With his Cleveland Cavaliers taking the floor, having lost their last five games, but playing host to a shorthanded Los Angeles Lakers team which had had recently been tag-teamed by Mother Nature and the Injury Bug, Chris Grant sauntered up a flight of temporary stairs and stepped foot into his baseline-side box. Roughly 25 square feet of plywood, builder-grade carpet and folding chairs, it’s a perch that resembles more of a holding unit at customs than one for an extremely well-paid NBA executive, but such is life. The box is elevated enough to provide a decent view of the floor from such close proximities, but also equidistant between the Cavaliers’ bench and the team’s locker room. The 6-foot-10-inch Grant was adorned in his uniform—a dark suit anchored by black loafers. Coffee was in hand. Glasses were off.
Flanked by two other sharp-suited members of the Cavs, Grant sat nearest to the tunnel-side wall. His team had just finished warm-ups. The Star-spangled Banner rang through the partially filled corridors of Quicken Loans Arena; the team’s Bone Thugs-n-Harmony-turned-bass-thumping-techno player introductory song would follow. The Lakers had just traveled across the country and were on the second night of a back-to-back stint in the thick of a once-in-40-year winter storm. They came equipped with just eight players, none of which were named Kobe or Pau or Nash. As bad as the Cavaliers had been, the Lakers had lost seven-consecutive games and 19 of their last 22. Grant’s team was seven-point favorites.
As the first eight minutes of basketball took place, Grant looked on as his team fired up jump shot after jump shot—his All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving started the game off by missing a 26-footer 22 seconds in; Luol Deng, Anderson Varejao, Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson would all miss a jumper of their own. It was at this point where the nervous ticks began to infiltrate the general manager’s otherwise poised frame. Sips of coffee. Licking of the lips. Crossing, and re-crossing, of his legs. On the other end, the Lakers responded with a flurry of uncontested three-pointers and in-paint waltzes turned into easy points. During one specific sequence, the Cavs, having just allowed an eight-foot bank shot from the hand of point guard Kendall Marshall, brought the ball up the floor. Irving drifted to his right before leaving his feet and dropping the ball off to Anthony Bennet who had been flanked over his right shoulder. The wayward pass was on its way out of bounds before the rookie dove to the floor with the grace of a knapsack full of cinder blocks, deflecting the ball toward the direction of Deng. The recently acquired small forward retreated toward the ball which was drifting out of bounds near the Cavaliers’ bench; he lept into the air as to not step on the sideline, shuffling the ball into the corner where Waiters had been standing. As the shot clock ticked down, Waiters attempted to re-route the basketball to Irving who had no choice but to kick it back to the shooting guard. Waiters launched a three-pointer from the corner; it barely caught the front piece of the rim before falling into the hands of Lakers guard Nick Young. Young progressed the ball up the floor. Swingman Wesley Johnson, an underachieving former fourth-overall draft selection, would finish the play with an uncontested dunk.
Cavs head coach Mike Brown was left with little choice but to call a timeout. As the players began retreating to the bench, Brown turned his back toward the floor and motioned to his shoulders as to signal a 20-second variety in one fell swoop. The Cavs were down 17 points in less than 11 minutes of play; a chorus boos rained down from the stands. Grant sucked both of his lips into his mouth as if he were attempting to disappear from Earth face first. Cannon-launched FirstMerit-branded t-shirts whizzed by his head like bottle rockets. Grant simply looked on, completely unfazed by the sights or sounds surrounding him.
Like many general managers who lay restless in the beds which they make, Grant, the Cleveland Cavaliers chief decision maker, addressed the media in the midst of what could best be described as a season-long rough patch. When the Cleveland Indians, the team’s baseball-playing counterparts, rolled off a five-win month of August in 2012, it was Chris Antonetti who sat in his team’s dugout, waiting for the firing squad armed with pens and paper and various recording devices as they hurled their inquiries of despair and disappointment. Rather than hiding and waiting until after the season had come to a close, scheduling some sort of dais-based address, Antonetti sat on the same level as the media and conversed. He pulled no punches, explaining that everyone—from ownership on down to the 25th man—was accountable for the poor play which was occurring between the chalked lines. On Wednesday afternoon, with little in the way of advanced notice, pomp and circumstance, Grant spoke of his 16-win team that has underachieved in every sense of the word.
“We’re all accountable for it, including myself,” Grant said. “It’s frustrating. It’s disappointing to our fans. The fans deserve better. The lack of effort is just not acceptable. It’s not who we are and who we want to be. It’s got to be addressed head on. There’s no excuse for that, but we’ve seen our guys compete and execute consistently, and that’s really what we’ve got to do a better job of.”
The stars were to be aligned. Multiple top-five draft selections, two of which were drafted first-overall in their resepective classes. A two-time All-Star. A hand-picked head coach who was brought in to reshape a franchise that had all but forgotten how to impose anything that resembled defense. Multiple free agents to help fill in the roster’s gaps while adding a layer of veteran leadership. A cake walk of an Eastern Conference in a league where teams are jockeying for 2014 lottery selections. Yet there they stood, grouped in amongst the dregs of the Eastern Conference, toiling with a teeter-totter of thoughts where, sure, they are just a handful of games out of the playoff picture, but in the same regard, do they deserve to be? If the Cavaliers could—somehow—provide .500-level basketball from this point forward, they would be looking at a win total of 36 or 37 games. The Milwaukee Bucks represented the eighth-seed in the 2012-13 postseason with a record of 38-44.
What one deserves can be a tedious topic. Do the Cavaliers deserve to make the playoffs? The talent is there, but the heart, effort and know-how appear to be a few of the missing pieces to this wilting puzzle. Grant, in his address, said that the fans of the Cavs—the very people who have kept Cleveland among the league’s best in attendance over the last three seasons despite perennial losing—deserve better. This obviously instills good feelings as the 6-foot-10-inch man made it about those who are paying their hard-earned money to watch men play a kid’s game. But in the same light, fans know they deserve better. They deserve better from the Cavaliers just as much as they do from their football playing counterparts in Berea. But as the seasons unfold and heads are left shaking, words tend to ring hollow. Fans, like the players they root for, can only be sold the same story for so long before the end game begins to be questioned.
Cleveland Scene’s Sam Allard recently painted a harrowing picture of a general manager who is, for lack of a better term, tired. With a concave chest the product of many sleepless nights, Grant had addressed a select group of fans shortly after he had traded the incentive-laden contract of Andrew Bynum for an All-Star small forward in Deng. The guarantees in the Bynum contract effectively created an early-January trade deadline that kept the Cavaliers front office on the phones for the majority of the holiday season. Though it was now late January, Grant admitted to putting his children to bed just once since Christmas. He referred to the woebegone Eastern Conference as “confusing.” He maintained that the Cavs’ goal was to make the playoffs in addition to keeping Deng—who would later be the subject of a piece laced with rumors of unhappiness—and signing at least one more star-quality free agent. Dan Gilbert’s wallet knows no bounds.
Following what would ultimately be an 11-point loss to the Lakers, a team which was forced to finish the game with just five players (one of which was subject to the rarely used disqualified player rule that allows a player who has fouled out of a contest to remain playing out of dire need), both the head coach in Brown and players like Irving and Jack discussed all-too-familiar talking points like effort, want-to and “finding answers.” Both guards, along with the majority of the starting five, finished the contest on the bench as Brown opted to go with a handful of hard-nosed, effort-more-than-talent reserves who managed to trim a 26-point lead to just six points with a minute remaining. Both guards stated that had they been the head coach, they would have made the same decision.
“They definitely deserved to be on the floor,” said Irving. “They did a heck of a job fighting until the end. We took the starters out, put the second group in and they did a heck of a job getting stops and passed the ball well and trusted one another. They did the little things to get us back into the game.”
Matthew Dellavedova and Anderson Vareajo and Anthony Bennett (of all players) led the Cavaliers on a comeback run that managed to energize a crowd which had spent the majority of the evening exhausting themselves with disgruntled noises, feverish tweets of disgust, head shaking and throwing their hands up in the air out of despair. For at least 12 minutes, the 15,000 fans who made the trek to Quicken Loans Arena to watch their disappointing team forgot that the guys in Lakers jerseys were named “Kelly” and “Sacre,” and simply wanted to see a victory, regardless of how much their team deserved it.
The air would ultimately be sucked from the stands as there simply was not enough time left on the clock for the Cavs to close the gap. Fans filed out of the arena right behind the two members of the team who had shared the courtside box with Grant, for the team’s general manager had vacated prior to the start of the second quarter, seemingly unable to take any more of pain in person.