Monday, February 12, 2018
Cavs Go For Broke, But Will it Work?
Trade deadlines in major North American sports typically serve the purpose of allowing contending teams to shore up some weaknesses and also let teams who are suffering rebuilding or disappointing seasons cash in on some desired assets.
A trade deadline is almost never an opportunity to remake offseason-esque changes to a whole roster, especially in a sport where the deadline comes about two-thirds of the way through the regular season.
But that's exactly what Cleveland did at Thursday's trade deadline, shipping out Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Channing Frye, Dwyane Wade, Iman Shumpert, Derrick Rose, and a (presumably late) 2018 first-round pick in various trades in exchange for Rodney Hood, George Hill, Larry Nance, Jr. and Jordan Clarkson.
Of course, the Cavs are probably unlike any other team before in NBA history.
Faced with the incomprehensible reality that they were the third-likeliest team in the Eastern Conference to make the Finals and the increasing probability that LeBron James would leave the Buckeye State again this summer, Cleveland didn't really have a choice but to push the chips to the middle of the table without an ideal hand.
The fact that the Cavs not only improved on paper and didn't have to part ways with the Nets' 1st rounder acquired in the Kyrie Irving trade or deal an injured Kevin Love means that they're the winners of a trade deadline where many teams stood pat or waited for the mid-season buyout/waiver market to formulate.
And yet, I still think there's massive, massive questions to be answered about the Cavs, and it's not at all a foregone conclusion that Cleveland will once again claim conference superiority in the spring and get James to his eighth consecutive Finals. Then, there's the possible all-time Catch-22 that, by acquiring Clarkson and Nance from the Lakers for Thomas and Frye's expiring contracts, Cleveland has allowed L.A. enough cap space to nab LeBron in July.
Let's focus on the good as it relates to Cleveland's flawed team prior to Thursday.
The dominant need for the Cavs was to improve on defense, as Cleveland ranks 29th in defensive rating this season as of writing time, and prior to their national TV game Sunday afternoon against the Celtics. Hood and Nance will absolutely help on that end of the floor, and Clarkson has improved on defense with the Lakers over his career. Hill's advanced individual defense stats have waned from his peak with the Pacers, and while he wasn't great in last year's playoffs with Utah, he still has a solid and deserved reputation as being tough to score on when healthy.
Even though Cleveland has an elite offense, ranking fifth in the NBA, it's often felt this season like LeBron and Love have been carrying the load, with Kyle Korver (and J.R. Smith to a lesser extent) able to knock down enough threes to punish teams who focus too much on LeBron and the paint.
Thomas was still recovering from his hip injury from the previous season and was a huge chemistry problem, Crowder was lost without a Brad Stevens offense, Rose and Shumpert were deep-bench casualties due to injuries, and Frye and Wade clearly declined in their mid-30s.
Except for Hill, the other three Cavs deadline acquisitions trend more athletic and younger. Clarkson and Hill are ideal guards for the Cavs that won't need the ball in their hands on offense to make a difference alongside LeBron, or can score against bench lineups. Hood, an underrated three-point shooter at 39 percent this year, won't be as relied upon as he was in Utah and should see more open looks.
GM Koby Altman has to be commended for those moves, but then you look at the standings and realize that Cleveland has just 27 games and two months to make this all work, figure out rotations and compete with teams in the playoffs that have been together since training camp in September.
Even if the pieces all fit together pretty well from the start, Cleveland was a mere 8-13 since Christmas heading into Sunday, and time has probably run out for the Cavs to get a top-two seed in the East. If the pieces don't fit within the next few weeks, there's not a lot of daylight in the standings between third and sixth in the East. Even moving down a spot into fourth means Cleveland might have a playoff road of Milwaukee, Boston and Toronto to get back to the Finals.
If you made me pick (even without seeing the new Cavs in a game), I would have to favor Cleveland again to make the Finals, but possibly not have much for Golden State or Houston once there. Boston's offense has been shaky at times in recent weeks, and even though the more dynamic Raptors look incredible right now, Toronto's struggles with LeBron in the postseason are well-documented.
There are tons of unknowns in the East right now, and that's a welcome change from the past few years. Cleveland's moves at the deadline not only greatly improve the Cavs' chances, they should make the fight for the Finals incredibly intriguing throughout the next three months.