Going into Wednesday night’s game against the LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, the Cleveland Cavaliers are 2-13, the worst mark in the N.B.A. They are being outscored by an average of 8.6 points a night.
So the Cavs are bad. But are they intentionally bad? Is Cleveland trying to lose games in order to secure a better draft pick next year?
That theory is being put forward by more and more people. And now that group of people includes, um, one of the Cavaliers’ own players, J.R. Smith.
“I don’t think the goal is to win,” Smith told The Athletic. “The goal isn’t to go out there and try to get as many wins as you can. I think the goal is to develop and lose to get lottery picks. I think that was always the plan.” He also asked to be traded, a request he has made before this season.
In the aftermath of the latest request, the Cavaliers announced Tuesday that Smith would leave the team as “the organization works with J.R. and his representation regarding his future.”
Without James, who left Cleveland in the off-season to join the Lakers as a free agent, the Cavaliers this season were expected to heavily rely on forward Kevin Love, who signed a four-year contract extension this summer despite James’s departure.
But Love has been limited to four games because of foot problems and is expected to be out until the new year.
That leaves the team with a slapdash collection of players. The leading scorer remaining is Jordan Clarkson, a role player last year now taking on more of the load. Others providing key offense are the rookie guard Collin Sexton and veterans Rodney Hood and George Hill. The team lacks punch in the frontcourt, with Tristan Thompson, never a scorer, their best big man.
At 33, Smith was averaging 20 minutes a night in 11 games for the Cavaliers. He was shooting only 34 percent and averaging about 7 points a game. Both figures are the lowest of his career, which has taken him to New Orleans, Denver and New York before his arrival in 2015 in Cleveland, where he was a part of the team’s four straight N.B.A. finals appearances.
While his outside shooting was important in many wins, his tenure will also be remembered for a blunder in Game 1 of last spring’s finals, when he seemed to forget that the game was tied and dribbled out the clock. The Cavs then lost in overtime.
Now the team stands in marked contrast to its Wednesday opponent, the Lakers, who with James are bidding for a first playoff appearance in six years.
It is a familiar pattern for the Cavs. After a shaky history, they drafted James straight out of high school at No. 1 in 2003. He led them to the finals and consecutive 60-win seasons. When he decided to join the Miami Heat as a free agent in 2010, the Cavs immediately collapsed to be among the worst teams in the league.
James’s return to Cleveland in 2014 led to more finals appearances and an N.B.A. title in 2016. His departure to the Lakers has dropped the Cavaliers to the bottom of the table again.
Should the Cavs keep losing, intentionally or not, they would be in a position to draft an excellent player next year, perhaps the Duke freshmen superstar Zion Williamson. Cleveland has had the first overall pick in the N.B.A. draft three times since taking James at the top in 2003.
Further draft luck is not guaranteed, but one thing appears certain: Smith won’t be around to find out what happens.