The Cleveland Cavaliers started this NBA season more or less where they left off. After coming back from a 3-1 deficit to win The 2016 NBA Finals, the Cavaliers began the 2016-17 campaign by winning 26 of their first 33 games and looking like they were ready to storm back to the NBA Finals.
But an injury to shooting guard J.R. Smith has tested their depth, and LeBron James has been vocal about the team's need to add a "playmaker." The Cavs traded a first round pick to Atlanta for Kyle Korver, but have struggled since, going 2-6 since Korver joined the rotation.
James recently took to Twitter to say that he's not upset at Cleveland's management or GM David Griffin.
I not mad or upset at management cause Griff and staff have done a great job, I just feel we still need to improve in order to repeat...— LeBron James (@KingJames) January 24, 2017
if that's what we wanna do.— LeBron James (@KingJames) January 24, 2017
But a report today from ESPN's Brian Windhorst suggests maybe things aren't so simple. According to Windhorst, James isn't happy with Cleveland's reluctance to spend money, particularly above and beyond the luxury tax threshold:
James and team owner Dan Gilbert have different viewpoints on the issue, and it has been straining the relationship, sources said. The matter has been exacerbated by the team's struggles on the court as the team lost for the sixth time in eight games, 116-112 to the Sacramento Kings in overtime, on Wednesday night.
When James was considering returning to the Cavs in 2014, he pressed Gilbert on if he'd be willing to spend unconditionally on talent regardless of the luxury-tax cost, sources said. Over the course of several meetings with James and his representatives, Gilbert agreed, and James subsequently signed with the team.
Gilbert paid $82 million in salaries and $7 million in luxury tax in 2014-15. Last season, Gilbert paid $107 million in salaries and $54 million in luxury tax. Currently, the Cavs are committed to $127.6 million and $27 million in luxury taxes for this season. The team has spent more than any other NBA team over the three-year span.
LeBron James and the Cavs have dropped six of their last eight games, and sources told ESPN that the star's relationship with team owner Dan Gilbert has become strained over what James perceives as a hesitation to spend money.
James, however, has grown frustrated as he perceives that the Cavaliers have slowed new spending this season, following the franchise winning its first championship, sources said.
Earlier this week, James may have been referring to the team's recent money decisions when he said: "I just hope that we're not satisfied as an organization."
The comments angered Gilbert, sources said, because James appeared to imply it was an organizational choice whether to improve or not. This was seen by some as a reference to further spending.
"The comment about the organization being complacent I think is really misguided," Griffin said Wednesday. "Organizationally, there is absolutely no lack of clarity on what our goal set is. We are here to win championships. ... Anyone insinuating that this organization is about anything other than that would deeply upset me because ownership has invested in this at an absolutely historic level."
Several times over the last month, James has called on the team to add a player, preferably a ball handler.
When the Cavs traded for Kyle Korver earlier this month, they saved several million by reducing payroll and also opened a roster spot. The team has elected to leave the spot open for the last three weeks.
If the Cavs were to add a player, it would cost them the new salary plus an additional $2.50 per dollar in tax for roughly the next $600,000 they would spend. After that, the penalty would increase to $3.25 in tax per new dollar spent.
In addition to the open roster spot that could be used to sign a player, the Cavs have several trade exceptions -- including one for $4.8 million and one for $4.4 million -- that could be used to acquire players. The team also has the option to execute a player-for-player trade that could increase payroll.
Griffin said those options remain on the table, but he also made it clear he didn't feel the team needed to spend.
"We can absolutely increase payroll if it's the right piece at the right time. I've never once been given a mandate of any kind relative to money," Griffin said. "We're not going to do something where we go ask for more money unless we believe it makes us appreciably better. ... As we have all along, ownership will do what needs to be done."
Last season, after he agreed to spend nearly $300 million in new contracts, Gilbert said: "We're committed. We're all-in. ... When you invest in something like a sports franchise and you're in for so much ... [if] you, at the margins, start pulling back, I think that may be foolish on a lot of fronts."
In addition to his displeasure about spending, James has hinted he's upset at some of the way the back end of the roster was assembled. On Monday, James mentioned that veterans like Raymond Felton and Michael Beasley were signed to contracts for the league minimum with other teams in the offseason. He also referenced veteran Dahntay Jones, who was on the roster for the playoffs last season and was released by the team in the preseason.
The Cavs have younger developmental players on their roster like Kay Felder, DeAndre Liggins and Jordan McRae.
"No disrespect to DeAndre and to Kay, you think we can rely on them to help us win a playoff game right now?" James said. "And it's no disrespect to them. But it's like, it's not fair to them."