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: Celtics were working with Jabari Bird on mental-health treatment before alleged domestic-violence incident

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Celtics guard Jabari Birdaccording to his girlfriend – attacked her over four hours at his apartment, choked her until she passed out, kicked her in the stomach, experienced seizure-like symptoms (allowing her to escape) then threatened to commit suicide if she didn’t return.

Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald:

People around Bird have been aware that he recently had been experiencing, according to one source close to him, “panic attacks and things like that. It wasn’t a long-term thing, but everyone knew. The Celtics knew there was something going on and he was being treated.”

Said another, “This wasn’t one of the domestic-violence situations you usually see where someone gets jealous for one thing and loses control. There was something deeper going on here with (Bird). This was a bad situation.”

First, I’m uncomfortable with Bird’s mental-health issues being discussed publicly by people who remain anonymous. Hopefully, this was an authorized leak by Bird. But if that’s the case, why did his spokespeople seek anonymity? If Bird did not want this information revealed, that’s far more troubling.

But the information is public, and it’s worth discussing. When allegations first became known, many called for Boston to release Bird and the judicial system to throw him in prison. And maybe that will ultimately be the just conclusion. But this case could be far more complex than it initially appeared.

Anthony Davis and Pelicans enter yet another season full of speculation about their future together

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This is the latest of NBC’s NBA preview stories, with at least one a day appearing on these pages until Oct. 16, when the NBA season kicks off. We will look at teams and topics around the NBA throughout the series, today it is New Orleans.

In Anthony Davis‘ lifetime, 22 players have made an All-NBA first team during their first six seasons. Just seven did so without reaching a conference finals in that span. Of those seven, only one began his seventh season with his original team.

Anthony Davis is set to become the second.

Davis, a three-time All-NBA first-teamer, has made the playoffs only twice and won a series only once in six years with the Pelicans. He’s following the footsteps of Kevin Garnett, who spent his first 12 seasons with the Timberwolves while advancing in the playoffs only once with them, in his ninth season.

That’s the same Kevin Garnett whom Anthony used as somewhat of a cautionary tale about remaining loyal to a franchise. And the most recent example of someone who became an All-NBA first-teamer so young without reaching the conference finals: Chris Paul, who engineered a trade from New Orleans after his sixth season there.

Uneasy parallels abound for the Pelicans as they try to keep Davis happy.

Of course, Davis is neither Paul nor Garnett nor anybody but Anthony Davis. Davis has mostly stayed on message: His priority is winning in New Orleans.

I believe that. But what if he determines he can’t win enough with the Pelicans? Will he choose them or a team he believes offers a better chance of on-court success. That, I don’t know.

The Pelicans should gain clarity next summer, when they can offer Davis a super-max extension that projects to be worth about $240 million over five years (about $48 million annually).

If he were to wait to leave in 2020 unrestricted free agency, Davis would have a projected max with another team of about $152 million over four years (about $38 million annually). Even if he got traded before then so he could re-sign with his new team in 2020, his projected max would still be “just” about $205 million over five years (about $41 million annually). He can get the super-max from only New Orleans.

If Davis is predisposed to stay with the Pelicans anyway, why wouldn’t he just take that monster offer next summer?

Again, speculation centers on New Orleans’ underwhelming results since drafting him No. 1 overall in 2012. The Pelicans have tried to fast-track their ascension around Davis, repeatedly trading first-round picks. They haven’t won enough to justify that strategy, and it has resulted in a roster primed for disappointment going forward.

Jrue Holiday is nice. Nikola Mirotic is underrated. Julius Randle could take another step. Otherwise, New Orleans’ supporting cast doesn’t make a convincing case.

Of course, the Pelicans could exceed expectations. They sure did last year, winning 48 games and sweeping the third-seeded Trail Blazers even after DeMarcus Cousins‘ injury.

Davis is locked up for two more years. If he makes another All-NBA team next season, he’ll be eligible to re-sign for the supermax in 2020 no matter how he performs during the 2019-20 season. Next season is not necessarily a breaking point.

But it’ll be another data point in Davis’ ongoing assessment of New Orleans. That assessment will be guided by a new agent (maybe Rich Paul, who represents Lakers superstar LeBron James) – which only adds variability to the equation.

The stakes are high. The small-market Pelicans would likely fall into into irrelevance if they lose Davis, which is precisely why they won’t rush to move him. But if they’re going to lose Davis, they’re better off trading him while his value nears its peak so they can get assets that will help in a new era. Whichever team gets Davis will likely vault up the championship-contention ladder.

Eyes will be on Davis and New Orleans, searching for any sign of discord. That might not be fair considering all Davis has done to fit in with the Pelicans, but it’s also reality. The vultures are swarming.

It has been this way for years now. Davis and the Pelicans are used to it, and neither he nor the team has budged much from their stated plan of sticking together.

But the super-max-extension window is around the corner with only the upcoming season in between. It’ll be a big one for determining whether everything in New Orleans is still on track.

Report: Jimmy Butler-Timberwolves meeting moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles

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Jimmy Butler and Tom Thibodeau are meeting today, not necessarily for Butler to express his desire to leave the Timberwolves – but maybe!

This is a huge meeting with big ramifications for Minnesota and even across the league. Every detail is subject to inspection until we know more.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Butler, like many NBA players, spends his summers near Los Angeles. The meeting being held there could be for numerous potential reasons.

But it feels significant Thibodeau is coming to Butler’s turf rather than the other way around.

Without better options, Heat settle for sentimentality

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

Dwyane Wade took discounts from the Heat for years, seemingly expecting a larger windfall down the road.

It won’t come.

But Wade and Miami will enjoy one last dance together.

Wade is re-signing with the Heat on a one-year minimum contract he said would be for his final season, concluding a nostalgic summer in Miami. The Heat also re-signed local legend Udonis Haslem to another one-year minimum deal.

I wouldn’t expect much from either player on the court. If anything, Wade might prove destructive if the the 36-year-old uses his cachet to assume a larger role than he should handle. Haslem has barely played the last couple years, and that probably won’t change.

Still, there’s something to be said for proper sendoffs. Considering the high standards Wade and Haslem helped set for the franchise by winning three championships, this was unlikely to be a banner year in Miami, anyway. There’s value in honoring Wade and Haslem one more time.

Mostly, the Heat acted like a solid, stuck team this summer – because that’s what they are. That probably contributed to them not rewarding Wade for his prior sacrifice.

Yet, Miami eclipsed the luxury-tax line to sign Wayne Ellington, a helpful cog, to a one-year, $6.27 million deal. The tax isn’t assessed until the final day of the regular season, so there’s still plenty of time for the Heat to dodge it. In fact, I predict they will. But by at least temporarily exceeding the tax line, Miami gave itself its best chance of maintaining its level of play.

The Heat sure didn’t upgrade, though. They made no draft picks and didn’t touch their mid-level exception. Their only outside addition to receive a guaranteed salary was Derrick Jones Jr., who signed a minimum contract with a second year unguaranteed. The 21-year-old athlete is a worthwhile flier, but he sure isn’t a difference maker.

Neither are Wade and Haslem anymore – outside of our fond memories of the pair, and that counts for something. Just not enough to change Miami’s trajectory.

Offseason grade: C