The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: What to make of Cavaliers radically revamped roster

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For the first couple of months of this NBA season, the conventional wisdom around the league was “Sure, Cleveland is struggling, their defense has real issues, but nobody sane is picking against LeBron James in the East.”

However, as the season ground along, and especially when wheels completely came off the Cavaliers in January and the finger-pointing reached a peak, it became evident this team probably was not even be good enough to reach the conference finals — and that’s assuming LeBron turned it back on and tried to dominate again. The Cavs were dispirited. Cleveland’s defense was legitimately terrible (second worst in the NBA) and lacked effort and help rotations, Isaiah Thomas was not right and a shadow of his former self, and Jae Crowder may be the most disappointing player in the league this season. The Cavaliers looked old and slow, and nobody could see how one trade at the deadline would change that.

It wasn’t one trade, it was two, and it was stunning. A couple of bold strokes from GM Koby Altman and owner Dan Gilbert, who deserve credit for taking a big swing.

The first trade sent Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye, and the Cavs 2018 first round pick (top three protected, so it will convey this year) to the Lakers for Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr.

The second trade was a three-team one with Sacramento and Utah that shakes out like this:

• Cleveland receives Rodney Hood and George Hill
• Utah receives Jae Crowder and Derrick Rose (who will be waived, likely to end up in Minnesota)
• Sacramento receives Iman Shumpert, Joe Johnson (expected to ask for a buyout), and a 2020 second round pick

Finally, the Cavaliers agreed to send Dwyane Wade to Miami as a favor to the veteran. Wade’s minutes would have been squeezed with the new roster, now he gets to go home to close out his Hall of Fame career.

Let’s break all the Cavaliers moves down Clint Eastwood style, with the Good, the Bad, and The Ugly.

THE GOOD: The Cavaliers desperately needed to get younger and more athletic, and they did that. Watching the Cavaliers this season felt like watching some of the last dinosaurs before they all died off (or, what I imagine that looked like, it was a little before my time). Cleveland looked old, and like time had passed its players by. LeBron played like an MVP for the first 10 weeks of the season, and Cleveland was still just hanging on to the three seed by a thread.

These trades were needed and they make the Cavaliers better — they are short-term upgrades. Clarkson is a solid (maybe average) NBA point guard, but that’s a step up from what Thomas and Rose were giving them. Rodney Hood is a quality two who is redundant in Utah because of Donovan Mitchell, but in Cleveland Hood provides the kind of shooting they need. George Hill — if he’s healthy and back to playing the way he did before Sacramento — would provide defense and be a good fit next to LeBron James. Larry Nance Jr. is the kind of dynamic athlete off the bench the Cavaliers’ had lacked, a guy happy to run flair screens and do the right thing. These were the kinds of guys the Cavaliers did not have with the old, disgruntled lineup.

THE GOOD: All of this should make the Cavaliers defense better. And the locker room, too. It can’t really make them worse, can it? More than just adding athleticism the change brings guys who will try on defense. There is now length and a couple switchable defenders. That combination should make the defense better — how good is up in the air, but better. That’s what matters. Maybe the Cavs just get close to a league average defense, that’s a serious upgrade. With LeBron and a top flight offense the defense doesn’t need to be top three for the team to win, but it can’t be 29th where the only way the Cavs win is in a shootout.

These trades also shake up the locker room — and the Cavaliers needed that as much or more than on the court. Things felt toxic. Thomas had barely played this season, played poorly when he did suit up, but was calling out players and coaches. Kevin Love was a scapegoat again because Kevin Love is always the scapegoat. Now it’s a fresh start in the locker room. The Cavs need to spend part of All-Star Break working out new complicated handshake routines, but that is a small price to pay.

THE GOOD: Cleveland has roster space to go after a couple of guys on the buyout market. The Cavaliers are not done making additions, there will be interesting guys available on the buyout market they can add. Joe Johnson will be available, he’s the kind of veteran shooter they can use. There are reports they want to call up Kendrick Perkins from the G-League to provide locker room stability, that could happen. There will be other options, but the simple fact is the Cavs are not done remaking the roster.

THE BAD: But does it all fit together? This is an unprecedented experiment, to completely overhaul what was seen as a contending-level roster in the middle of the season. The Cavaliers have 29 games left to figure out the rotations, develop chemistry, get comfortable with one another, and turn into a contender. Can they do that? It’s falls in the bad category because of the level of risk (even if it was the right thing to do).

A lot is being asked of guys. Clarkson (overpaid at $13.5 million next season) is a solid NBA guard who put up 14.5 moderately efficient points a night off the bench of a struggling team. Now he’s going to be asked to play a major role on a LeBron team that will face other point guards in the playoffs such as Eric Bledsoe, Kyrie Irving, John Wall, and/or Kyle Lowry. That’s a whole new level of ask for Clarkson. How does he handle it? Similar questions can be asked of Hill, Hood, and Nance.

Simply, we don’t have any idea how good this Cavaliers team is going to be. It should be better than it was. Is it ready to challenge Boston and Toronto? Too early to say. LeBron James makes this team legit, but just how good we have no idea. (We won’t ask the Warriors/Rockets version of that “are they good enough” question because we know the answer.)

THE BAD: The Cavaliers took on a lot of future money. The Cavaliers were going to be a repeater tax team next season anyway, but now they have about $110 million locked in on the books for next season (the cap is going to be around $101), and they still have to re-sign LeBron James and Rodney Hood. Bring them back and Dan Gilbert is going to write one massive, massive tax check to the league.

The Cavaliers will spin that this shows their long-term commitment to winning, an effort to keep LeBron. They’re not completely wrong. But if he leaves, this is a lot of money on the books that drags down the rebuild start.

THE BAD: Is this enough to keep LeBron James in Cleveland? Nobody has the answer to this. Probably not even LeBron. He is going to get to the end of this season (whenever that is for the Cavaliers), assess where his current team is, where he can best go chase a title and improve his brand, he will think about his relationship with Dan Gilbert, then make his call. He will listen to a few trusted advisors, and not any of us on Twitter.

But if Cleveland did nothing he was gone for sure. What the Cavs did at the deadline was something. It improves the odds LeBron stays in Cleveland, but how much is a very open-ended question.

THE UGLY: Cleveland just opened the door for LeBron and Paul George to go to the Lakers together. I doubt this happens. LeBron wants to win and even those two top-15 players with the nice core still in Los Angeles — Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, etc. — is not a real threat to Golden State and Houston.

Still, LeBron coming to L.A. is not out of the question, and Lakers are one of the few teams that could lure James and steal him from Cleveland (and George out of OKC where he says he’s happy but left the door open). The Cavaliers just made a deal that makes this Lakers’ fans’ dream scenario possible. If not, LeBron could sign a short-term deal with the Cavaliers and be a free agent again in a year, when the Lakers could still have all that free agent money and a larger crop of second guys to bring in. The Cavaliers made a move that helped themselves, but they helped the competition, too. That could come back to bite them.

Report: Nemanja Bjelica agrees to three-year contract with Kings

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Nemanja Bjelica wanted some stability. That got pulled out from under him when  Tom Thibodeau and the Timberwolves rescinded his qualifying offer. He quickly agreed to a one-year, $4.4 million offer, with Philadelphia, but then came to regret it because he wanted more security than that single season. Bjelica was considering Europe.

Then the Sacramento Kings stepped in. Friday night, the two sides reached a deal.

The Kings have signed both players who backed out of verbal agreements with teams this summer, Bjelica with the Sixers and Yogi Ferrell with the Mavericks.

Bjelica is a floor-spacing big man who should fit in well with the Kings’ frontcourt rotation that includes Marvin Bagley III, Harry Giles, Willie Caulie-Stein, and others. Bjelica provides shooting — he hit 41.5 percent from three last season (where he took nearly half his shots). Bjelica has a solid all-around game that a lot of teams could have used. Including Minnesota and Philly.

Suns acquire Richaun Holmes from 76ers, Darrrell Arthur from Nets

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PHOENIX (AP) — The Phoenix Suns have acquired power forward Richaun Holmes from Philadelphia and forward Darrell Arthur from Brooklyn.

The Suns sent cash considerations to the 76ers on Friday for Holmes, and got Arthur from the Nets for forward Jared Dudley and a protected 2021 second-round pick.

Philadelphia made the Holmes deal to help clear salary cap space to sign 2017 second-round pick Jonah Bolden to a $7 million, four-year contract. Holmes averaged 7.4 points and 4.2 rebounds in four seasons with the 76ers.

The Suns are expected to buy out Arthur’s $7.4 million contract to clear enough salary cap space for Holmes.

Arthur has played nine NBA seasons, the last five with Denver before being dealt to the Nets on July 13. He has appeared in 503 games with Denver and the Memphis Grizzlies, averaging 6.5 points and 3.5 rebounds.

Dudley, an 11-year NBA veteran, spent the last two seasons with the Suns in his second stint with the team.

 

Celtics’ Smart ‘ecstatic’ to have summer in limbo over

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BOSTON (AP) — There was a moment during the past month in which Marcus Smart wasn’t sure where he’d be playing basketball this upcoming season.

A day after signing a four-year deal to remain in the only NBA jersey he’s ever played in, Smart said he’s focused on doing what he can to help the Celtics win their 18th championship.

“I’m ecstatic. This is a blessing,” Smart said Friday.

After being in limbo since the start of free agency, Smart cemented his pact with the Celtics on Thursday. A person with knowledge of the agreement told The Associated Press that Smart will be paid $52 million over the next four years. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because the team did not disclose the terms of the contract.

Boston brings back a 6-foot-4 defensive cornerstone who has developed a reputation for toughness and doing the little things that help the Celtics win. Smart is also the longest-tenured player on the roster.

The confidence that general manager Danny Ainge is showing in his abilities is not lost on Smart, who acknowledged he knew he was entering a tough free agent market this summer.

“To be honest, I didn’t know where I was gonna end up. I was just enjoying this whole process,” he said. “It is a business, so things aren’t perfect. That’s why it’s called negotiations. You guys come together and you finally agree on something. We both agreed. Boston loves me and I love Boston. Boston wants me here and I want to be here. I am here. So we made it work.”

Barring any late changes, Smart’s return also means Boston will be bringing back the core of the team that won 55 games and reached the Eastern Conference finals while battling numerous injuries and being without both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward the entire postseason.

Smart was a huge part of the run, stepping in to a starter’s role after returning from thumb surgery late in the first round of the playoffs. He averaged 9.8 points, 5.3 assists and 3.7 rebounds per game as Boston pushed LeBron James‘ Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games in the conference finals.

Now, James is in the West with the Lakers, and given the emergence of youngsters Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, Smart said he doesn’t see any reason why the Celtics shouldn’t be a favorite to come out of the East.

“We demonstrated the talent and ability we had to do that last year with a few missing pieces. With those missing pieces back in action, I think it really makes it hard for teams,” Smart said. “I think we have a real shot.”

The signing also will allow Smart to shift his attention back to his mother, 63-year-old Camellia Smart, who continues to undergo treatment for the bone marrow cancer she was diagnosed with in April.

“When you kind of go through adversity and something like this hits you and your family, it kind of puts everything in perspective and everything else kind of becomes a blur to you and really not that important,” he said.

He has been with her in Texas since the season ended and said she’s stable and doing well.

“She’s hanging in there,” Smart said. “This is a hard time. But at the same time, it’s an exciting time for my family. So, with the signing, it kind of brings a little joy to a situation and lightens up the situation that was a little darkened for me. … As of right now, she’s doing great.”

As far as basketball is concerned, he’ll continue trying to improve.

“I’m just gonna be working on all aspects of my game. The uniqueness about me is I don’t do one thing perfectly or great. I do a little bit of everything. That’s what makes me so unique. I’m just trying to master a little bit of everything. … If I could just get better a little bit each year, then I did my job.”

 

Raptors president Ujiri apologizes to departed DeRozan

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TORONTO (AP) — Raptors president Masai Ujiri apologized Friday for a “miscommunication” with four-time All-Star and franchise icon DeMar DeRozan, but Toronto’s traded All-Star guard didn’t seem quite ready to make amends.

Speaking for the first time since sending DeRozan to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard, Ujiri began by saying sorry to DeRozan. The career Raptor had expressed anger and frustration in an Instagram post after learning of the deal, indicating he’d been told he would not be traded.

Shortly after Ujiri apologized Friday, DeRozan added a new post to his Instagram feed: a facepalm emoji, a symbol of frustration and exasperation.

Reflecting on a conversation he’d had with DeRozan at Summer League earlier this month, Ujiri said he “should have handled it better” when discussing future plans.

“Maybe my mistake was talking about what we expected going forward from him,” Ujiri said. “I think that’s where the gap was, because in my job I always have to assume that I’m going forward with the team that I have. If there was a miscommunication there, I do apologize to DeMar.”

Still, after three straight disappointing playoff exits, Ujiri felt something needed to change with the Raptors. He acknowledged struggling with the “human side” of the trade, but decided Leonard was too good a prize to pass up.

Now, Ujiri says, the Raptors “are stepping on territory that we never have.”

“I think if we look at ourselves honestly, everybody knows that we had to do something different, even if it wasn’t this,” Ujiri said. “We had to figure out something different. I take responsibility for that.

“We’ve been doing this how many years?” Ujiri said. “You can’t continue doing the same thing over and over again. And when you get a chance to get a top five player, which doesn’t come very often, I think you have to jump on it. We’ve given a chance to this team, we’ve tried to build it as much as we can but, at this point, this opportunity came in front of us and we had to jump on it.”

DeRozan led the Raptors in scoring in each of the last five years, and was key to Toronto winning a franchise-record 59 games and securing the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference last season.

“There’s no measurement for what DeMar DeRozan has done for this organization,” Ujiri said, pledging that the departed guard will be acknowledged “in the biggest way that we can possibly do it” for his nine seasons with the Raptors.

Even with DeRozan, Toronto lost three straight postseason series against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, including consecutive second-round sweeps. The Raptors have never reached the NBA Finals.

Leonard, the 2014 NBA Finals MVP, has twice finished in the top three in MVP voting and is a two-time winner of the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award. Ujiri called his new acquisition “a no-nonsense basketball player that plays on both sides of the floor and produces.”

Still, there are reasons for concern. A seven-year veteran, Leonard missed all but nine games last season because of a leg injury. He can become a free agent next summer, and has stated his desire to play for the Los Angeles Lakers.

As long as Leonard is with the Raptors, however, Ujiri will work to show him what Toronto has to offer.

“I think there’s a lot to sell here,” Ujiri said. “Our team, our culture, our city, our ownership. We have everything here except a championship, in my humble opinion. I don’t think we lack anything in this city.”

Leonard has yet to pass a physical, Ujiri said, adding one is expected to happen “in the next couple of days.”

Ujiri, who returned from a trip to Africa earlier Friday, has not met Leonard in person since the trade, but said they have spoken on the phone. Ujiri disputed rumors that Leonard has no interest in playing north of the border.

“He didn’t express a lack of interest about playing in Canada to me,” Ujiri said.

DeRozan and Leonard are expected to be on the court together next week when USA Basketball convenes a national team training camp in Las Vegas. That team is coached by San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich.