DENVER — It was a simple question phrased to Jordan Clarkson who had just got done rubbing cream on his fresh tattoo — one of deceased rapper Pimp C that he got while the Cleveland Cavaliers were in Los Angeles, the third stop on a 12-day trip that covered 5,644 miles and three different time zones.
What do you take away from this road trip?
Before Clarkson could respond, Tristan Thompson, sitting one locker over, answered for his teammate.
“That we get to go home,” Thompson said.
Clarkson nodded in approval.
The Cavs finished the longest road trip of the season with a 124-102 loss against the Denver Nuggets — a title-contending team that currently owns the fourth-best record in the NBA. Cleveland went 1-5 on the trip, losing by an average of 16.5 points. They have lost 15 of the last 16 games.
Many have spent a bulk of the season trying to pull positives from losses. But this night it proved tough.
“It’s hard to gauge how this road trip went,” Clarkson told cleveland.com. “S—, we’re missing our whole damn frontcourt and we have to learn how to play through that kind of stuff and still find a way to compete.”
Larry Nance Jr. suffered a sprained MCL the night the team left for New Orleans, the first stop in this six-city journey. David Nwaba, who has been playing small-ball forward when healthy, has missed the past 12 games with a severe ankle sprain.
Even though Kevin Love has been working out, shooting on the court and riding the bike in the halfway prior to tipoff, he still isn’t close to an actual return. Love has to play 2-on-2 and 3-on-3. There are a handful of steps still before he can be cleared.
Thompson has been dealing with soreness in the same foot that cost him 10 games in December. He sat out both legs of this recent back-to-back.
On Saturday night, against the talented Nuggets bigs led by MVP candidate Nikola Jokic, head coach Larry Drew was forced to use Cedi Osman, Ante Zizic, Jaron Blossomgame and Channing Frye.
Osman, of course, has been a key member of the rotation since the start of the season. The other three? Not so much.
“We knew coming into the trip it would be tough playing against some really talented basketball teams,” Drew said. “We would have liked to have played better, but we played the hand that was dealt to us. Right now the focus is just trying to our guys back. Trying to get Tristan back. Trying to get David back. Hopefully Kevin will be close to where he’s able to be out on the floor. We desperately need to get our guys back, Larry Nance included.”
These lengthy trips are usually an opportunity for the team to grow together. According to Rodney Hood, there were team lunches and dinners in Houston and Los Angeles. The guys got together after practices. They took advantage of those off-court moments.
“We did a lot of team bonding, especially in LA,” he said. “It was good to get close to each other. Feels like it’s been a revolving door of guys being injured, guys coming in and guys leaving. Trying to get some type of continuity.”
On the floor that’s been an issue. Cleveland used its 19th different starting lineup Saturday. The Cavs have missed the second-most games due to injury in the NBA this season. Ironically, the Nuggets lead the league in that category.
Cameron Payne, recently signed to a second 10-day contract, started for Alec Burks and played 20 minutes. Blossomgame, one of a pair on a two-way deal, was seventh in minutes played. Frye, 35, played 15 on the second game of a back-to-back.
At some point, doesn’t reality — and acceptance — set in? Isn’t there a conclusion that this is just who the Cavs are and this is how the rest of the season is likely to play out?
“I don’t accept that,” Clarkson told cleveland.com. “I’m trying to compete in games. It’s tough. But we don’t even have a team. You’re playing Channing right now and he wasn’t even getting no minutes this year. All these guys dealing with injuries and stuff like that. Sometimes coming into the game a little overmatched. But I’m not set on this is how we are. You can’t gauge what we are with, what, six dudes out. There’s no gauging anything. I’m not going to let myself fall into that.”
Hood echoed Clarkson’s comments.
“Man, you have a job. You have to come to work. At the end of the day you have to have pride,” he said. “We’re losing games and it’s never easy, but you have individual pride and want to put your best foot forward every time you are out there on the court. Hopefully we put that into a team effort.
“We’re just halfway through the season. You want to keep trying to get better and build. My rookie year we didn’t win a lot of games before All-Star break and then after All-Star break we took off. You don’t want to just give up on it. Continue to try to build habits. If not for this year, then for years to come.”