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Unwilling to stand pat, Cleveland Cavaliers rebuild roster on fly to avert 'slow death'
Mired in a lengthy funk, the Cavs traded six players and added four in the hopes of getting themselves back on track to another Finals berth
CLEVELAND – Koby Altman might not have completely made a name for himself on Thursday’s NBA Trade Deadline Day, but the Cleveland general manager was busy and high-profile enough in his makeover of the Cavaliers that most people now will remember that he’s the one who spells it with a “y.”
Those of us convinced for weeks now — at least since the Cavaliers’ home loss to the Warriors on Martin Luther King Day — that another Golden State-Cleveland Finals would be a dud movie we already saw last June, well, we no longer have to worry. Those stale, sputtering Cavs are no more. They are gone — six players out Thursday, four new players in – and done, replaced by a younger, quicker, more athletic cast who’ll be force-fed their playoff experiences.
What with so many in and out doors banging to a frenzied beat, All-Star forward Kevin Love barely got a mention. But Love, out with a fracture to his left hand, will be coming back in a month to six weeks to a vastly reconfigured roster and lineup rotation. However long it takes this team to incorporate new guys George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., count on another period of adjustment for Love playing with them for the first time.
Presumably — for Love’s sake — it will go more smoothly than Isaiah Thomas’ learning and comeback curve, which sort of triggered much of Thursday’s maneuverings in the first place.
Thomas was the fall guy of the day, the flip side of what most expect to be an enthused, rejuvenated and newly focused LeBron James. It already had been a tough nine months for the 5-foot-9 scoring guard, going from the most valuable player on a formidable contender (Thomas finished fifth in Kia MVP balloting) to the hip injury that ate deep into this season, the Kyrie Irving trade that landed him in Cleveland and the rust and skepticism that marred his 15 largely forgettable games there.
The Cavs went 7-8 with Thomas, who shot 25 percent on 3-pointers and 36 percent overall. Their defense, leaky enough before, got worse (Thomas had a net rating of minus 15.1 points per 100 possessions). Ball movement ground down to a series of dreary isolation plays or desperate 3s.
Also, Thomas began to serve as one of the team’s spokesman in the media, a role that suits his personality but one he had not earned in the Cavs’ locker room. He spoke of things “we” had to do better without quite yet being part of that “we.” That included comments after the team’s collapse in Orlando Tuesday about the Cavs failing to make adjustments during games, a criticism that went directly to coach Tyronn Lue and his staff. It was not appreciated.
By the time Thomas followed up 24 hours later, after the last-second overtime victory over Minnesota at Quicken Loans Arena, with heartfelt comments about liking Cleveland and not wanting to be traded, he effectively already was gone. Altman reportedly talked with James before the game, running some possible trade scenarios by the team’s star.
“We were marching a slow death,” Altman told reporters in a post-trades conference call Thursday evening, “and we didn’t want to be a part of that.”
Although it’s undeniably part of the dynamic of trades — dwelling on the down sides of the departed vs. seeing the upsides of the newbies – it’s fair to say that the players to whom the Cavs bid adieu (IT, Jae Crowder, Channing Frye, Iman Shumpert, Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade) represented a lot of things that weren’t working or weren’t getting done. Energy was low, enthusiasm lower.
The new arrivals, once they finally do arrive, bring not just their skills but – with three of the four, anyway – enough youth and hunger to jolt a Cavs locker room that lacked a bit of a pulse. Hill is the most like the veterans Cleveland shed Thursday, but he does bring playoff experience and a defensive mindset. Also, his combo-guard ways that could frustrate those in search of a classic playmaker should be an asset where James is initiating so much offense.
Hood, Clarkson and Nance get more than just changes of address and the newly dangled carrot of a deep playoff run. They — along with Cedi Osman, already in house and getting an opportunity — get James as a mentor, a role he has enjoyed (think 2015 playoffs and the wonders he worked with Matthew Dellavedova and Tristan Thompson, with Love and Irving out or hobbled). Make no mistake, James likes veterans but not in the mix, with the unreliable results, they had until Thursday.
So the Cavaliers hit a reset button that they believe will help them for this season. These deals — and the ability to not trade away the Brooklyn first-round pick they hold thanks to the Irving trade — also leave Cleveland in better shape this summer, more attractive to James when he hits free agency and even more resilient if he leaves.
For those tempted to conflate the Irving trade with the deals made Thursday and decree that Cleveland didn’t get nearly enough, the economic concept of “sunk costs” comes to mind. Irving was gone, Thomas wasn’t working out, Crowder was not helping; that first deal was done. There was no going back. All Altman and the Cavs could do was go from there.
There is a bigger issue that might not be answered over the remaining 29 games and however many follow in the postseason. The Cavaliers began this 2017-18 season as favorites to again win the conference title and reach the Finals. Even after the Irving trade, most NBA GMs and media mavens expected James and his vets to stomp through the East, whenever they chose to get serious about the season.
Instead, we got an unprecedented makeover of a Finals favorite two-thirds of the way through a championship-minded season. In a league that preaches continuity and chemistry as ingredients of success, that’s mind-boggling. James’ inability to rouse this group out of its doldrums, on top of whatever Irving came to dislike even before this season began, raises questions about the superstar-down culture — as opposed to many teams’ top-down, or San Antonio’s Pop-down culture — wherever James has played.
Or, for that matter, might play in the future.
Bottom line on a busy trade day: Who gets to play for Team LeBron is a lot bigger deal than just on All-Star Sunday.
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