PHOENIX -- Still wearing part of his uniform after another loss, Kevin Love emerged from the visitors locker room Tuesday night and immediately buttonhooked into the adjacent practice gym at US Airways Center. Cleveland Cavaliers general manager David Griffin was on his heels.
Love hadn't played at all in the fourth quarter of the Cavs' 107-100 loss to the Phoenix Suns, which surely seemed like a result of Love's role in opposing power forward Markieff Morris racking up a career-high 35 points. It was the second time in the past few weeks Love was benched for the fourth quarter for defensive purposes and the second time it seemed to be a prudent decision by coach David Blatt.
A few minutes later, Suns big man Miles Plumlee casually strode in with a basketball under his arm, presumably looking to get some shots up after he didn't get one in his brief, three-minute stint during the game. But after realizing what he'd walked in on, he turned on his heel and canceled that plan.
That right there is this Cavs' season. It's one fire to put out after another without the badly needed winning that puts the ugly stuff under the carpet.
One day it's an offensive quote, such as when Blatt, in the midst of attempting to belittle a reporter Gregg Popovich-style without the cache or depth of knowledge of the CBA, tripped on his own snark when inaccurately referencing Love's salary this week. Another day it's LeBron James' moving Blatt aside in the midst of an argument with a referee in the first half against the Suns, a move that unfortunately for the Cavs fit way too easily into a shareable social media clip.
Ironically, James' trying to keep his coach from getting a technical foul while the coach was vigorously defending a call that went against James was one of the healthiest coach-player moments of the season between James and Blatt. If anything, that could go on the extremely brief highlight reel of their relationship thus far.
It's fun to be first in team merchandise sales, be on national television 30-plus times and play in sold-out houses every night, but there sure are downsides that come along with it. And when you've lost 9 of 10 games to fall to 19-20 on the season as the Cavs have, there's very little fun.
When the casinos were making the Cavs the favorites to win the title last summer, the idea of a prop bet that the Cavs would be under .500 39 games into the season was so ridiculous, no sports book would've taken action. You'd have had a difficult time getting anyone to take such a bet even if they were a pessimist who was a Miami Heat fan who just wanted to make a self-gratifying revenge wager.
It isn't just the casinos that are agape at how this is playing out -- the Cavs were 4-15 in their past 19 games against the spread coming in to Tuesday -- so are league scouts, executives and rival players.
They see players appearing to run different plays than the bench calls, see assistant coach Tyronn Lue calling timeouts literally behind Blatt's back during games, and hear Cavs players openly talking about coaching issues with opposing players and personnel. Not once, not twice, but frequently over the past several months.
For weeks now, the small talk when league personnel run into each other at college games, airports or pregame meals has frequently started with: "What the hell is going on in Cleveland?"
Griffin and the Cavs media relations staff have been run ragged attempting to manage all of it. Griffin has been slapping Band-Aids on everything from intrateam relationships to his roster while dealing with what now seem like impossible expectations. All with half his team on stress-inducing, one-year contracts while working for an owner who chews through executives and coaches on a regular basis.
There is a common perception that James is the de facto general manager of the team. His role in getting Love traded to the Cavs in July and talking Mike Miller, among others, into signing in Cleveland only bolstered that.
But over the past few months, the Cavs didn't come to terms on a contract extension with Tristan Thompson, who is close to James and represented by the same agent, and then issued a strong public backing of Blatt despite what has been an obvious disconnect with veteran players, including James.
It was no doubt meant to take some media pressure off the struggling first-year coach, but also was a message to the players that any passive-aggressive coups in progress would be fruitless and needed to cease. It was also a pretty strong message that, no, James may run the plays he wants and play the position he wants, but he isn't running the franchise.
Plenty of James' quotes in recent weeks have been parsed, both by the media and by the team. But one seems to burn true, when he said: "I don't pay no bills around here; listen man, I play."
Meanwhile, the Love situation continues to befuddle. In the preseason there was a little bobble when Love complained about not getting the ball as much, but after that he's said nothing but team-supportive things. That includes Tuesday night after Blatt decided to play James Jones ahead of him.
"If you told me I was going to sit out the fourth quarter, maybe I would have thought it would have been tough. But we had a great rhythm going," Love said. "I thought the group that we had out there was doing a great job of getting us back into the basketball game, and more than anything, they gave us a shot."
This was just after Love told Cleveland.com that he was not planning to opt out of his contract and become a free agent next summer, something that was deemed a foregone conclusion when he signed the deal three years ago. Not only is it remarkably supportive of the team, but odd considering opting out makes significant financial sense even if his intention is to immediately re-sign in Cleveland. Anyone giving Love objective advice would recommend opting out under any circumstance other than devastating injury.
When the Cavs executed the trade to get Love last summer, they were granted a rare pre-trade meeting. What was said or promised in that meeting has been kept secret because any deal struck about contractual provisions would be against NBA rules. Whatever was said, the Cavs traded the past two No. 1 overall picks and a future first-rounder.
Like everything else done in July and August, Love couldn't have foreseen all these contingencies. His defense has been predictably shoddy much of the time, but as a team, the Cavs' transition defense and overall communication are routinely abysmal. The Cavs got down by 19 against the Suns before making a comeback, mostly without Love, but James and Kyrie Irving's combined 13 turnovers were more of a culprit than Love's defensive issues.
On offense, where Love should be a monster, he hasn't been very often.
"I've seen Kevin fall down with the ball more times this season than the rest of his career combined because he's always in positions where he's uncomfortable and he's forced into trying to make some sort of move to get a shot, and that has never been his game," said one veteran NBA coach. "They almost never put him in position to get the ball that he did in his last few years in Minnesota and I can't figure out why."
This litany could go on and on. There isn't an NBA team that doesn't have a lot of problems or one that doesn't deal with slumps, disgruntled veterans, issues with the coach, playing time issues, injuries, tough periods in the schedule and the like.
But no team as talented as the Cavs has been this bad for this long in a very long time in this league. As it is, no team with James has been in this position, more losses than wins, at this point in the season since his rookie year in 2003-04.
What the Cavs do have is time; it's the most gracious aspect of the league. There is always time. The Cavs, sitting in sixth place in the wonderfully forgiving Eastern Conference, still miraculously have all their goals in front of them. For that, they can truly be grateful.
They have James back, and his 33 points, seven rebounds, five assists portended that not only are his knee and back better, but he is now out of "chill mode." They have new players who, in theory, should help once they get settled. Their coach has been given a quasi-promise that he isn't getting fired. They have three max players who would give them a legitimate chance in any playoff series if they ever got their act together.
They are still a long way from having a lost season. But, wow, are they a long way off course.