They walked over one by one. Clad in sweats and somber faces, the men who comprise the current Cleveland Cavaliers roster were one-man processions, walking from the far corner Cleveland Clinic Courts over to the padded wall that is laced with marketing blocks of the namesake. The Courts themselves are pristine, featuring some of the brightest, whitest light this side of Christmas. But on this day, while the fluorescent bulbs buzzed, the mood was very dark. On a day that should have been a collective sigh of relief given the end of a 24-win season, it was an afternoon laced with more uncertainty.
The team deemed it a “release,” but Byron Scott, the team’s head coach since the circus of 2010, was fired. Releasing is what you do to a fish that was just a bit too small. Firing is what happens when you swing a sword of accountability and opt to slice the lowest of the hanging fruit in hopes that the loss of one piece helps the rest of the tree grow taller. The players, one by one, slowly migrated over to the half circle of media members and spoke of a man lost. They spoke softly. They often looked down as they shared their thoughts. At one point, power forward Tristan Thompson got choked up and had to take a deep breath before continuing on with what Scott meant to his progress as a player1. They all claimed to be shocked by the team’s decision, many of them claimed they wish they could have done more to prevent it. A eulogy for a man who was still in the building.
“I wish I could’ve played more games for him,” oft-injured center Anderson Varjeao said of his former head coach. Injuries were one of the big supporting legs of Scott’s job-security stool. It was just a week ago when he graded himself with an “incomplete” due to not having the pieces needed to get the job done. Kyrie Irving missed 23 games this season; Daniel Gibson managed to go from one of Scott’s favorite players to bench fodder in the matter of two-plus years thanks to injuries and personal issues. Rookie guard Dion Waiters missed some time with a wonky knee, fellow first-timer Tyler Zeller had his nose turned sideways just a few weeks into his freshman campaign.
There was a players-only meeting on early Thursday morning, an occurrence that is rare when it comes to preceding the annual State of the Union that follows each season’s respective conclusion. It was at this point, the players iterated, that they knew something was up. Most of them had not had a chance to speak to Scott by this point, but some did. Irving, who was the most visibly unhappy—save for Thompson’s moment of lip-biting—was one of the few who did get a chance to see the man who drafted him, but very little was said. “We just looked at each other,” said Irving of the brief interaction. “I lost my basketball father.”
Truth is, a lot of the emotional outpouring, while expected given the circumstances, could have been avoided had this team managed to stick together when it mattered the most. There is a board which hangs on the wall outside of the coach’s office inside of the Cavaliers locker room which lists the entire league, ranked by opposing field goal percentage. It is this board, roughly four-feet tall in stature, that Scott was forced to see every time he opened his door. It was this board that, for the duration of the season, had his Cleveland Cavaliers slotted 30th, a position that may as well have been etched into the maple it hung on. While the accountability sword was swung at just one man, many more claimed to be at fault. “We’re all accountable—even me,” said Chris Grant. “We let him down,” said Waiters. “His résumé speaks for itself. We lost a lost a lot of games that we let slip away from us.”
But as Grant added, from a defensive standpoint, the team needed to be better. Ironically, it was just three short years ago when the team had released Mike Brown, a man who had perennially crafted one of the best defensive units in basketball, and did so with players named Newble and Pavlovic and Szczerbiak. In 2010, it was a stagnant offense that forced the Cavaliers to move on without Brown, coupled with fact that the team had to do something if it were to show LeBron James that next year would somehow be different. The pendulum swung all the way in Scott’s direction, talks of a fast-paced offense wooed everyone within earshot. Three years later, however, as Grant saw the best teams in the league—those who are still playing—be among the best from a defensive standpoint, it became apparent that the old school run-and-gun was not going to cut it. While he would dance around the question regarding Scott getting a fair shake in Cleveland, the point was clear: Progress was not made. If anything, this team regressed. And while every player was asked, none of them had the answer as to why.
There is not a single coach available, Phil Jackson included, who will be able to waltz into this pristine facility and turn this 24-win team (28 if you dig Pythagoras) and mold it into one that can win 50 games. Grant iterated that the team will be aggressive in free agency, but what their efforts yield remain to be seen. The Cavaliers’ best defensive player is on the wrong side of 30 and has not played more than 32 games since 2009-10. Their second-best defensive player is currently suiting up at the position that presents the team’s biggest weakness and has one year remaining on his contract. Sure, Grant has four draft selections at his disposal, two of which are in the top 17, but overall youth has been a crutch for three seasons. Not helping matters is the fact that the veteran leadership presently on the roster—Luke Walton, Wayne Ellington, Boobie Gibson—are staring at free agency and may make the overall roster even younger with any sort of departure.
Walton took to the media horde with his trademark froggy baritone voice, clad in a CLE t-shirt and backwards Cleveland Indians hat and discussed how much he enjoyed his time in Cleveland. Gibson referred to Cleveland as his home, iterating that he wants to be a part of this unit as they finally do achieve the level that they had been seaking since the departure of James in 2010. One by one, they came and they left, leaving nothing but a few quotes in their respective wakes as they walked out of the Courts’ doors one final time before start of the summer. But if there was one overriding emotion on this day, it was exhaustion. The players were sad, but everyone appeared tired. Tired of the uncertainty and tired of the daily grind that the NBA brings, but most of all, they were tired of losing. Scott’s departure was merely another wake-up call on a day that these men wanted nothing more but to sleep in.
Grant’s parting words were indicative not only of the decision to move on without the man they re-upped just six months earlier, but of the season that had just concluded. “It was hard, it was tough, but I feel it was the right decision,” he said. And with that, everyone packed up their bags and went onward to another summer of uncertainty. Free agents will come and go. Draft preparation will be had. Priority No. 1, per Grant, is batting the countless other openings and finding the right man for the job. Speculation will surround it all, the din replicating the sound of a few hundred fluorescent bulbs echoing through an empty gym.
(Photo via Scott Sargent/WFNY)
Thompson finished the season with a PER of 16.1, just 0.4 points shy of this season’s likely Rookie of the Year, Damian Lillard [↩]