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 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.