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Without LeBron, Cavaliers fall into NBA’s basement
CLEVELAND | Fanning out a stack of tickets like a magician performing a card trick, a member of the Cavalier Girls dance team stopped by Cleveland's locker room about an hour before tipoff for Wednesday night's game against Phoenix.
"Y'all know anybody who wants to come to the game?" she asked, offering freebies.
No takers today. Maybe some other season, definitely not this one.
Only months after owning the NBA's best record for the second straight year, the Cavaliers have fallen — shockingly fast and far. Now on a 14-game losing streak, the Cavaliers, who started 7-9, have dropped 24 of 25 and haven't shaken a hangover that began with LeBron James' summer announcement that he was migrating to Miami.
At 8-33, with a long list of injured players and a shocked fan base in withdrawal, the Cavaliers have gone from first to worst. They've lost their elite status, and it may be years before they get it back.
"For us, whatever happened here the past seven or eight years is out the window," said veteran forward Antawn Jamison, who arrived last season via a trade with Washington. "There's nothing we can do about it. We knew coming in to this season that a lot of teams were going to get payback. It's tough, but nobody's going to feel sorry for us."
That became apparent on Cleveland's recent road trip. During stops at Golden State, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Utah and Denver, the Cavaliers channeled their inner Washington Generals against everyone else's Harlem Globetrotters. They were barely competitive.
Showing no pity, the two-time defending champion Lakers were merciless in a 55-point drubbing. It was an epic loss — the worst in Cleveland's 41-year history — and one that triggered James' "karma" tweet directed at Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, his former boss.
Keep in mind, this is a team that was on the doorstep of an NBA title with James and a seemingly loaded roster. And now, the talk is not only about losing, but losing by an average of 16.5 points in your last 24 defeats.
Coach Byron Scott — who took the New Jersey Nets, of all teams, to the NBA Finals twice — never dreamed it would get to this.
Arriving just before James' departure, Scott, a three-time champion as a player on the Lakers' "Showtime" teams, came to Cleveland believing he had inherited a roster with enough talent and depth to absorb James' loss.
And although he can be considered a glass-is-half-full type, the losses have even tempered his optimism.
"Yeah, it gets me down," Scott acknowledged during Cleveland's trip. "I don't like losing. I've been in the position on a number of occasions where I've had to deal with losing, but I'm a winner, period. That's what I'm used to. It's tough after some of the losses we've had. But the next day when I wake up, I look at it as another opportunity to get better, from a coaching standpoint and a players' standpoint."
Injuries, though, continue to hamper any progress.
In an ironic and cruel twist, center Anderson Varejao, whose career has been defined by floor burns and all-out hustle, suffered a season-ending ankle injury during a non-contact running drill at practice. He's expected to have surgery this week. Also, starting guard Mo Williams is out indefinitely with a groin injury initially sustained just before training camp.
Those are the two most notable injuries, but there are more. So many more, in fact, that Scott, 49, was forced to lace up his sneakers and scrimmage this week because there weren't enough players to practice.
"I've been in situations where we had injuries before, but not five or six guys at one time," said Scott, who also coached New Orleans. "This is new to me."
It's all painfully new and yet hauntingly familiar to Cleveland fans. With James, the kid from nearby Akron leading them, the Cavaliers enjoyed their greatest stretch. Cleveland, just 17-65 in the season before James, won two division titles, a conference crown and made its only trip to the Finals in 2007.
They won more than 60 games the past two seasons. This year, they'll be lucky to reach 20.
"It's not the first time that it's happened, but it has happened fast," said Phoenix forward Grant Hill, after the Suns' 106-98 win extended Cleveland's slide to 14. "Franchises go through that. You have teams that are championship caliber and then you bottom out. You figure it out through free agency or trades or the draft and it appears that they're going through that process now.
"They lost LeBron. It is what it is."
It is a major rebuilding project for general manager Chris Grant. The injuries, combined with a long-term vision, has led to extended minutes for rookies Manny Harris, Samardo Samuels, Christian Eyenga and Alonzo Gee, the D-League's top rookie last season. And they may not be done tweaking the roster.
Cleveland has had trade talks with Charlotte about forward Gerald Wallace, who has two years and about $22 million left on his contract. The Cavaliers also have a $14.5 million trade exception obtained from Miami in the deal for James, and it's likely the team will shop the 34-year-old Jamison before the Feb. 24 trade deadline.
In the meantime, the losses multiply.
After hosting Milwaukee on Friday, Cleveland will face only one more team — New Jersey — with a losing record in its final six games this month. The NBA record for consecutive losses is 23, and if they're not careful, the Cavaliers may start February on the cusp of unimagined history.
"It's a difficult challenge for those guys and hopefully things turn around for them," James said. "Some of your friends, you don't want to see them lose. I have a few on that team and I know how competitive they are. It's definitely difficult for those guys to be going through that.
"But I feel like they're strong enough. They'll figure it out."
He left them with no choice.
AP Sports Writer Tim Reynolds in Miami contributed to this report.
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