INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — In the hopes of shoring up one of the worst defenses in the league while shaking the Cleveland Cavaliers from their month-long slump, the Cavs are replacing Jae Crowder with Tristan Thompson in the starting lineup, coach Tyronn Lue said Thursday.
“We’re going to start Tristan,” Lue said. “Jae has been playing good the last few games and it has nothing to do with Jae. He’s been great. He’s all about the right things. He’s all about the team. You hate to make these changes. Not saying it’s permanent, but he’s about the team. Went and talked to him this morning and he said, ‘Whatever is best for the team. I’m all in.'”
Lue said that Thompson’s presence will shift Kevin Love back to his natural position at power forward. He also said Thompson should be able to mesh well with Isaiah Thomas in both covering pick-and-rolls on defense and executing them on offense.
“Just think that adjustment will help us,” Lue said. “I think T-Top defensively will help us out a lot too.”
Cleveland ranks 29th in the league in defensive efficiency, allowing 109.9 points per 100 possessions. It has only gotten worse as of late. As troubling as the Cavs dropping 10 of the past 13 games is, perhaps more disturbing is they’ve allowed opponents to score 114 or more in six of the last eight games — including tying a franchise-worse in that stretch by letting up 148 points in regulation to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Thompson, who was the Cavs’ starting center for the bulk of their consecutive NBA Finals runs over the past three years, opened this season on the bench, returned to the starting lineup for five games before suffering a strained left calf and has been coming off the bench again ever since returning from the calf injury in mid-December.
LeBron James shrugged off the change, saying, “We’re bringing in a guy who started for our team numerous games, so I don’t think that’s a big deal.” Thompson pledged he would “bring energy, play hard, set screens” by being back in the starting lineup — routine stuff from a player who distinguished himself as a high-level role player.
Thompson’s answer when asked about the current state of Cavs’ locker room was far more revealing.
“Finger-pointing? Just because y’all are reporting everything doesn’t mean that’s facts, unless someone was in there snitching,” Thompson said in references to multiple reports about a fiery team meeting the Cavs had before practice Monday. “But I wouldn’t say it’s finger-pointing. I think we all have to be better. Everyone has to look in the mirror and be 1 percent better for the team. That will help us out a lot.”
Thompson went on to say that team camaraderie is overblown in the results-driven NBA.
“I mean, you go to work every day, and you might not like a guy,” Thompson said. “You might not like the guy you work with. So it’s part of life, but at the end of the day when we’re between these lines, we got to play for one another and that’s all that matters. I don’t care if X don’t like X off the court. I really don’t give a s—. As long as you’re on the court playing hard and playing for each other, that’s all that matters to me. We don’t got to talk to each other off the court. As long as we talk on the court, on the defensive end, that’s all that matters to me.”
Lue was asked if he considered making a change at guard — Isaiah Thomas has yet to find a rhythm after returning from a serious hip injury that sidelined him for 7 ½ months and JR Smith has struggled all season — and said, “we thought about it … right now is not the time.”
Part of Lue’s decision to stick by Smith, sources told ESPN, is that he still considers him the team’s most physical defender at the 2 guard spot. Lue also wants to keep Dwyane Wade as the leader of the second unit, pointing out, “our bench is the best bench, I think, in Cavs history. We want to keep that intact as much as possible.”
Lue will play Thomas and Thompson together with members of the second unit, sources told ESPN, in order keep their dynamic intact. Lue also will play stagger Thomas’ minutes with James’ when possible, much the same way he did when Kyrie Irving was on the Cavs, to accommodate Thomas playing more of a lead role on offense without sharing touches with James.
Speaking of James, he acknowledged that the Cavs must improve their “trust” defensively, but presented a sunny outlook about where his team’s season will go from here.
“We’ll be fine,” James said. “We’ve got to work our habits though. It’s not going to be as easy as we’d all like it to be. But at the end of the day, nothing has ever come easy to me, so I actually like what we are. I don’t like losing, I don’t like the way we’ve been losing. But I think it’s going to help us out in the long run.”