By JOHN WYATT – SPORTS SECTION EDITOR
The summer leading up to this National Basketball Association (NBA) season was a crazy one. When news broke that Lebron James, arguably the best player in the NBA, was leaving the dynasty he helped create in the Miami Heat, fans, journalists, and teams all felt the shock of the decision. Several journalists (and Miami fans) thought James would remain with the Miami Heat, the team he helped lead with teammates Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh to two back-to-back championships in 2012 and 2013.
Shortly after James’s emotional essay announcing his return to his hometown, NBA superstar Kevin Love was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers (Cavs) by the Minnesota Timberwolves, forming another “Big Three” along with all-star point guard Kyrie Irving.
Following Love’s trade, the NBA hype machine went into full steam. Instantly, the Cavs were projected to the leaders of the Eastern Conference and likely finalists in the playoffs. Sports Illustrated even ranked them number two in their preseason rankings, making them the team to beat in the East and only second to last year’s champions, the San Antonio Spurs. James and company had some lofty expectations coming in, for sure. The hype was fueled even more when the Cavs announced the hiring of head coach David Blatt, who had seen exceptional success in International leagues and was heralded as a slam-dunk hire by most. Coming into the season, the sky was the limit for the Cavs.
“Adding the best player in the NBA and arguably its best big man is enough to make any team a top title contender. But one that also has the FIBA World Cup and All-Star Game MVP as its point guard?” NBA contributor for Sports Illustrated Matt Dollinger said in his preseason preview of the team. “This team might be too talented to be No. 2 at anything.”
James’ homecoming, however, was proven bittersweet for Cleveland fans. Entering the second half of the season, the Cavs are beginning to rebound from trouble they saw earlier both on and off the court. At the time of article publication, the Cavs now hold a winning record at 22-20 and have won their last three games.
Yet, James said in multiple interviews that the Cavs right now “aren’t a team that could win a seven-game series.” Once thought the missing piece in the Cavs roster, Love hasn’t produced the way everyone expected him to, racking only nine points and nine boards (and a pretty awful field goal percentage) against the Phoenix Suns on Jan. 13. While Love should be getting easy looks from capable guards Irving and Dion Waiters, the two guards have been accused of selfish play, holding on to a “scoring-first” mentality.
All of the struggles on court carry over to the sidelines. Recently, reports have surfaced of growing tension and discontent between Cavs players and head coach Blatt. Witnesses claimed to see players running different plays than what were called on the sidelines and even assistant coaches calling timeouts and plays behind Blatt’s back. The most discouraging parts of these reports claimed that players openly trash talked Blatt to opposing players on the court, producing quite the mess for Cavs fans.
With all of these nasty rumors swirling, several journalists have begun speculating whether or not Blatt is in the hot-seat for firing. Managing Editor Eric Goldschein half-jokingly argues in his article for SportsGrid that the Cavs should fire Blatt and make James a player-head coach.
“Blatt’s involvement is superfluous,” Goldschein said. “The open secret of the NBA is that James has been in charge of things in Cleveland since he wrote that ‘Coming Home’ piece.”
Indeed, on any given night you can see James leading the huddles, and Blatt relegated to bystander status. While Blatt’s real status within the locker room will never fully be known, most fans and journalists insist that he should and will stay in Cleveland for now.
“I think it would be kind of silly to fire him right now,” senior and longtime James fan Spencer Vetter said. “It just hasn’t been enough time to get a relatively young group of players to play together efficiently. People had the same concerns about [Miami Heat head coach] Erik Spoelstra, and look what they accomplished.”
While the Cavs aren’t the lock for Eastern Conference champions like they once were, it’s only a matter of time before something clicks and they live up to their hype.