Will he stay or will he go?
There are still several chapters left to be written in the Cavs’ 2017-18 season, but regarding the long-term health of the franchise — i.e. will LeBron James stay in Cleveland or leave again as a free agent — last week certainly didn’t help.
If he leaves, maybe last week was a watershed moment.
If he stays, last week was — like the thumb in the ribs Lance Stephenson used to bait James into a technical foul during the Cavs’ Indianapolis collapse — more annoyance than critical mass in LeBron’s looming seismic, summertime, league-shaking decision about his future.
Because with LeBron, he is the Cavs and the Cavs are him.
Those have been, are and always will be the terms of engagement, the prism through which all things LeBron and Cavs flow.
It’s what both parties implicitly agree to and sign up for when brokering a deal with the greatest player on the planet.
There’s never been a player like him in the league, a player whose decisions on where he will play so dramatically resets the entire industry landscape, how his team and all the other teams in the league, conduct their business.
For the time being, LeBron and the Cavs are business partners. For the Cavs, that can be exhilarating … and paralyzing. Because of it, every event, every game, every front office decision, every hideously embarrassing week, such as last week’s train wreck, can be analyzed to death.
Call it the LeBron Tax.
It was a week in which the Cavs refused to compete in two games and, in the other, competed for one quarter and collapsed for three.
All three games were soiled with the usual losers’ graffiti. The familiar window dressing we see when the Cavs go comatose mode on defense: standing around, weakly pointing at each other in “I thought you had him” blame gaming.
It’s hard to imagine a LeBron team ever having laid three bigger eggs in consecutive games.
The accompanying visuals and sound bites were equally disturbing. There was LeBron screaming at his teammates and Cavs assistant coach Phil Handy during a timeout in Toronto, and head coach Tyronn Lue making oblique references to players’ “agendas.”
Lue must feel like he’s up to his elbows in alligators. It was almost two years ago exactly — Jan. 22, 2016 — that he replaced the fired David Blatt as Cavs coach. Five months later Lue became the only man in more than half a century to coach or manage a Cleveland team to a world championship.
But last week Lue’s Cavs went 0-3, were outscored by a combined 64 points, and the next game for arguably the worst defensive team in the league is Monday against the best offensive team in the league, the Golden State Warriors.
(“I thought you had him. . . “)
It’s been a bizarre half season. In their first 12 games and their last nine games the Cavs were a combined 7-14 (.333). In all their other games they are 19-2 (.905).
You want to take a crack at interpreting that?
While Kyrie Irving is polishing his brand and dribbling his way into the MVP discussion by leading the Celtics to the best record in the East, Jae Crowder’s 9.8 PER ranks 11th on the Cavs, four spots lower than Ante Zizic, and J.R. Smith (7.7) ranks two spots lower than Crowder,
One of Lue’s agendas should be to explain why Crowder and Smith are still in the starting lineup.
Isaiah Thomas is finally healthy, but rusty. Dwyane Wade will turn 36 this week. Cedi Osman has a higher field goal percentage than Kevin Love and Kyle Korver, and 36-year-old Jose Calderon has started more games than Thomas, Wade, Derrick Rose and Iman Shumpert combined.
But at least the Cavs have Brooklyn’s first-round draft pick.
That’s the pick that could be as high as first or as low as the teens. But it’s also the pick that the flying-blind Cavs don’t know whether or not to trade because they don’t know whether or not LeBron is leaving.
He probably doesn’t know himself.
So instead of being able to use the Brooklyn pick in a trade for an elite defender who would actually guard somebody instead of pointing at a teammate, the Cavs are stuck between a rock and the LeBron Tax.
What are they supposed to do if they don’t know what he’s going to do?
Nothing. And like it.
This only comes up when LeBron is in the walk year of his contract. But when it does come up, boy does it come up.
Everyone is willing to live with it, however, because it means LeBron is on your team, and the only thing better than being LeBron is having him on your team.
Even in disjointed, dysfunctional, dyspeptic times such as these.
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