Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley criticize Cavs players over treatment of John Beilein

With Tristan Thompson’s career-high 35 points resulting in an overtime victory over the Detroit Pistons — as well as a subsequent postgame celebration — it appeared as though the Cleveland Cavaliers had put their drama-filled day behind them.

Shortly after the Cavs’ victory, however, TNT’s “Inside the NBA” panel opted to weigh in on Cleveland’s’ most recent controversy, in which head coach John Beilein apologized to his players for saying they had been playing like “thugs” during a film session on Wednesday.

According to Beilein, he had meant to say “slugs” and didn’t even realize the mistake he had made until informed by his assistant coaches afterward. And while the Cavs players were accepting of Beilein’s apology and didn’t believe he intended any malice, that didn’t stop Shaquille O’Neal from criticizing them for the way they handled the matter.

“If you have to be apologized to for your coach callings you ‘thugs,’ you aren’t going to ever win. You’re soft, OK? Period,” said O’Neal, who played for the Cavs during the 2009-10 season. “They’re not playing like thugs, so I believe him when he said they’re playing like ‘slugs.’ Stop being so sensitive. I grew up in the 80s. I got called worse than ‘slugs’ [or ‘thugs’], trust me. So it [doesn’t] bother me.

“Man up. That’s what I’m saying.”

Former NBA guard Kenny Smith echoed O’Neal’s sentiments, pointing out that Cleveland’s roster includes white players and added that he believes that saying a team was playing like “thugs” would actually be a compliment.

Meanwhile, Hall of Fame forward Charles Barkley took his defense of Beilein — and criticism of the Cavs players — a step further.

“I’ve never heard a bad word about Coach Beilein, ever,” said Barkley. “Everybody knows everybody in basketball, I’ve never heard a bad word about him. And what makes me mad about this whole conversation is he says in his apology, ‘the coaches told me later that I said ‘thugs’ instead of ‘slugs.’ 

“Clearly the players — if they were offended, they would have said something, right? The players didn’t say anything when it exactly happened. He had to come back later and say, ‘I made a mistake.’ But none of the players said anything about it when it happened, so that tells me he just misspoke.”

The 11-time All-Star also took issue with the complaints from Cavs players that Beilein runs too much of a “college-like” program.

“With the exception of when LeBron James has been in Cleveland, in the last 10 years, you guys haven’t won over 20 games,” Barkley said. “So to be complaining about a coach who’s coming in and making you work on fundamentals when y’all stink, make y’all watch film, make y’all practice hard — this is starting to be a joke.”

For what it’s worth, the Cavs did win 33 games in the 2013-14 season when James wasn’t on Cleveland’s roster, although that’s really beside the point. What is telling, however, is that according to O’Neal, the drama surrounding his former team this was about more than just what was or wasn’t said in a film session.

“This was a move to try to get him released,” O’Neal speculated.

“I’m just disappointed in Cleveland Cavaliers players for trying to get this man fired because they think they’re working too hard and they stink,” Barkley replied. “Plain and simple.”

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