’ve become comfortable teetering on the edge all season and succeeded in spite of everyone not named LeBron. This is a team that traded for Rodney Hood—only to have Hood decline to enter a playoff game against the Raptors and then subsequently apologize for that decision. He was awful in games 1 and 2 against Boston, but Lue was incredulous when asked why he kept playing Hood and vowed to keep him in the lineup—only to play him a grand total of three minutes the rest of the series and slap Hood with DNP-CDs in four of the remaining five games. That’s the kind of thing that you might expect to create some hard feelings, but Hood said it was all good. He called being in the Finals a “blessing” and “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” even as he admitted that “individually, it’s been up and down in the playoffs.” (I checked his game log. Maybe the individual “up” he referred to was 12 points in a loss to the Pacers?)
That’s maybe the most interesting thing about the Cavs supporting cast. You can disparage them and make fun of them and sit them on the bench, but their collective reply is to essentially shrug it all off. If the rest of us think they’re lucky to have gotten this far, every answer the Cavs role players give seems to suggest that they don’t disagree.
Toward the end of media day, Jose Calderon—the 36-year-old backup point guard who was pressed into duty in that Toronto game when Hood begged out—was asked whether he’s bothered by the outside perception that the Cavs are a one-man band and no one expects any of the backup singers to come close to hitting the right notes against the Warriors. There was a pretty good gathering around Calderon, who was sitting in front of an NBA Finals backdrop, and he took a moment to consider the scene before replying. Then he offered two words, which are the only two words the Cavs care about: “We’re here.”
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Jeff Van Gundy called the Cavaliers “LeBron and the Pips”; it was Mark Jackson.