Pistons beat writer Rod Beard and sports columnist John Niyo discuss the Pistons and their first-round opponent, the Cleveland Cavaliers.
With a league-high payroll north of $100 million, the top-seeded Cavaliers aren’t short on talent, as highlighted by their Big Three of LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving.
They also aren’t short on drama, neither.
From former coach David Blatt being fired midseason — despite the Cavs being in first place in the East with a 30-11 record — to a March report from The Vertical’s Chris Mannix that cited a lack of on-court chemistry between James and Irving, there’s been plenty of noise surrounding the reigning Eastern Conference champs throughout the season.
More recently, there was James’ social media commotion with his cryptic tweets followed by talks of his dream “super team.”
Yet according to ESPN’s Dave McMenamin, Cleveland.com’s Chris Haynes and Akron Beacon Journal’s Jason Lloyd, who all cover the Cavaliers beat, the situation in Cleveland isn’t as dysfunctional as it seems.
McMenamin and Haynes weren’t surprised by Blatt’s dismissal — which stunned several coaches throughout the league, including Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy — and had a feeling his time was up after the Cavs were embarrassed in a 34-point loss on Jan. 18 to the Warriors on national TV. But they were caught off guard when Blatt stayed on, only to be released four days later after the Cavs had won back-to-back games.
“I think most of us saw the firing coming right after that Golden State game. Why they chose to let coach Blatt coach a few more games is still puzzling to me,” said Haynes, who’s in his second year covering the Cavs. “The team completely shut him out. They weren’t responding to him, they didn’t trust what he was teaching, and they went their own separate ways. You could see the mood in the locker room after games, even games that they won, it just didn’t feel like a team that was No. 1 in the Eastern Conference.”
After Blatt was replaced by top assistant Tyronn Lue, Haynes said there’s been a noticeable change in the morale within the locker room, and that the team responds to and trusts him.
But a little over a month later, James created a ruckus when he began expressing his “beautiful mind” with a string of cryptic tweets and Instagram posts that were speculated as veiled shots at his teammates. Irving even joined in the fray with an obscure tweet of his own.
“We live in a crazy world right now sports media wise,” said McMenamin, who has covered the NBA for 11 seasons and the Cavs for two years. “LeBron James has close to 50 million followers between Instagram and Twitter, so the things he does on those social media platforms obviously reverberate and cause a stir, especially when you contrast it to say last year’s NBA Finals that went six games and averaged about 20 million viewers in the United States.”
Haynes added the mysterious tweets are just part of the intrigue about James.
“But the situation or problem that some may see is he brings unnecessary attention his way at times,” Haynes said. “And although he may be able to handle it and produce, you’re not sure if his teammates will be able to do that same.”
Shortly after, Mannix wrote a story that quoted a scout who said James and Irving’s chemistry was “basically nonexistent” on the court, a notion Haynes dismissed.
“Their two-man game is one of the most prolific weapons in the league when you talk about their pick-and-roll. They’re fine,” Haynes said. “I think it’s difficult for Kyrie; he’s a ball dominant player and so is LeBron. But as long as LeBron is in his prime, he’s going to have that ball in his hands the majority of the time and it has been an adjustment period for Kyrie because he has to share the load.
“They wouldn’t have the record they have and had the successful games they’ve had together if they didn’t have some chemistry. Could it be better? Definitely, for sure.”
Lloyd said Irving’s stubbornness as well as his personal and professional struggles this year, such as coming off the knee injury in last year’s Finals, becoming a father before the start of the season and his messy break up with R&B singer Kehlani that played out on social media, are other contributing factors.
“Of course they’ve had problems,” said Lloyd, who has been on the beat full-time since 2010. “Part of that is just trying to blend these different personalities from different stages of life.
“You got LeBron who is kind of the old head, Kyrie is the young gun and Kevin is somewhere in the middle. Kevin’s got that West Coast personality and it’s just different; different temperament, different mindsets and they’re coming at this from different angles and I think it’s tested LeBron’s patience at times in dealing with these guys.”
Late in March, James caused another social media firestorm when he went into blackout mode in preparation for the postseason — something he started doing in 2012 in his second year with the Heat — but strangely unfollowed the Cavaliers official Twitter account along with several media members.
Around that same time, Bleacher Report published a story from a February interview where James talked about wanting to play with his friends Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade at some point in their careers.
“It got portrayed as everything was snowballing upon itself when I think if you went back, certain tweets had absolutely nothing to do with the Cavs but people chose to believe that they did. And then there was just some unfortunate timing that seemed to compound the situation,” McMenamin said. “The story wasn’t published until late March when all this social media stuff was going on so it seemed like, OK, now why is LeBron saying he wants to play with these guys? Is this a sign he’s frustrated and wants to leave?
“All those things kind of got globbed together and painted some picture of a rain cloud hanging over the Cavs’ franchise when I think if you took the time to parcel out everything individually, it was never as bad as it seemed.”
As the Cavs have geared up for another long postseason run, the drama has seemingly subsided…for now.
“All this (stuff) always seems to be bubbling under the surface and you never feel like you’re totally rid of it,” Lloyd said. “They have the best player and overall talent but they’re not playing like it right now, but I think the locker room (mood) has been better.
“Whether it’s chemistry, a dysfunction of personalities or whatever, it’s just always kind of there under the surface. When they’re winning, it’s OK and when they’re not, it sort of spikes and flairs out.”
Even if it does, McMenamin doesn’t foresee it being more than just another overblown matter of scrutiny.
“Some people like the salacious side and want to believe that the stuff going on is more under the surface and this is by no means thinking this team is perfect,” McMenamin said. “I covered the Lakers teams and there was all sorts of chaos going on, but by the end of the year they had the Larry O’Brien trophy added to their collection. I don’t think there’s really a cause-effect here between all the extra stuff that goes on being some sort of harbinger of bad things to come.”