CLEVELAND -- Following the Cleveland Cavaliers' 118-108 loss to the Golden State Warriors on Monday, multiple players acknowledged growing discontent and a strong sense of concern that unlike past seasons, the team does not have the capability to fix its problems and get back on a championship track.
Several prominent players, speaking on condition of anonymity to ESPN, Cleveland.com and The Athletic, expressed doubt that the problems -- an aging roster, defensively challenged personnel and a glut of redundant role players -- could simply be worked out through patience and a chance to coalesce when fully healthy.
With the trade deadline looming Feb. 8, the Cavaliers do have some options, including trading their 2018 first-round pick, which could fetch interest on the market. In addition, they also have Brooklyn's unprotected first-round pick in this year's draft, acquired in the Kyrie Irving deal. However, several league sources told ESPN that the Cavs would prefer to hold onto the pick as a potential franchise-resetting asset should LeBron James leave as a free agent in July.
It has been an up-and-down season for the Cavs, who started off 5-7, then reeled off 18 wins in 19 games only to fall into their current slump -- a 3-9 record since Dec. 19.
Furthermore, many of the team's wins came against inferior opponents. The loss to the Warriors on Monday dropped Cleveland's record to 1-6 this season against the top three teams in either conference -- 0-2 against Golden State, 0-1 against Houston, 0-1 against Minnesota, 0-1 against Toronto and 1-1 against Boston.
Entering Monday night, Cleveland ranked 29th in defensive efficiency, allowing 109.3 points per 100 possessions. Over the past 20 seasons, no team that finished in the bottom two in defensive efficiency made the NBA playoffs, let alone the NBA Finals, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Cavs are attempting to make a fourth straight Finals appearance after going 1-2 in the championship round against the Warriors the past three years. James is personally attempting to make it for an eighth straight time and a ninth time overall -- he is 3-5 in the Finals thus far.
Naturally the disappointment of the Warriors loss was fresh on players' minds when they spoke Monday. The game was competitive for a spell, with the Cavs holding a seven-point edge at halftime, but the Warriors overwhelmed them down the stretch, outscoring Cleveland 61-44 in the second half and holding the Cavs to 6-for-23 shooting (26.1 percent) in the fourth quarter.
"It seemed like the rim just got smaller and smaller," James said. "Like our effort tonight. If we continue on that, going into our next few games, then I like where we are."
Earlier in the week, James said, "I love our potential," when asked about the state of the Cavs. The question is whether that potential will be realized.
While the Cavs' hot streak eased tensions earlier this season, Cleveland's formula for success through the uptick was not sustainable. The team was playing primarily a nine-man rotation that did not include two primary players in Tristan Thompson, who was out with a left calf injury, and Isaiah Thomas, who had yet to make his Cavs debut as he recovered from a torn labrum in his right hip that sidelined him for more than seven months.
Thomas, acquired from the Boston Celtics along with the Nets' first-round pick, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and an additional second-round pick in the Irving trade in August, played his most minutes (32) in the five games since making his Cavs debut but shot 8-for-21 (including 1-for-7 from 3).
"I just want him to take the shots that are given to him," said Cavs coach Tyronn Lue. "Not forcing shots, but if someone, whoever is on the team that can shoot the basketball, if they're open 21 times, then take your shots. It's not about the amount of shots, it's the amount of good shots. If they're your shots then you've got to be ready to take them."
There are natural comparisons being drawn in the Cavs' locker room between Thomas and Irving, by virtue of them playing the same position and being swapped for one another. Irving, who has led the Celtics to a firm hold on the No. 1 record in the East, was known for turning it on at times during the Cavs' annual doldrums and raising everyone's level of intensity -- James included. And Irving shined in the biggest moments, averaging 29.4 points on 47.2 percent shooting in the Finals against the Warriors last June.
While an evaluation period to gauge what Thomas will ultimately be able to bring to the Cavs is natural -- Thomas suggested over the weekend it could take him "15 to 20 games or maybe a month" before he would be "back to the level that [I am] used to playing at" -- his timeline is dovetailing with the final weeks leading up to the trade deadline.
That could also include an adjustment period that any sort of major trade would bring. And midseason trades are just as much an annual tradition for the Cavs as midseason slumps -- with deals completed the past several years to acquire Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Timofey Mozgov in 2015; Channing Frye in 2016 and Kyle Korver in 2017.
"I'm not anticipating anything," Lue said before the Warriors game when asked about potentially accommodating new pieces in his rotation.