CLEVELAND — For a superstar who has made “I Promise” the heart of his life-changing foundation and its educational initiatives for Akron schoolchildren, it is time for promises kept.
Or at least it will be after Thursday’s NBA trade deadline.
LeBron James seems engaged in an all-out stare-down with Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert over roster changes that look crucial for the team to contend for the Eastern Conference title. With James’ lack of effort in January that bled over into Saturday night’s 32-point blowout loss at home to the Houston Rockets, he appears to be sending a message with his malaise.
With four losses by 24 points or more since Jan. 8 and a 6-12 record since Christmas, the Cavs have slipped to just one-half game out of fourth in the East. February’s schedule includes games against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Boston Celtics, Oklahoma City Thunder, Washington Wizards and San Antonio Spurs. The Cavs are stocked with defensively deficient players who now can’t score against the league’s upper echelon.
James has watched Chris Paul, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Jimmy Butler and Blake Griffin change teams since last summer. The Cavs have made no significant upgrades, only a downgrade, succumbing to Kyrie Irving’s demand to be traded.
The deal’s centerpiece, Isaiah Thomas, is much further away from regaining his All-Star form after seven months rehabbing a torn labrum in his right hip that perhaps even the Cavs expected. He seems virtually unplayable, although coach Tyronn Lue is sticking with him since the Cavs knew Thomas would need time to find his legs and rhythm.
Some franchises might find a way to convince Thomas to get some minutes in home games with the G League’s Canton Charge, even though Thomas dismissed that suggestion almost immediately when he returned. Judging from how the Cavs handled the Irving situation, their front office might not have such a persuasive communicator.
It seems a given that James will opt out of his contract and become a free agent in July. Gilbert has to be tired of being strung along by James every time such an opportunity presents itself, while also paying $137 million in salaries this season and millions more in luxury tax and the hefty repeater tax.
James is surely making a statement that the Cavs don’t have enough at the present to make him want to return. But if the four-time league MVP continues to play so far below the standards he’s set during his 15-year career, it will make his comments on Friday seem like lip service.
In calling an ESPN report that he would listen to the Golden State Warriors in free agency “nonsense,” James said, “My focus right now and I’m driven right now to figure out how we can put the right basketball (together) every single night to compete for a championship and get to the Finals for a fourth straight year.”
Then he treated Saturday’s nationally televised game against the Rockets like a walk-through. There was no drive, no motivation shown to help the Cavs figure out this mess, except for an interesting first-quarter huddle discussion with assistant coach Mike Longabardi. James shot 3-of-10 from the field in scoring 11 points, with nine rebounds and nine assists in 31 minutes.
Lue, whose job is safe according to a postgame report by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, did the right thing by sitting James for the entire fourth quarter, preventing what would have been one of the weakest triple-doubles of James’ career.
At halftime with ABC’s Lisa Salters and afterward, Lue said the Cavs were soft and lacked toughness.
“I didn’t think we really knuckled down and joined the fight,” he said.
That kind of attitude starts with James. Even if his funk stems from dissatisfaction with Gilbert and the franchise, it infects his teammates. If he’s mailing it in, they follow suit.
When it was suggested Friday that his January averages weren’t characteristic of his career, James agreed, but said, “I’ll be all right. ... I’ll give you better numbers. I promise you.”
James uttered the word that is such a part of his legacy and the impact he’s making on his hometown. If he wants to continue to go through the motions and throw away the Cavs’ chances to play in the Finals for the fourth consecutive season because of a feud with Gilbert, he shouldn’t have used the phrase that has inspired so much hope and trust.
It seems a given that James will opt out of his contract and become a free agent in July.