CLEVELAND – Tristan Thompson has been here before with the Cleveland Cavaliers post-LeBron James. And he’s here again.
The common theme: When James leaves the Cavaliers – as he did in 2010 and 2018 – the franchise is left in his wake facing serious issues.
Cleveland was 19-63, 21-45, 24-58 and 33-49 in the four seasons following his departure eight years ago, and Thompson was there for three of them, joining the Cavs as a rookie in 2011.
This season, after James left Cleveland for the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency, the Cavs started 0-6 and fired coach Tyronn Lue. Interim coach Larry Drew wanted to restructure his contract, All-Star forward Kevin Love is out long term with a toe injury, former assistant coach Jim Boylan filed an age discrimination lawsuit against the team, veterans bickered about rookie Collin Sexton, and JR Smith wants out. He may get his wish; the Cavs said Tuesday that Smith is no longer with the team as they try to move him.
So, things are not going well for the 2-13 Cavaliers, who have the worst record in the NBA and Wednesday play host to James and the Lakers.
“I’ve been here long enough so I’ve seen it all,” Thompson said.
Cleveland is trying to find bright spots, all of them in the future. The team is going through a transformation. They are renovating Quicken Loans Arena and rebuilding the team, and the NBA just rewarded the franchise with the 2022 All-Star Game.
The Cavs hope to be in a much better place by then. They drafted Sexton with the No. 8 overall pick in June, and if they continue to play this way, they will have a good chance at drafting one of Duke’s trio of talented freshmen – R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Zion Williamson. And with Love locked into a contract extension through the 2022-23 season, Cleveland may trade him at some point for another first-round pick.
This is Cleveland’s – and owner Dan Gilbert’s – chance to rebuild without the idea of in-his-prime James returning to guarantee a contending team.
“Of course, it’s tough because you want to win every game,” Thompson said. “But this season, it’s bigger than wins and losses, and you want to see the development. You want to see guys getting better.”
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Thompson was once the young player trying to find his way in the NBA. Now, he’s the veteran trying to help the young players, including Sexton, Cedi Osman and Ante Zizic.
“You have to be patient,” Thompson said. “You look at it as baby steps trying to get better. That’s how I approach it. When you’re trying to figure it out or going through ruts, the most important (thing) is playing the game the right way and developing winning habits.”
'We're going to take bumps and bruises'
That’s what Drew, 60, is here to do. He’s a veteran NBA coach, and combined with his playing days, is a basketball lifer. He’s not rattled by Cleveland’s chaotic situation.
“I’ve been in this thing for a few years, and I can say I’ve seen it all,” Drew said. “I’ve been in this situation before. The most important thing is you understand this business side of it. As far as questioning why certain things happen, I learned years ago to stop doing that. Just try to move on as fast as you can. Given what our situation has been, that’s exactly what I did.”
At the heart of Smith’s disgruntlement is the playing time allocated to veterans, including Kyle Korver. Smith wants minutes, and that’s just not going to happen with any consistency.
“We want to develop our younger guys,” Drew said. “How do you develop? By playing and we’re going to take some bumps and bruises with those guys as far as mistakes are concerned and we’re willing to do that.”
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