INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — Off to a 3-4 start and struggling to live up to the standard set en route to three straight Eastern Conference titles, the Cleveland Cavaliers held an air-it-out meeting with the entire team prior to practice Tuesday.
“Off the court we’ve got great chemistry, great bond,” said Cavs coach Tyronn Lue. “Just, on the court we just got to be better. Like, talking, communicating, enjoying the game together. Having fun. … Right now guys are not having fun.”
There’s not much to enjoy about ranking 25th in opponent points allowed (110.1), 21st in opponent field goal percentage (45.9 percent), 27th in opponent 3-point percentage (39.9 percent) and dead last in opponent 3-pointers made per game (13.7). The talk didn’t just focus on the Cavs’ defensive deficiencies, but what needs to be done to correct them.
“Naturally, the slow start that we’ve had prompted us to just all get on the same page and kind of figure out what we need to do,” said Kevin Love. “I feel like we can get in better shape, that’s going to help us on the defensive end. Communication, energy and just getting the new guys to (become) adjusted, well adjusted and on the floor, more time together. So time will tell how it’s going to play out, but we have a lot of really good positive energy from today, so, it was a great practice.”
LeBron James was a “vocal” participant in the meeting, a source present on Tuesday told ESPN, but he was not the lone voice.
“Most everyone spoke,” the source added. “Was very productive.”
Team meetings are nothing new for NBA teams, the Cavs especially. During their championship season in 2015-16, they had several players-only talks as early as November.
But with James off to his worst personal start to a season since the Cavs went 2-5 his rookie year, Cleveland trying to incorporate eight new players added from last season’s NBA Finals team and the group already having to juggle several injuries on top of Isaiah Thomas‘ injured hip, it was time.
“I mean it’s early in the season, I feel like, to do it but it wasn’t one of those meetings where it was so ‘over the top,’ so to speak,” Love said. “It was just figuring out exactly what we need to do. We watched certain segments on film of the game. We broke down film a little bit differently and came out here and got some good work in.”
Between the meeting, film and on-court work, the Cavs’ practice ran more than three hours, about twice as long as a normal day. When Lue took over in January 2016, he similarly lamented how his team wasn’t in good enough shape to play at the pace he wanted it to in order to be successful. He relied on longer practices, cardio-focused shootaround activities and individual player accountability to literally get the team up to speed.
“I just think we’ve had moments in previous seasons where we’ve had this conversation I feel like where just our rate of play, our pace of play is even more so what I’m talking about,” Love said. “Maybe ‘out of shape’ is the wrong word. It’s just getting into our sets, secondary offense and miss or make, getting the ball out and pushing it. I think that’s more than anything what I’m trying to say.”
The Cavs rank 14th in the league in offensive efficiency, scoring 104.3 points per 100 possessions, and they rank 16th in pace, using 100.3 possessions per game.
“Focused more on getting in better shape,” Lue said. “I see after today’s practice, watching us today, damn. It’s a big difference. I’m screaming play with pace, and move the ball, move bodies, we got to get in better shape to do that.” Lue said that James — Cleveland’s leader in points (24.6), assists (8.6) and steals (1.0) per game — is also not in the type of shape he needs to be in after playing in only one of the Cavs’ five preseason games because of a sprained left ankle.
“Missing the whole training camp and getting hurt the second day of practice really set him back as far as being able to fly around and push the pace offensively and defensively fly around,” Lue said. “He’s trying to work himself back in shape, but the games are coming so fast and it’s hard to really do that. The best way to do that is by him playing more minutes and getting in game shape and we just got to go from there.”
James is averaging 37.0 minutes per game, down from his league-leading 37.8 minutes per game a season ago, but still tied for fourth this season as a 32-year-old. Love would like every player to max out his energy when he’s on the court, even if it means playing fewer minutes and conceding to a fresher player coming off the bench.
“I’m not saying that guys are taking plays off, but just (not) going super hard,” Love said. “We have the luxury of being able to put guys in different spots and a really deep roster where we don’t have to necessarily log 30-plus minutes, even the starters. So just go hard; if you’re tired, ask for a sub.”
Love said that even before the team meeting, the Cavs started the week off right at James’ annual Halloween party. James dressed like Pennywise the clown from “It;” Love was WWE wrestler Sting, complete with red face paint; Thomas was Eazy-E from N.W.A.; Kyle Korver was Willy Wonka (the Johnny Depp version); Tristan Thompson was Khal Drogo from “Game of Thrones”; Dwyane Wade and his wife, Gabrielle Union, dressed up as Milli Vanilli; JR Smith was a Conehead; Channing Frye was Blankman; Jae Crowder was Prince Akeem from “Coming to America”; and rookie Cedi Osman wore a Freddy Krueger costume so intricate that it took him two hours to put it on and two hours to take it off.
“I think it was good for us,” Love said. “I think it definitely lightened the mood and it was definitely a get-to-know-you moment with a lot of guys. … I think in some odd way it will definitely help us.”