At this point, let’s just call that private Cleveland Cavaliers press conference from Monday night what it really was – a veiled message to owner Dan Gilbert.
The more we’ve heard about the session players held after another loss to the Golden State Warriors, the more obvious the above belief has become. Players don’t anonymously air grievances — worrying about whether the issues plaguing the team can be fixed and doubting help is on the way — without purpose. Toss in the fact some are reporting Cavs players don’t believe the team will part with the coveted Brooklyn Nets 2018 first round pick, and you can see what the goal was here.
Those in the Cleveland locker room (rightfully) don’t believe they can beat Golden State as is, and the only hope is Gilbert will agree to use the Nets pick as a trade chip for a significant improvement at the upcoming trade deadline.
While said asset would net the most noteworthy returns, the front office is hesitant to utilize it, and for good reason. Don’t be surprised if this creates a chaotic situation between the players and the front office as the deadline nears.
The Brooklyn pick was the biggest piece of the deal which sent Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics last summer. Though the Nets aren’t the worst team in the NBA, their selection will likely land in the top ten come the 2018 draft. This would allow Cleveland to take a potential impact player for the first time since taking Andrew Wiggins first overall four years ago.
The selection could also be appropriately labeled as “LeBron James insurance.”
There remains a chance James heads elsewhere after his contract expires this summer. The last time he departed, the team he left behind was in shambles thanks to tons of “win now” moves made by the front office. As a result, Gilbert and company want to retain the Brooklyn pick to ensure the Cavs don’t deal with a grueling rebuild if James were to leave again.
Of course, this creates a hell of a conundrum. While Gilbert obviously wants to make sure the team is in a decent spot if it loses the best player in the NBA, he also doesn’t want to lose said player in the first place.
The second we start hearing about concerns James has with the state of the team, people will start to label it as a sign he wants out. So, if anonymous players are telling media members they don’t think Cleveland can win without significant help, everyone is going to view Gilbert keeping the Brooklyn pick as his not doing everything he can to help the cause. The Cavs owner will be viewed as caring more about life after James than trying to win while he’s still in town.
Making matters worse is how James exacerbates this situation.
As much sense as it would make for Gilbert to tell his star player, point blank, “I’ll trade the Brooklyn pick if you can commit to the team beyond this season,” this isn’t going to happen. James has never made commitments past his current contract, and this trend will not change now.
On top of this, it’s doubtful James will sympathize with Gilbert’s situation. The team’s owner is absolutely right in wanting to ensure the Cavs can survive if they lose their best player. However, James will only read it as not catering to his desire to get more help and increase Cleveland’s odds to win a title this year.
This isn’t to degrade James or attempt to make him feel guilty about the whole scenario. It’s merely pointing out how this entire situation can go south in a hurry.
If the Cavs keep the pick past the deadline, everyone will spin it as shoving James out the door. If they trade it for an asset which can’t push them over the top, it’ll be a complete waste. Worse yet, if the returns for the pick don’t pan out and James departs, the team will be thrust back into a nasty rebuilding phase without any assets to help expedite the process.
I don’t envy Gilbert. He’s facing a fork in the road, where he can take one route and appease his star player, or head down the other and protect the team for the future. Each scenario could also end with James leaving the team this summer.
As you can see, how Gilbert handles the trade deadline could severely impact the Cavs both now and beyond. It could also create additional chaos for a team which hardly needs any more right now.
Casey Drottar is an independent sports writer. Subscribe to his podcast, or follow him on Twitter and Facebook