Agent X: Locker-room tensions unraveling LeBron’s Cavaliers

LeBron James (Eric Risberg/AP)

Agent X is an active and certified NBA Agent. He’s also Sportsnet’s NBA Insider, and you can check out his previous articles here.

Both in the public eye and behind-the-scenes, there’s generally a lot of noise about the inner-workings of each NBA team. But in Cleveland? These days it’s like sitting front row at a Metallica concert.

I have a client in Cleveland, and am continually struck by the unparalleled ebbs and flows that swirl around this group since LeBron James returned to the Cavaliers. It’s been a rocky road over the past two years that hasn’t exactly made for an easy work environment. And with the NBA Finals headed back to Cleveland and the Cavs two losses away from being swept, believe me when I say it’s going to be a long 72 hours for that group.

But first let’s rewind.

When LeBron came back to Cleveland two years ago, I got the impression that it caught everyone from day-to-day staffers to ownership off guard. With LeBron on the roster, the Cavs instantly went from being a club incapable of drawing a great deal of national interest to the most heavily scrutinized team in the NBA. And it didn’t feel like they had the processes and protocols in place to handle that attention.

You could see it right away. On media day last season, over 300 people showed up. From a security and logistics perspective, the team wasn’t prepared and small security issues persisted in the early part of the year. It may seem like a minor detail, but those things tend to be strong indications of how a club operates. Instead of anticipating what was to come, the Cavs played catch-up all year, and that included LeBron himself, who had to play his way into shape during the season.

It seemed like from the time he signed he wanted to take stock of the organization as a whole, to assess everyone else before opening himself up to anyone. While the entire team got together to work out in the offseason, LeBron would show up… but only work out by himself, with his own trainers, after the other players had finished. As you can imagine, it created a sense of separation that felt like it stuck throughout last season.

There’s been a tangible improvement in the way the team has operated this year, a trust between LeBron and the rest of the organization that wasn’t there last season. But there’s still tension.

The realities of being LeBron’s teammate change from day to day. In a lot of ways, he’s one of the best teammates my clients have ever had. His work ethic on a daily basis impresses me more than anything. He is committed to maximizing the time he has left playing basketball, and I’ve seen the impact that observing his hard work has on teammates. Plus, LeBron is an incredibly intelligent player who makes those around him better. And his teams win.

Yet for some reason, put a microphone in front of his face and he’ll continually make questionable choices. Some of the things he says publicly flatout perplex me, mainly because I believe he’s too smart not to understand the impact of his words to the players around him.

I do believe LeBron is fully committed to winning in Cleveland, but a teammate having to answer questions from reporters about why LeBron stopped following them on Twitter and how it made them feel is both truly annoying and a waste of everyone’s time. Worse, it can be damaging.

Because he’s not the most confrontational person—especially for a player of his stature—a lot of the things he says to the media are things he never says while sitting next to his teammates in the locker room or on buses and cross-country flights. His public criticisms, then, can blindside teammates.

An example of this I always come back to involves Cleveland’s former No. 3 pick, Dion Waiters. LeBron immediately zeroed in on Waiters upon his return. Before the start of the 2014-15 season, as most NBA teams do each September, all of the players under contract to the Cavs got together to work out—except Waiters. LeBron noticed this and instead of addressing it personally with Dion, he made a show of it every time he came into the gym. “Where’s Dion? Dion isn’t here? Anyone seen Dion today?” It became a running joke of sorts. Everyone around the team understood his point, but no one ever actually took action. Everyone also knew that Dion’s leash in Cleveland was going to be very short— anything less than a career year would make him expendable. Two months later, he was traded.

Yet things appeared to be getting better in Cleveland as the playoffs approached. After dropping Game 1 to the Warriors, I really thought that the Cavs would respond with a much better effort in Game 2. The guys inside the room did as well. The tension post-game was nearly palpable.

When the Cavs are at their best, the players do a great job of insulating themselves from the noise. I recall bringing up things in passing to my client during the regular season—“Hey, did you hear so and so was traded?”— and he truly had no clue what I was talking about. It felt like talking to someone living in a bubble. And it worked for them.

The attention that comes along with the Finals is so amplified it will be interesting to see if they can get back in that bubble. It may already be too late, but if they don’t, the tension around the team will be very hard to ignore.

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