It was pretty hard to ignore Cavaliers fans booing their voice boxes away at Quicken Loans Arena while the Rockets ran up the score in their eventual 120-88 blowout win Saturday night. And as Houston continued to widen the gap, it became apparent who fans had decided to be the unlucky target.
Midway through the second quarter and in pockets of the third, Cavs fans began booing Isaiah Thomas whenever he touched the ball. Sure they had reasons to heckle, and Thomas was an easy target: he finished with only 12 points on 5-of-13 shooting and missed shots that could have maybe, possibly stopped a Rockets’ run for a half-second.
But it’s pretty hard to blame a guy who was traded — unknowingly — from a team he lost his front tooth and damaged his hip for while dragging them to the Eastern Conference Finals. It’s even harder to blame him when Cleveland traded for him knowing he needed at least seven months to recover from said hip injury, plus additional time to get back into basketball shape.
No, Isaiah Thomas hasn’t been good. He went from averaging 29 points per game on some of the most clutch performances we’ve ever seen last season to just 15 points on lousy shooting numbers. But most should have known this was coming. You don’t just tear the labrum in your hip, miss seven months recovering, then snap back into All-Star shape. It takes time.
Regardless, Cavs fans aren’t booing for no reason. They’re booing because an Eastern Conference juggernaut has devolved into just the No. 3 seed in the East and the absolute worst defensive team in the league.
Blaming Thomas isn’t right. So who should fans be upset with?
How about Tyronn Lue?
The Cavaliers are a complete mess, and it’s up to the head coach to put his players in the best position to succeed. But somehow, Lue has evaded the brunt of criticism, as it’s been shifted to underperforming players.
The real issue in Cleveland is this: Players just don’t seem to be playing hard enough. They’re not hustling on defense, and when a shot doesn’t go, they’re not getting back. That’s all on coaching, which falls on Lue’s shoulders.
How much more leash is Cavs’ management willing to give its head coach if things continue to free fall?
Remember: David Blatt was the most successful head coach to ever be fired in NBA history. He was fired with a 30-11 record (.732 winning percentage), but he and LeBron James didn’t have the best relationship.
Tyronn Lue could only dream his 30-21 Cavaliers had 10 fewer defeats, and LeBron didn’t exactly give his head coach a glowing endorsement when asked about his job security. If the loss column continues to rise, there may be a personnel change in store sooner than we think.
What about Koby Altman?
The new general manager in charge made waves when he swindled the Celtics out of Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, the Brooklyn pick and a second-rounder for Kyrie Irving. But hindsight is 20/20, and with the Nets’ pick creeping closer to No. 10 than No. 1, it looks like Altman may have drawn the short end of the stick.
It’s a coach’s job to get the most of his players, but it’s the general manager’s job to put the roster together. Altman dealt Irving, then assembled the oldest roster in the NBA.
More teams are running and gunning than ever before, and the Cavs biggest issue is that they just can’t keep up for 48 minutes. Altman inherited some of this mess when David Griffin left, but he didn’t help it much with the moves he made. There’s still time left to salvage this season, and it’s unclear if a trade or a buyout market signing will improve.
It’s up to the GM to try.
Yes, LeBron is the best player in the world, and in Brooklyn we call this a big fact. But the best player in the world has to show up against the best teams in the league. Eleven points on 30 percent shooting is not showing up.
The Cavaliers move as LeBron moves, and this season, LeBron hasn’t moved with the passion of a player looking to make his eighth consecutive NBA Finals appearance. He’s playing more so like a disgruntled king whose soldiers only got two hours of sleep before war.
It’s time to wake your troops up.
Intensity trickles down from top to bottom, and that was apparent in the fourth quarter when LeBron gave his teammates a slight jolt of energy by intercepting a would-be alley-oop to Clint Capela. If LeBron plays like that for 48 minutes, maybe he encourages his teammates to play with the same energy.
Cavs fans can’t just direct their anger at one person. There are too many issues from defensive effort to offensive execution for that. But blaming Isaiah Thomas, who is still shooting his way back from a torn labrum in his hip (A TORN LABRUM IN HIS HIP!) is not the solution.
Cleveland’s issues are three-fold. It’s effort, it’s coaching, and it’s roster composition. All three can be improved. And if things don’t improve soon, we might not have seen rock bottom for the Cavaliers just yet.
And that, guys, is a very scary thought.