CLEVELAND — Forty-eight hours before the Cleveland Cavaliers lost at home to a sub-.500 Sacramento Kings team, LeBron James sat in front of his locker at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans and touched and twisted his overgrown black beard as he unloaded on the state of his team.
He had been growing it for months and taken a liking to it. James joked that it was going to keep him warm for the winter, that his wife liked it and that, “It’s not like I can grow anything on top my head, so I might as well grow this.”
And that beard was on his face for some pretty good moments this season — a Christmas Day win over Golden State, keeping his mug shielded as he drove in a convertible with the top down to and from the arena; for 44 points, 10 assists and 9 rebounds in a win over Charlotte; for nine 3-pointers over a two-game span against Milwaukee, and on and on.
The Cavaliers did not respond to LeBron James’ challenges and dropped their third game in a row in an overtime loss to the Kings.
But things changed Monday. After Cleveland lost to a Pelicans team missing its all-everything star Anthony Davis, James challenged the franchise’s commitment to winning a repeat title. He echoed his incessant call for another playmaker, this time sprinkling in an expletive for good measure; potentially alienated teammates by describing the Cavs’ roster as “top heavy” and only including Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in that heavy portion; and finally, vowed to return to Twitter and reprise those cryptic tweets from last March that seemed to signal the Cavs season was heading off the rails.
The fallout was swift. The Cavs canceled practice on Tuesday afternoon and shootaround on Wednesday morning, giving the team some time away from each other before Wednesday’s 116-112 overtime loss to the Kings to regroup — we’ll get to the game in a minute.
Cavs coach Tyronn Lue used Wednesday’s pregame walkthrough to address James’ comments in front of the team with James present.
And somewhere along the line, as ESPN’s Marc Stein and Chris Haynes reported, the New York Knicks inquired to the Cavs about their interest in a Love for Carmelo Anthony swap and were summarily rebuffed.
James shaved that beard of his too, showing up with a finely-groomed look for the first time in a long time.
Maybe this was going to be the artificial restart to the season that the Cavs were craving. Grievances aired, bad play identified, embarrassment having washed over them, this was the time to cut the crap and get back on a championship track. A load off James’ chest and locks off his chin, right?
Well, then the game tipped off.
The Cavs found themselves down 10-0 against the Kings, and as bad as that was, it paled in comparison to blowing a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter or a five-point lead in overtime, or missing 17 of 34 free throws as a team, or coughing up 18 turnovers.
It was the Cavs’ sixth loss in their past eight games. It dropped them to 30-14, a mark that still leads the East by three games over Toronto, a team going through its own tough times.
All is not lost, but then again, all is not the same either.
As Love was soaking his feet in a bucket of ice water afterward, he could only manage a self-deprecating laugh when a couple of reporters mentioned the déjà vu feeling of the Cavs struggling and his name being linked to trade rumors — as if his integral contributions to last season’s championship never happened.
Meanwhile, James was dressed and ready to leave the locker room in record time, showing little interest in diving back into the comments he made in New Orleans that started this whole cycle.
“I have no reaction,” James said when asked about the potential Anthony deal. “We got 14 guys in here. We need to be ready every night, who we got in here we got to play. We can’t play fantasy basketball. We got who we got and we got to go out and play.”
Two seasons ago, the Cavs were 19-20 and ended up two wins from the title despite Love and Irving both getting hurt.
Last season, Cleveland fired its coach at the midway point and trailed 3-1 in the Finals to the greatest regular-season team in league history before winning it all.
How they’ll get out of their current predicament is anybody’s guess. It’s a head scratcher — or a beard twirler, perhaps more appropriately. The Cavs have proven that hiccups like this in the regular season mean little when it comes to figuring out where they’ll ultimately end up.
Things were starting to feel “normal” in Cleveland, a feeling that never has been James’ speed. He did something about it, and none of us should be shocked, really.
Just listen to what Richard Jefferson told Stein in a TrueHoop Podcast posted about three weeks ago.
“I always joke with him that he’s one of those guys — and it’s not surprising, I think lots of players with his kind of mindset and ability set — I think they thrive when things are a bit uncomfortable,” Jefferson said. “They don’t shy away from those moments. They don’t shy away from things being difficult. … I’m still an outsider looking in on his perspective, but when you look at the subliminal tweets or you look at him cracking jokes or you look at him kind of stoking the fire, it’s because he doesn’t ever want to be too comfortable. He never wants to feel comfortable. He always wants to feel uncomfortable. And I think that’s what pushes him. I think that’s part of the reason why he’s so great is that he’s never in a mode where like, ‘OK, this is a good place to be!’ No. He’s like, ‘Where can I go next? Where can I go next? I have to keep pushing and striving for another level of greatness.’ Because he knows that that’s the only way to achieve what he wants to achieve.”
What he wants is a fourth ring and if it takes making everybody else around him uncomfortable in the process, so be it.