The biggest news in the NBA Thursday was off the court. Which on a night when Harden and Westbrook faced off is saying something. Time to break it all down.
1) Kyle Korver is headed to Cleveland, upping the arms race with Golden State. We’ve seen this in other sports — the 49ers and Cowboys back in the day, the Yankees and Red Sox more recently. Teams making moves that are mostly about one rival. In the NBA we saw it clearly in the 1980s — the Lakers and Celtics would make roster additions (Bill Walton, Mychal Thompson, etc.) aimed at the other and NBA Finals matchups. Sure, those guys helped against the Chicago’s and Houston’s and whoever else, but the move was mostly thinking ahead to the NBA’s biggest stage.
That’s what Cleveland landing Kyle Korver in a trade from the Hawks was. Cleveland only gave up the lightly-used Mike Dunleavy, a 2019 first-round pick (that very likely is in the mid to high 20s), and maybe a dead-weight contract like Mo Williams. That’s a steal. And make no mistake, that was aimed right at the heart of the Warriors. Korver is an upgrade for the Cavaliers, and let’s break down what he brings to the team that is already the defending champs.
• More three point shooting. The Cavaliers are already second in the NBA in three-pointers made per game and three-point shooting percentage as a team. That said, you can never have too much shooting — and of late the Cavs have needed it. With J.R. Smith out until sometime after the All-Star break (thumb surgery) and Kyrie Irving injured the last few games, the depth on the wing has been exposed. Korver helps solve that problem in the short-term and gives the team more versatility and matchup options come the playoffs.
• Korver is an upgrade over J.R. Smith. The Cavaliers are going to be without Smith until after the All-Star break (and maybe into March) following surgery on his thumb. Enter Korver, who can bring the catch-and-shoot that Smith has become deadly at, plus Korver brings other skills to the table: Few are better using screens than he. Korver is an underrated passer. Close out too fast on him and Kover will put the ball on the floor and get into the lane (where he has a surprisingly good floater). He’s going to fit in beautifully, and even Korver acknowledged it.
• Korver has slowed a little the last couple of seasons, but he’s still very dangerous. The combination of some knee/ankle injuries and the fact he is 35 have slowed Korver a little the past couple seasons. It’s particularly noticeable on the defensive end — Korver is not quite the player he was just a couple of seasons ago. That said, he’s still solid team defender, still shooting 40 percent from three overall, still a very high IQ player, and is still a significant talent upgrade.
• Korver’s already impressive shooting numbers are going to go up. We have seen this with Kevin Durant this season: An already amazing shooter goes to a team with more weapons, he gets better looks, and his shooting efficiency improves. Korver is going to feel the same thing as he slides to open spaces on the arc while Kyrie Irving and LeBron James drive the lane. Korver already is shooting 60.8 percent eFG% on catch-and-shoots this season, that number will improve. Also, he has it hit 49 percent of his uncontested threes this season — he’s going to see a lot more of those looks.
• I see your small-ball “death lineup” and call. If he wants in the NBA Finals — and let’s be honest, that’s what we’re talking about with this move, a Warriors/Cavs rematch — Tyronn Lue can roll out a lineup of Kyrie Irving, Kyle Korver, LeBron James, Kevin Love and Channing Frye. When they run a pick-and-roll with that group, Golden State can try to switch, but LeBron’s a matchup nightmare who can drive/post up somebody, and who you going to leave to help out? I don’t know if that lineup defends as well as the Warriors death lineup — that’s the advantage of Draymond Green — but it will be interesting.
• Cavaliers GM David Griffin deserves some credit. He’s been amazing at securing pieces to go around his big three core the past couple years. Other teams had called about Korver, he came through with the first round pick the Hawks wanted and got the deal done.
• Is Korver a rental for Cleveland? Does it matter? They didn’t give up much, and this was a move about a ring this season. He’s a free agent this summer. But the question of Korver’s future in Cleveland is going to have to wait until July, because they need to see how he helps them in June before making a decision.
2) Korver is just the first domino to fall in Atlanta. Coach/GM Mike Budenholzer has clearly realized that with Al Horford bolting this summer his Hawks are a third-tier team in the East at best — they may have won five in a row right now, but they certainly don’t match up with Cleveland (before the trade) and weren’t going to beat Toronto or Boston either in the playoffs. Horford already scarred this team when he left last summer, and they decided not to get burned in free agency again.
Korver is gone. Thabo Sefolosha will be gone. But the big one — the All-Star player bringing real returns — is Paul Millsap and all reports are now out of Atlanta that he will be on the move as well. It’s going to take a big package to get him, and the Hawks can play different teams off each other — just some of the teams mentioned are Sacramento, Philadelphia, Denver, Portland, New Orleans, but the big gun is Toronto — and get a quality package in return. But those dominos are going to start to fall.
Enjoying that homecoming, Dwight Howard?
3) Russell Westbrook and James Harden put on a show. Oklahoma City tried their best to take James Harden away — he was 6-of-16 shooting, although he did get to the line enough for 26 points — but the key to the Rockets win is that Harden has some real help and trusts those guys. You saw it on the final play: OKC is not going to let Harden beat them, Steven Adams doubled him, so Hard found Nene wide open, and he was fouled by Jerami Grant and Nene iced the game at the line.
(Was he fouled by Grant? Thunder fans will tell you no. Grant certainly got some ball, and I don’t see a lot of contact, but I’m curious what the Two-Minute Report will say, those guys have all the camera angles.)
The bottom line is this: Westbrook had 49, and he is all the OKC offense — you may not love all his pull-up three choices, but he hits those plenty (think Celtics game) and he’s their best option. Harden has more help 12 dimes and more help — Eric Gordon had 22, Nene 18, and the Rockets had five players not named Harden in double figures. The Rockets know how to play off each other and get shots — for example, notice that sometimes Gordon/Ryan Anderson/Trevor Ariza spot up about three feet (a full step) behind the arc, because they know Harden will find them and it makes the close-out by the defender harder. The Rockets have figured out how to make this all work.
But man, what a show. I would love this as a playoff matchup.