INDEPENDENCE — With sweat streaking down his face and into his bushy beard, LeBron James was not in a playful mood following practice.
The cold stare. The pursed lips. The focus.
This is no time for frivolity.
With Cleveland in the midst of its annual January deep freeze, a troubling stretch where losing multiplies quickly into rumors, drama and even more distractions for the NBA’s most scrutinized superstar and his teammates, the Cavaliers are being questioned again.
And for good reason.
While they played well for more than three quarters in a loss — their ninth in 12 games — on Monday night to the defending champion Golden State Warriors, James found little to be encouraged about.
“You don’t win championships … losing a game is not encouraging at all,” he said. “I liked the way we played in the first half. I liked the way we competed. But you get encouraged when you come out here and work when there ain’t nobody watching. I’m more encouraged on what we did today than I am in the game the other day.”
The Cavs remain a work in progress, an incomplete picture.
Maybe even a damaged one.
Their aging roster, defensive deficiencies, injuries, Isaiah Thomas’ slow-and-still-uncertain comeback from a hip injury and an inability to beat the league’s elite teams have conjoined to raise doubts about whether the Cavs are still the best team in the Eastern Conference or one good enough to reach their fourth straight NBA Finals.
James, who is having another MVP-caliber season, didn’t offer any excuses for the team’s recent struggles, a stretch he called a “rough patch.”
The three-time champion conceded that this season has been difficult.
“It’s been very challenging just from the simple fact of how many guys have been in and out,” he said. “This is a difficult year for our team. Seems like I say that every year, but this one has been even more challenging. It’s been very challenging on our team. But we have to figure it out. At the end of the day, we have a game every other day or every two days just like everybody else in the NBA. We have to go out and play.”
These are fascinating and frustrating days for the Cavaliers, who opened the season 5-7, ripped off 18 wins in 19 games and have gone just 3-9 since Dec. 19, losing twice in that span to the Warriors, their rivals in each of the past three Finals.
Following Monday’s fourth straight loss, James said he was pleased with the team’s effort.
However, the same night, some unnamed Cleveland players told several media outlets privately that there was growing concern that the Cavs’ problems might not be fixable.
Coach Tyronn Lue was aware of the reports, and joked that the comments didn’t come from any players he knows.
“I’ve seen where people said sources say and I look down the roster and I don’t see no guy named sources,” Lue said. “We’re going to be fine. The guys are putting in the work. The last couple of games have been very positive even though we lost, so things are going to be fine.”
Things are looking better.
Thomas showed flashes of his All-Star form against the Warriors, playing his most minutes (32) since his return, and his role will expand. Derrick Rose could be back as early as Thursday against Orlando after being sidelined since Nov. 7 with a severe ankle injury. And the Cavaliers are in a stretch of playing seven of nine games at home.
The record should improve. Will the roster?
With the Feb. 8 trading deadline approaching, the Cavs might be able to land a top-tier player to help James if owner Dan Gilbert is willing to part with the first-round pick the team acquired from Boston in the summer trade involving Kyrie Irving. Of course, with James potentially becoming a free agent after this season, there’s major risk involved.
The Cavaliers must weigh whether it’s better to make a major move now and take another championship run this season or hang onto the pick to build for the future in case James leaves.
Whatever happens, Lue is confident his team will thrive.
“I believe,” he said.
James doesn’t seem as certain.
As the speculation builds about his future, he gave an interesting response when asked if the current team has enough to win a second NBA championship.
“That’s our goal and that’s what we got to work towards,” James said. “That’s what we’re here for.”