Cavaliers look to claw back into contention after shocking trades
The NBA season is long, tedious and, as some might argue, pointless. The current NBA adage holds that as long as one’s team is playing its best basketball heading into the playoffs, nothing before that point truly matters.
For the Cleveland Cavaliers, the last three seasons — all ending in NBA finals appearances and one championship — have all proved that theory true.
Bad basketball, inter-team turmoil and constant roster changes have headlined each of the previous three seasons’ beginnings before LeBron James and company would finally right the ship for their eventual, dominant playoff runs.
This season, however, was different. The 2016 final MVP and the Cavs’ second-best player over the last three seasons, Kyrie Irving, was traded after he asked to be.
In his place, the Cavs completely revamped their championship-tested roster with former all-star players who were either past their prime or returning from injury. This roster included Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose and Isaiah Thomas, among others.
The Cavs’ wishful thinking experiment came to a resounding resolution last Thursday, Feb. 8, on the day of the NBA’s always exciting trade deadline.
Despite being held a week earlier than in previous years, and with many teams limited financially, this year’s deadline was remarkably quiet compared to those in the past. That was until the Cavaliers single-handedly jolted the deadline mania back to life.
With reports of tension mounting in the locker room, and downright putrid play on the court never seen before even with all the prior seasons’ struggles, the Cavaliers had no choice but to make some kind of change.
It could have been an all-in type trade, mortgaging the future, in hopes of one last championship run before LeBron could become a free agent this upcoming summer.
The team could have hedged with the future in mind, retaining its valuable first-round pick acquired from the Brooklyn Nets and hoped a small tweak would fix the camaraderie issues. The answer turned out to be a wizardly crafted combination of both.
The Cavaliers completely tore down their roster, moving six players — tying a record for most players dealt in a single day within the past 30 years that they themselves set in 2008 — while receiving four who should better complement LeBron, fix the chemistry issues and eventually aid their renewed playoff push for the current and future seasons.
The day of the trade deadline began with an admission of fault. Last summer, most experts believed that the Cavs had fared reasonably well trading away Irving, an example of a young, under-contract, generational talent the league rarely sees traded in his prime, for Thomas.
But Thomas was sidelined for seven months with a hip injury, and afterward, he played just 15 games in which the Cavs went 7-8.
It was obvious his injury was not fully healed — Thomas said as much himself — and his ball-dominant style of play was not meshing with LeBron’s, who also demands to have the ball in his hands.
By trading away Thomas, along with Channing Frye and the Cavs’ own 2018 first-round draft pick, to the Los Angeles Lakers for reserve power-forward Larry Nance Jr. and guard Jordan Clarkson, the Cavs general manager Koby Altman had tacitly admitted he swung and missed on the Irving trade.
This recognition of fault allowed the Cavs to flip Thomas for aggregated value. The players received for him are both youthful, athletic and can help defensively, a statistical category the Cavaliers currently rank 29 out of 30 in the league.
This move alone would have been considered a sizable tweak, but Cleveland was far from finished.
Roughly 30 minutes after the first trade, the Cavs pulled the trigger on an even more remarkable three-team deal, considering they had just shipped out their best trade assets in the Thomas deal, minus the Brooklyn pick.
The second trade broke down as such: the Utah Jazz sent their small forward Joe Johnson to the Sacramento Kings and Rodney Hood to the Cavaliers.
The Kings sent point guard George Hill to the Cavaliers. Finally, the Cavaliers shipped Derrick Rose, Iman Shumpert, a 2020 second-round pick and cash to Sacramento and Jae Crowder — also formally a part of the Irving deal — to the Utah Jazz.
This trade moved players that were established veterans who demanded playing time, even though they were not deserving of such time, from the Cavs’ roster.
The trade returns to the Cavs’ much-needed guards in Hood and Hill, who are lengthy, excellent three-point shooters, and who should be an immediate upgrade defensively over Thomas and the disappointing J.R. Smith.
The Cavs completed their third and final trade of the day shortly afterward.
They sent three-time NBA champion Wade packing back to his longtime team, the Miami Heat, for a heavily protected future second-round pick. Wade was given the option to stay but chose to leave after Altman informed him that the Cavs intended to cut his playing time and spread it to the new, more sprightful trade acquisitions.
All three trades were announced within about an hour of one another, roughly three hours before the trade deadline.
No other trade that day was as meaningful, as all the teams that were considered contenders — Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics — stood pat.
The instantaneous impact of the three trades for the Cavaliers will not be felt on the court.Addition by subtraction is the phrase most applicable, as the players leaving were unfamiliar and thus disconnected from the team’s culture and past years of turbulence leading to success.
The rift in the locker room was poisoning the team’s on-court performance, as players outwardly acknowledged they were not playing for one another, specifically on defense.
Thomas was the leading culprit. An outspoken player by nature, he had taken a liking to calling out teammates and even coaches publicly in front of the media, something that rubbed some players the wrong way, especially when coming from a player who had not fought in the trenches with the old vanguard the previous three seasons.
Playing well would have made his comments moot, but Thomas was very much culpable himself for the team’s recent lack of success.
The future is bright, however. Even though LeBron may leave, possibly to the Lakers who intentionally cleared cap space for him, the players they received back in the deadline-day deals are young and under contract for the foreseeable future.
Most importantly, the Cavaliers pieced together a ‘blockbuster’ trade for four very worthy players, without sacrificing their greatest future asset, the 2018 Brooklyn pick, which will still have a good chance to become a top-three selection in this upcoming draft.
That renewed locker room camaraderie has already proved impactful to the Cavaliers’ on-court success.
Last Sunday afternoon, Feb. 11, the new-look Cavaliers crushed the Irving-led Celtics 121-99. The 121 points are the most points that the Celtics — the best defensive team in the league — have given up all season.
Hill, Clarkson and Hood played well, scoring double figures with 12, 17 and 15 points respectively, while Nance was incredibly active on defense.
However, the greatest takeaway from the game came from seeing all the high-fives and smiles from the Cleveland players.
Altman said before the game, "I needed to put a lot more live bodies out there and be way more active and quicker to the ball and still scoring and hopefully we return to some of that fun."
The new Cavaliers certainly had fun last Sunday.
The new group of players will bring LeBron and the Cavs energetic and determined play, something the oldest team in the league before the deadline sorely lacked.
It is way too early to predict that this remodeled Cavs team could compete with the likes of Golden State or even Houston in an NBA Finals series, but at the very least they gave fans a trade deadline worth talking about.