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

5 Comments

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.

Will Chris Paul play in Game 7?

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The way Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry were shooting it probably wouldn’t have changed the outcome of Game 6, but the Houston Rockets missed Chris Paul. They missed his steadying influence on offense, and maybe more importantly on defense — Curry was directing the offense, creating space with his handles then finding people cutting off the ball and draining threes. Paul may have been able to help keep Curry in relative check.

Which all leads to this big question: Will Paul suit up and play in Game 7.

Doesn’t sound like it.

I would describe the mood of sources I spoke to on this issues as pessimistic on CP3’s chances of play.

If Paul can at all go, he will. Three years ago Paul played through a hamstring injury to lead the Clippers past the Spurs, he’ll want to do it again.

This is different. For one thing, Paul is older now, his body will not bounc he is at all limited with his movement the Warriors will target him with Curry and Klay Thompson, try to get CP3 moving laterally and exploiting him. It might now work to put him out there.

But if he can go, D’Antoni will try.

Watch best of Klay Thompson’s nine threes, 35-point night

Leave a comment

Stephen Curry is a better shooter. Kevin Durant is a better scorer with a bigger toolbox.

But no Warrior can get as white-hot as Klay Thompson.

He did that on Saturday night helping the Warriors to a Game 6 win, getting his rhythm and becoming a scoring machine in the second half, finishing with 35 points including hitting 9-of-14 from three, and having six rebounds. He was just as important on the other end of the floor.

“I thought Klay was amazing tonight, not just for 35 points and the nine threes, but his defense,” Coach Steve Kerr said. “The guy’s a machine. He’s just so fit physically. He seems to thrive in these situations. But he was fantastic.”

Thompson will need to bring some of that Heat in Game 7 on the road if the Warriors are going to head back to the NBA Finals.

Backs against wall down 17, Warriors crank up defense, rain threes, force Game 7

Getty Images
5 Comments

Warriors’ fans have been asking one question since the season tipped off in October:

What is it going to take to get Golden State to truly focus and play up to their potential?

Apparently, the answer is going down 17 to the Houston Rockets in a playoff elimination game.

Houston entered Oracle Saturday night playing smart and with energy, defending as they had the previous two games and then turning that into transition buckets and threes — eight of them in the first quarter. Houston was up 17 in the first and 10 at the half.

However, Golden State had started to defend better in the second quarter and they cranked up the intensity to the level fans had hoped to see in the second half — Houston scored 39 points in the first quarter and 47 combined in the final three. The Warriors were also forcing turnovers, 21.3 percent of Rockets possessions ended with a turnover (more than one in five trips down the court). Houston had 25 points in the second half and shot 2-of-9 from three in the third quarter.

At the same time, Klay Thompson led an onslaught of threes for Golden State (Thompson had 9 threes on the night). The Warriors defense turned into offense.

The result was a dramatic turnaround and a 115-86 Golden State win, tying the Western Conference Finals at 3-3.

Game 7 is in Houston Monday night. Winner advances to the NBA Finals.

“Effort. Intensity. Passion,” Thompson said of the Warriors’ second-half surge. “When we do that, and we rotate, and we help each other we’re the best defensive team in the league.”

While it was their defense that sparked everything, the Warriors also found an offense that worked against the Rockets’ switching defense — more Stephen Curry with the ball in his hands. There are a few ways to counter a switching defense and one is a creative ballhandler who can still make plays — not just isolation plays, but who can create a little space and find guys moving off the ball despite the pressure. Curry was that guy, he was the Warriors best all-around player on the night. He had a high IQ game and added 29 points. With the offense not running through Kevin Durant isolations, it just flowed better (the Warriors best lineup of the night was Curry, Thompson, Draymond Green, Shaun Livingston, and Nick Young, +13 in just more than eight minutes).

It just took a lot of pressure from a Rockets team to get Golden State into that mental frame of mind.

Houston opened this game with the same defensive energy they had the last two games, and once again it flustered the Golden State offense. Except, this time the Rockets did a much better job of turning those misses and turnovers into transition points (the Rockets averaged two points per possession on the break in the first half). Throw in some terrible defensive communication errors by the Warriors, and the Rockets were raining threes in the first half — 11-of-22, with Gordon going 4-of-4.

The Warriors had some success with an ultra-small lineup that unleashed Curry, but as soon as non-shooters were on the floor — Kevon Looney, Jordon Bell, and the Rockets were daring Draymond Green and Shaun Livingston to shoot — Houston shrunk the floor and took away passing lanes, plus contested every shot.

In the second half, the Warriors used that Curry energy and hit their threes to pull away. The Warriors were at their best with Bell as the fifth man with the four All-Stars, he brought an energy and athleticism that made things flow on both ends. Don’t be shocked if he starts Game 7 for Golden State.

If the Warriors pack up that second half energy with them and take it to Houston, there is not much the Rockets will be able to do. But do not expect these gritty, feisty Rockets to go quietly into that good night.

Rockets were draining threes in the first half against Warriors in Game 6

Getty Images
4 Comments

The Rockets were feeling it the first half in Game 6.

Playing with an energy the Warriors lacked at least in the first quarter), Houston defended well, pushed the ball in transition, and then they just drained three after three after three.

Eric Gordon started 4-of-4 from three and the team was 11-of-22 in the first half, which made up for the 11 turnovers and had them up 17 at one point and ahead by 10 after the first half.