The Cavaliers have made a tradition of causing drama on and off the court in January, and this year is no different.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have lost seven of their last ten games and have been the worst defensive team over that stretch.
They've given up over 125 points per game in their last three games, and on Thursday lost to the Toronto Raptors, 133-99, their second straight loss of 20 points or more.
Sure enough, the sound bytes were available after the game. LeBron James snapped at a reporter over the team's defense. Tyronn Lue said the team has no room for "agendas." Kevin Love and James questioned the statement. J.R. Smith questioned his role to The Athletic's Jason Lloyd.
Indeed, the Cavaliers seem to be falling apart. There are real reasons to be concerned. The roster is the oldest in the NBA, they'd struggle to put a lineup on the floor that features good defenders at each position, and they lack the shooting that made previous Cavs teams so dangerous.
But Cavs drama in January has also become something of a yearly tradition. It's fairly easy to trace back since James joined the team in 2014.
In 2015, James missed two weeks with a bad back and took a mysterious trip to Miami. The Cavs struggled badly without him. On January 13, upon returning amid an alleged rift with head coach David Blatt, James made headlines when he shoved Blatt away from a ref to prevent a technical foul. The optics were not great.
The Cavs went 24-9 from February 1 through the rest of the season and made the Finals.
On January 22, 2016, the Cavs fired Blatt. Damning reports revealed that James' and his teammates' attitude toward Blatt did not help matters. Their struggles even extended all the way into late February, when the Cavs lost to Eastern Conference up-and-comers in the Raptors and Washington Wizards. The Cavs finished the season 15-8 and later won the Finals.
Last season, on January 23, James put the front office on blast by saying the team needed more playmakers. Then-GM David Griffin even responded, disagreeing with James' assessment. 2017 proved to be something of an outlier, as the Cavs went 10-14 from March 1 to the end of the season, but they flipped the switch in the playoffs, going 12-1 to make the Finals again.
What's highly possible each year is that James, the team's leader, a superstar who hasn't missed the Finals since 2010, grows somewhat disinterested by mid-season and it spreads through the locker room. In recent years, it could be especially true as he's taken on more playmaking responsibilities and approached defense only half-heartedly. January is the doldrums of the NBA and teams eye the relief of the All-Star break in February.
James, now 33, competes in April, May, and June. He's a player who has admitted that he ramps up the intensity each month and was only going 80%, by his own assessment, earlier this year.
This year's roster exacerbates those problems. Among the players in the regular rotation are 36-year-old Dwyane Wade, 36-year-old Kyle Korver, 36-year-old Jose Calderon, 32-year-old J.R. Smith, and 31-year-old Jeff Green. A team enlisting a bunch of 30-year-old veterans with a sure path to at least May simply is not going to go full throttle in January.
Take the Cavs' half-hearted transition defense on Thursday for example:
Those are simple things that can be fixed in the postseason.
That doesn't mean there aren't reasons to worry. Last year's Cavs team possessed better shooters and defenders. After ranking 22nd in defensive rating during the regular season, giving up 108 points per possession, they didn't actually ramp up the defense in the playoffs — they gave up 108.2 points per 100 possessions in the postseason. They simply tried harder and steamrolled every opponent with James fully engaged and surrounded by shooters.
This year's team won't magically flip a defensive switch and defend like the Golden State Warriors, but they can fix some effort issues. And offensively, they could improve once Isaiah Thomas is fully healthy and acclimated, though he won't help their defense.
For all of the justifiable concerns about the Cavs, they are still 26-15, third in the East, with an overall +45 point differential. After beginning the season 5-7, they rattled off an 18-1 stretch before falling into the current slump.
The Cavs haven't been good enough to justify a "relax, they're fine" message, and the red flags are big enough to justify real concern. But once again, it's January, the halfway-point of the season, and the Cavs seem to be falling apart. We've been here before, only for the Cavs to turn things around.
The real test, as always for a LeBron team, will come in the playoffs.