Without being inside Isaiah Thomas’ mind, it seems fair to declare that the chip on his shoulder has never been bigger. Coming off two NBA All-Star Game berths and a masterful offensive season in Boston, Thomas believed he had finally established his league bonafides. The world had finally acknowledged what he knew all along: not only could he have an NBA career, but he could have an excellent NBA career. He could be a star.
Then the Celtics traded him.
That Thomas took this personally was obvious from every interview he did, from every piece he published in The Players’ Tribune. He has some real anger for Boston, particularly Celtics boss Danny Ainge. That anger manifests in motivation: Thomas wants to show the Celtics they made a mistake. He wants to prove them wrong. He wants to beat them. And not as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers necessarily — he has established no real bonds there. He, as a basketball player, just wants to beat Boston. This is vengeance.
Meanwhile, Kevin Love does have bonds in Believeland. He came to the Cavaliers as a legitimate star putting up Moses Malone numbers. The only question about him was whether he could win games. In Cleveland, he did. Injury prevented him from helping James in the 2015 NBA Finals. After signing a big new contract to stay, Love spent much of the next season as the subject of trade murmurs.
In fact, those murmurs about what the Cavaliers would need to do with Love circulated all the way until midway through the 2016 Finals, up to the moment when Love locked down unanimous MVP Stephen Curry in a Game 7 crunch-time possession to help give Cleveland its first championship in eons.
The Love trade murmurs have been much quieter ever since.
Thomas has proven himself time and again, at the University of Washington, in Sacramento, in Boston. It must be frustrating that he would have to prove himself again in Cleveland.
Love has sacrificed more than any other Cavalier over the past four years, in shots, role, minutes, reputation. It must be frustrating that he would again take a back seat, this time to someone who hasn’t proven anything as a Cav.
You can see why there would be friction here.
The level of friction, though, is extraordinary and destructive. Reports out of Ohio suggest Thomas led the critiques of Love last week at that bizarre burlesque of a team meeting. Love had committed the crime of leaving the arena after leaving a game sick; that game turned into Cleveland’s most embarrassing loss of the season. This was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back: It was not the fact that the Cavaliers gave up 148 points in regulation to a middling offensive opponent, but that a sick teammate didn’t bother to witness it in person.
The meeting apparently resolved little, and though the Cavaliers are winning games again (miracle of miracles!), Love showed up Thomas on the court Friday in a display Cleveland players acknowledge as an intended insult. (The players acknowledge this off the record, of course.) Love would appear to be fed up with Thomas. Not knowing exactly what was said in the infamous meeting — seriously, this confab is gaining legendary status as time goes on — we can’t really judge how fair is Love’s fury. But we all know it’s not a good thing for the Cavaliers to have the second- and third-most important players on the team fighting in front of the Basketball Gods and everyone.
Thomas is tired of having to prove himself, and surely frustrated with the toll that hip injury continues to take on his game. There’s little doubt he realizes every day that ticks by brings him closer to an increasingly uncertain free agency. That reality must only compound the stress of it all and stoke the internal fire that forces him to shoot shoot shoot even if he’s not getting the quality of shots he needs and expects.
Love is tired of being the scapegoat, tired of sacrificing for guys who haven’t been in the trenches these four years, tired of being critiqued for no good reason when he’s had a very strong season. Love knows that he is not the reason Cleveland is five games out of first place. He does his job quite well, and has been with James long enough to know when to ratchet up the effort. Who is a new guy to come in and demand something different, especially when that new guy can’t hit a shot or get to the cup (and certainly isn’t defending well)?
Nothing we know about Thomas leads us to believe he’ll back off, and coach Tyronn Lue does not seem to be considering moving him to the bench. (Instead, Tristan Thompson replaced Jae Crowder in the starting five last week in Lue’s big shake-up.) Nothing suggests that Love should be anything but annoyed, though the Friday incident was — assuming the intent matched the hypotheses being suggested — beneath him.
Unfortunately, it’s up to LeBron James to fix this.
So much remains unknown about that team meeting, but there hasn’t been any reporting suggesting that James stepped in to defend Love. Perhaps he too was annoyed that Love left the arena. (That’d be unfortunate; remember when James fled for Miami for two weeks early in his partnership with Kyrie Irving and Love?) Perhaps James tuned out amid the drama — there really hasn’t been any reporting of what the captain said or did during the blow-up.
James has been passive-aggressive with Love in the past, and it really feels that while they constitute a beautiful basketball pairing, they are work friends, much like Irving and James were. We know how that ended.
At the same time, there’s no reason James should be especially sympathetic to Thomas, even moreso considering the fact that the Thomas trade may have cost James another trip to the Finals and a shot at second revenge against the Warriors. On Zach Lowe’s podcast last week, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported that James is under the impression that Cleveland had a shot at landing both Eric Bledsoe and Paul George in a series of Irving moves this summer. Every time James looks at Thomas and, uh, Ante Zizic, he must be reminded of what could have been.
James is personally in a weird place with both guys. But Dwyane Wade reportedly jumped into the Love critique with Thomas, and James is Wade’s close friend. If you’re the leader of this team, the glue that holds it all together, and the reason anyone cares what happens behind closed doors — if you’re James in this situation, it’s your job to bring everyone together.
That might mean you need to call bulls—t on bulls—t. That might mean you should defend the dudes who have actually been there with you in the trenches against the Warriors and the league. That might mean telling Wade to cool it. While acknowledging we don’t know everything said, there’s no indication James did any of that. The fact that things have spilled onto the court and gotten worse doesn’t help assuage those concerns that James is just watching it unfold.
Perhaps winning will disinfect the locker room. Perhaps Thomas will adjust to his new physical reality and start contributing at a high level. Perhaps someone outside the Cavaliers will do the Cavaliers the favor of starting a feud with the team, galvanizing them around a common enemy. (Joel Embiid, please answer the courtesy phone.) Perhaps James will step in and pull people into line.
Or maybe this is the end of the Cavaliers as we know them. James is a free agent in July. There are plenty of dysfunctional teams out there to join. Cleveland is not unique in that regard. Only time will tell which way this carousel spins.