Thursday night the Cleveland Cavaliers planned a team dinner, an annual event on the eve of the playoffs meant to boost camaraderie and usher in togetherness before the grind of the second season begins.
They might need it.
There have been a handful of thorns in the defending champs’ side during the regular season. They have had some technical issues and they have had some health issues — but what has been unexpected is some spiritual issues. The Cavs haven’t been having much fun lately.
Having fun was an element that was vital in their run to a championship last season. One of the signature memories was the unusual mascot Lil Kev, which was derived from a model in a Tommy Bahama ad — that hilariously resembled Kevin Love — that Richard Jefferson came across in a seatback pocket magazine on a charter flight during the playoffs. When the inside joke became public thanks to social media, it became a bit of a rallying cry that helped define their run.
Ultimately, there were a lot of reasons the team won the title last season. But their fantastic chemistry was a factor, something that helped keep them together after falling down 3-1 in the Finals.
Recently that has been lacking, and it has shown up in the locker room, on the bench and even on the court.
Earlier this week, the Cavs dropped a spirited game in Miami with four starters sitting as the backups battled admirably. It was a loss, one of a bunch of late, but it revealed how beaten down some had been feeling.
“I think the biggest thing was, you saw guys playing for each other, guys weren’t yelling at each other,” Channing Frye said after the game. “And I think for us that was a step in the right direction.”
Two weeks ago, after what should’ve been an uplifting overtime victory over the Indiana Pacers, an on-court spat between Tristan Thompson and LeBron James carried over into the locker room. The chilly mood — several players bolted without speaking to the media — made it seem as if the team had just lost.
That type of situation is what helped convince general manager David Griffin to make a coaching change last season, firing David Blatt when the Cavs were in first place. Part of his reasoning, he explained at the time, was the absence of joy even after victories. That bug, it seems, has returned to a degree as the Cavs have struggled through injuries, bad losses and general inconsistency during the second half of the season. Nobody is saying the mood is the same, but it’s an uncomfortable reminder.
The Cavs haven’t been strangers to drama in the past few seasons; sometimes they’ve thrived with it. What they’ve got right now isn’t really drama, however: It’s more of an absence of feeling. A mix of lethargy, boredom and exasperation.
“This year has been very challenging by the simple fact that a lot of our guys haven’t been able to make road trips,” James said. “When J.R. [Smith] was out three months, he wasn’t able to be on road trips with us. When Kev [Love] was hurt, he couldn’t make the road trips. And some other guys couldn’t make the road trips. So automatically some of those things changed because we don’t have our full unit. And we’ve had 24 different players on our team this year, so that’s changed.”
It has been a rough season for an array of reasons. Frye tragically lost both of his parents. Smith’s wife gave birth prematurely to his daughter and she has been in the hospital for months.
The training room has been full. A couple of players, Chris Andersen and Andrew Bogut, had season-ending injuries and were traded or cut. Others were with the team for months, only to be waived to bring in more players. The team, very unusually, signed two players on the final day of the regular season.
Meanwhile, the Cavs have been badgered by detractors when resting banged-up players. They had a brutal schedule in March, when they played a franchise-record 12 road games.
Not a lot of fun in there.
“Every year’s different. Every year is challenging,” James said. “You have to be able to, if the year’s not going as well as you might have planned, you’ve got to be able to adjust to that, which is OK.”
James said it could be a mistake to compare one season to another, to assume what worked last season would work again this year. Veterans frequently talk about the different paths a season can take, where sometimes adversity ends up being the best elixir.
“We live in the moment and we have to focus on what needs to be done today and go from there,” James said. “It was hard to get a lot of camaraderie and cohesiveness on the floor of a steady diet of what we know we can be with all the injuries every time. I feel like we got healthy, somebody else went out, back in, went out.”
The expectation is some normalcy and continuity will return now that there are no abnormal scheduling patterns. There’s time for practices. The games mean more, the road trips require a bunker mentality and any victory carries the currency the regular season just didn’t for the defending champs.
As they search for some traction, that seems to be what the Cavs are hoping for.
“It’s just getting back to being us,” coach Ty Lue said. “Everyone is healthy and with us being healthy, I think that gives us a lot of confidence and that’s the main key for us.”
ESPN.com reporter Dave McMenamin contributed to this story.