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How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Cavs?

Things are looking pretty, pretty grim in Cleveland. But with no easy solutions in sight, the Cavaliers may still be better off not going all in for this season—even if it risks upsetting LeBron James.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Hours after the Cavaliers got walloped 148-124 by the Thunder on Saturday, my Lyft driver Victor and I had a conversation about the NBA.

We chatted about Lonzo Ball and the Lakers, the game’s evolving style of play, and the possibility of LeBron James leaving the Cavaliers. I asked him whether he thought the Cavs should dump coach Tyronn Lue and pursue David Fizdale, the former Grizzlies coach whom LeBron spoke highly of after he was let go in late November. “Fizdale? Come on,” Victor said, incredulously. “Even Gregg Popovich ain’t fixing that team.”

As we’ll see Tuesday night, when San Antonio hosts the Cavaliers, the Spurs have complemented their aging core with young, defensive-minded role players while the Cavs lack youth and any semblance of defensive talent. The short-term thinking that got the Cavs to this point was a necessary sacrifice for ex–general manager David Griffin to build a roster that won a championship in 2016. But they’re paying the price now, with an ensemble that has one foot in the NBA retirement home.

Cleveland’s 19-2 stretch from mid-November to late December was a mirage; 15 of the wins came against teams currently on the outside looking in on the playoff race. That certainly helps the Cavs pad their record and better positions them for home-court advantage in the playoffs, but the ability to beat great teams is all that matters for a franchise playing for titles. That’s why their sluggish start was so concerning: Old and slow doesn’t get better as the season wears on.

Including a Christmas Day loss to Golden State, Cleveland is 3-9 in the past month—with eight losses against teams in position for a playoff seed—and has the league’s second-worst net rating in that time frame. Overall, the Cavaliers have a 109.8 defensive rating, which ranks 29th in the NBA. Of the 76 NBA Finals participants since the 1979–80 season, only two (the 2000-01 Lakers and 2016-17 Cavaliers) had defensive ratings worse than league average, according to research derived from numberFire. This year’s Cavs team wouldn’t make much of a series against the Warriors, Rockets, or maybe even the Thunder, because the sad reality is there’s not one consistently good defender on the team. And LeBron isn’t helping matters with his lackadaisical approach on that end.

The Cavs are reeling, and they feel it. Prior to Monday’s practice, the team held a “fiery” meeting, according to ESPN, where several players challenged the legitimacy of Kevin Love’s illness and pushed for the forward to be held accountable for leaving the arena before the end of their loss to the Thunder. The team was “largely accepting of Love’s explanation,” per the report, but the signs are hardly encouraging.

Finger-pointing is hard to fix, but with the February 8 trade deadline fast approaching, the Cavaliers could use some changes. They need a guard who can defend the point of attack, a versatile wing, and an effective interior defender. In other words, they need a makeover.

The Known Options

The Cavs’ weaknesses explain their reported interest in Kings point guard George Hill and Clippers center DeAndre Jordan. Both players could help. Hill is lost in the shuffle with Sacramento, but he has been an effective defender when he’s playing with effort. He’s long enough to defend both guard spots, so he could fit virtually any lineup combination the Cavs put on the floor. The 31-year-old also doesn’t need to hold the ball on offense to make an impact—since 2013-14, in the regular season and playoffs, Hill has shot 42.1 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s. But Hill hasn’t been durable in recent years. Of 291 possible games, Hill has missed 88, or nearly one-third, with an injury list that includes his toe, groin, quadriceps, knee, and thumb, as well as a concussion.

Jordan is of particular interest. The 29-year-old could drastically improve Cleveland’s 27th-ranked defensive rebounding while also providing an intimidating presence in the center of the defense to ease the burden on the Cavs’ perimeter defenders. Jordan’s sprinting in transition and bouncy athleticism on rolls and dives would also give Cleveland’s ball handlers a weapon for lobs.

But in the playoffs, when the game becomes more about the half court, Jordan’s inability to space the floor and his poor free throw shooting would hurt. Part of the reason Isaiah Thomas was lethal last season for the Celtics was the spacing Al Horford provided. Thomas has played only seven games after missing the first three months with a hip injury, but his lack of a first step, burst, and explosiveness has created pessimism over whether or not he can reach his level of play from last season. Even if he does, it remains to be seen whether he can come close to replacing Kyrie Irving’s output in the Finals (27.7 points on a 51.8 effective field goal percentage). Dwyane Wade, Jeff Green, and Jae Crowder are average floor spacers at best. Jordan would only further clog the lane, which is why he has never been a high-impact player in games against the Warriors.

Adding defense without sacrificing offense is already tough, but new Cavaliers GM Koby Altman must also weigh the financial aspect. Hill will soon be a 32-year-old point guard who will eat up $19 million in cap next season (with only $1 million guaranteed the following season). Jordan could opt out of his contract this summer and test free agency—and despite what is expected to be a dry market with few teams having max money available, he will likely still demand a deal that will pay him more than $30 million annually. Even if he opts into the final year on his current deal, he’ll still earn a whopping $24.1 million.

Let’s pretend the Cavaliers get Hill and Jordan for a package of Tristan Thompson, Iman Shumpert, Channing Frye, and draft picks, and then Jordan opts in. They’d have $101.6 million in guaranteed salary committed to only eight players, and that’s before re-signing LeBron, Thomas, Wade, or anyone else. As soon as James or Thomas signed on the dotted line, they’d soar into the tax. Bring back anyone else and Dan Gilbert will be digging very deep into his pockets.

Paying the luxury tax with LeBron on the roster is fine. But the lack of a commitment from James makes it hard to go all in on any trade. Deals for Hill or Jordan might not be highly probable, anyway. Multiple NBA executives and agents I spoke with say both the Kings and Clippers are looking for younger assets and draft picks. There’s even less incentive for the Clippers, who are currently eighth in the West, to settle for a deal.

The Cavs don’t have much ammo, partially thanks to big paydays in 2015 and 2016 for Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith, two clients of Rich Paul’s Klutch Sports. They have only three players 25 or younger (Cedi Osman, Ante Zizic, and London Perrantes). They also have only two expiring contracts (Frye and Thomas). Their own 2018 first-round pick likely isn’t enough for Jordan, and I don’t think Jordan is worth the 2018 first they are owed from the Nets considering Jordan’s contract situation, his age, and his historically moderate impact against the Warriors.

The Unknown Options

Hornets point guard Kemba Walker, who is reportedly now on the trade block, is perhaps a more worthy candidate to target with the Nets pick. LeBron and Kevin Love would be the two best players that Kemba has ever played with and would provide Walker easier looks, thus upping his scoring efficiency. But Walker feels a bit redundant next to Thomas, unless Thomas heads to Charlotte as part of the deal.

The Cavs could always look at Blazers guard C.J. McCollum, who The New York Times’ Marc Stein speculates could be available for a frontcourt player of McCollum’s caliber. The defensively poor backcourt of McCollum and Damian Lillard is why Portland would consider trading him in the first place, but it’s fun to imagine a deal that sends McCollum to the Cavs. In theory, this three-way trade sort of makes sense: McCollum to the Cavaliers, Jordan to the Blazers, and assets to the Clippers. But, again, L.A. can likely do better than what Cleveland can offer, and the Blazers would encounter luxury-tax issues similar to the Cavs’ by bringing in Jordan. It feels like a trade for NBA 2K, but not in reality.

There’s also DeMarcus Cousins, who isn’t available at the moment, but at least serves as a theoretical option. If the Pelicans got word he planned on bouncing in free agency this summer, maybe Cleveland could bank on Boogie and LeBron sticking around together. LeBron once called Cousins the best big man in the NBA, and multiple league sources have indicated the duo could team up this summer (especially if Paul George re-signs in Oklahoma City). It’s unlikely to happen, but they’d be a ferocious duo.

Unless the Cavaliers put Love on the chopping block and expand potential trade scenarios, it’s more reasonable to target under-the-radar players to help their cause. Pistons wing Stanley Johnson and Heat forward Justise Winslow would provide versatile defense. Picking from last month’s list of 15 non-stars that I’d pursue if I were a GM, Hawks center Dewayne Dedmon could be paired with Kent Bazemore, or Nerlens Noel with Mavericks wing Wesley Matthews. Even though he’s old, Tyson Chandler’s defense and rim-running could still provide a boost. Though Julius Randle is inconsistent on defense, he shows major flashes and may start to bring regular intensity if empowered on a playoff team. A package deal makes more sense to me than splurging on Jordan. Maybe the best solutions are the more obvious ones.

Walking the LeBron Line

It’s a scary thought that LeBron could leave. And it doesn’t help when multiple “prominent” players on the Cavaliers (*cough* *cough*) express concern about the team. LeBron’s business partner, Maverick Carter, has also said that winning matters most in determining LeBron’s future, and nearly every NBA executive I’ve spoken with still expects LeBron to leave. The Cavaliers aren’t out of the running for LeBron’s services after this season, but the momentum toward a second departure hasn’t slowed down.

No one wants to lose LeBron, for obvious reasons. He’s arguably the greatest player ever, and he’s still in his prime. He puts fans in the seats. He gives any team he’s on a chance at winning multiple titles. He gives the city of Cleveland hope. But the Cavs shouldn’t sacrifice the future unless LeBron guarantees he’ll stay for at least another season. Trading draft picks and one of their few young talents when Hill and Jordan probably aren’t enough to win a title anyway reeks of desperation.

It feels like most assume that there’s not a world in which the Cavaliers can compete for championships without LeBron. If James walks, the Cavs will be in much better position than they were in 2010, when he took his talents to Miami. The Nets pick might end up having only the ninth-best odds for the top spot, but the Cavs won the lottery from the ninth slot just four years ago. Even if it doesn’t land them the no. 1 overall pick, this year’s draft is strong enough that quality prospects will be available in the mid-lottery. From there, they could trade Love and others for valuable assets and would be able to retain their first-rounder in 2019, which was top-10 protected in the 2016 trade for Kyle Korver. As Griffin said at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in 2017, the Cavs protected that pick so that “if LeBron and Kyrie [Irving] and Kevin [Love] are gone and we become a lottery [team], we’ll have those picks.”

Even if Cleveland dealt the Nets pick and LeBron signed another one-and-one deal this summer, the Cavs might end up in this same position a year later. In this scenario, they’d lose out on the talented crop of prospects in 2018, and lose their 2019 first-rounder to the Hawks in what could be a loaded class headlined by R.J. Barrett. Waiting one year could set the franchise back even longer than it seems.

Having assets matters. It wouldn’t be so hard to figure out deals for the Cavaliers if they had something more than the Nets pick. The value of Anthony Bennett (2013) and Andrew Wiggins (2014) led to Love, which, along with the rising stardom of Irving (2011), led to the return of LeBron. They may not be able to replicate a turnaround as big as the one they underwent in 2014, when LeBron decided to come home, but the same process could still yield positive results.

Cleveland’s future isn’t all that bleak right now, but it could be if the team decides to go all in before this year’s deadline.