In a little over an hour on Thursday, the Cavaliers completely altered their roster, their present with LeBron, and potentially their future without him in a shocking series of deals before the NBA trade deadline. Cleveland has shipped nearly every one of its summer acquisitions, as well as its own first-round pick in 2018, in exchange for four players who either address their defensive woes or their lack of youth. We need a chart just to keep track of everyone coming and going in Cleveland:
A Busy Afternoon in Cleveland
|Rodney Hood||Isaiah Thomas|
|George Hill||Dwyane Wade|
|Jordan Clarkson||Derrick Rose|
|Larry Nance Jr.||Jae Crowder|
|Heat 2020 second-round pick||Channing Frye|
|Cavs 2018 first-round pick|
|Heat 2020 second-round pick (traded to the Kings)|
Everyone expected the Cavs to make some changes to a team in the midst of a historic tailspin, but no one could have predicted the sheer scale of their moves. Perhaps most surprisingly, they were able to remake their team without giving up the Nets’ unprotected first-round pick in 2018, the key piece in the Kyrie Irving trade. It’s unclear whether LeBron James had any input in these moves, especially considering that Dwyane Wade, his best friend on the team, was shipped out for next to nothing, but Cleveland is clearly preparing itself for a future without LeBron. The Cavaliers now have a versatile group of swingmen they can put around Kevin Love and whoever they take in the lottery this summer.
Their team for the rest of this season is a lot more interesting as well. Tyronn Lue will have his hands full integrating so many new players into the mix, but they at least have given themselves a higher ceiling than they had with yesterday’s roster. The Cavs had been one of the worst teams in the NBA since the calendar turned to 2018, and they were showing their age on a nightly basis. Other than George Hill, everyone who Cleveland brought in (Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance Jr.) is 25. The guys they traded, meanwhile, were some of their biggest liabilities on defense. Wade, Thomas, and Rose were shells of themselves physically, while Crowder hasn’t looked like the same player since leaving Boston, and Shumpert and Frye had fallen out of the rotation.
Their new starting backcourt, once all the dust settles on these trades, will likely be Hill and Hood, who were teammates last season in Utah. Both players are injury-prone and have been in and out of their respective teams’ lineups this season, but they complement LeBron much better than their predecessors when healthy. They are knockdown 3-point shooters who don’t need the ball in their hands to be threats on offense, and they have the length and athleticism to slide between multiple positions on defense. Hill has not played particularly inspired basketball since signing with Sacramento in the offseason, but Cleveland is hoping he will be revitalized by the opportunity to start on a contender, while also moving back to a more complementary role on offense.
Hood is the most talented player the Cavs acquired on Thursday. He has never gotten a chance to fully show his game with the Jazz. Utah is a deep team with lots of options on the wing, and the Jazz usually play in the half court with two big men who can’t space the floor. At 6-foot-8 and 206 pounds, Hood is a well-rounded offensive player who can shoot 3s, put the ball on the floor, and make plays off the dribble. He is averaging 16.8 points per game on 42.4 percent shooting this season, and he could thrive playing off of LeBron. He’ll be the most complete wing that LeBron will have played with in his second stint in Cleveland.
With Love out for likely the next six weeks with a broken hand, the Cavs will probably start only one traditional big man. They will have only two in their rotation — Thompson and Larry Nance Jr. There are a lot of similarities in their games: Neither can space the floor, protect the rim, or create much offense, and they are both most effective when they are crashing the boards and throwing their bodies around. Nance will push Thompson, whose effort has waxed and waned this season, but Cleveland still doesn’t have a big man who can fill its defensive hole in the middle. The Cavs will have to depend on the length and athleticism on the rest of their roster to prevent too much dribble penetration, which is not something they could have said before all these trades were made.
The other forward position next to LeBron will likely be filled by Jeff Green and Cedi Osman, two of their only pleasant surprises this season. Green has had one of the best seasons of his career playing next to LeBron. He’s averaging 17 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 2.1 assists on 48.7 percent shooting per 36 minutes of playing time. Osman, a rookie from Turkey, has been making a push to get into the rotation over the past few weeks, and had a coming-out party in a nationally televised game against the Wolves on Wednesday. At 6-foot-8 and 215 pounds, he has prototypical size for a wing player and he plays with more savvy than most rookies. After getting rid of so many veterans who were ahead of him, Cleveland can now give Osman the opportunity to do more in a bigger role.
Clarkson will likely be given the keys to the Cavs’ second unit, with Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith on the wings and the younger duo of Osman and Nance up front. Clarkson averaged 14.5 points and 3.3 assists per game on 44.8 percent shooting as the sixth man in Los Angeles, and he’s now Cleveland’s only reserve who can consistently create his own shot. Korver’s role as a floor spacer who can threaten the defense coming off screens will not change, while Smith may see his minutes cut until he can get out of his season-long shooting slump. Lue will likely mix and match reserves until he can find a group with some chemistry, and it’s possible that Cleveland will be active in the buyout market.
Reintegrating Love will be tricky, especially since the Cavs will likely have just settled on their rotation when he’s ready to return. Lue had shelved the combination of Thompson and Love up front after a slow start to the season, only to return to them in the past few weeks in a last-ditch attempt to get some defense on the floor. Whether or not he gives his bigger lineups another shot will depend largely on how their smaller units perform defensively over the next month. With so much else to figure out, though, Lue will cross that bridge when he gets to it. There’s a chance the Cavs will take both of their big men out in the fourth quarter of playoff games and just play with LeBron at center next to four perimeter players, like they did for stretches of the 2017 Finals.
It’s hard to know what the Cavaliers will look like next week, much less in a few months. They at least have the outlines of a roster capable of playing NBA-caliber defense, but that still depends on Lue getting everyone on the same page in a short period of time. As has always been the case in Cleveland, everything will depend on LeBron. He has never looked more apathetic on defense than he has this season, but now has to set the tone for how the team will play on that side of the ball. If LeBron isn’t making the right rotations and at least pretending to be engaged, no one else will either.
LeBron could be energized by these moves. Cleveland now has some funky lineups it can put around him. A five-man unit of LeBron, Green, Osman, Hood, and Hill could be a proto–Lineup of Death that spreads the floor with five 3-point shooters and five players who can switch screens. Add in Clarkson and Nance and the Cavs now have lot of options who can provide a spark on a given night. Their additions, with the exception of Hill, have not played much meaningful basketball in their careers, and they will likely be more enthusiastic about the opportunity than the veterans they are replacing.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this trade is how it sets up the Cavs for the future. Even if they lose LeBron in the offseason, they’ll have a decent core of veteran talent in Love, Hood, Hill, and Clarkson. That group won’t knock anyone’s socks off, but they should at least be able to stay above water in the Eastern Conference. More importantly, the Brooklyn pick will give them a young blue-chip player they can build around. There’s no way to know where it will end up given how bunched together the worst teams in the NBA are at the moment, but the top of the 2018 draft is pretty loaded. Oklahoma point guard Trae Young could be available where they are picking; other possibilities are players with the potential to be a high-level contributor on both sides of the ball, like Villanova wing Mikal Bridges, Alabama point guard Collin Sexton, or Michigan State big man Jaren Jackson Jr.
The Cavs were able to walk a tightrope with all these trades. They reset their team this season without jeopardizing their future. To be sure, there are still a lot of questions about the direction of the franchise. All they really did was create a way to get out of a hole they dug for themselves. Cleveland isn’t much closer to being able to beat Golden State in the Finals, and there’s no guarantee they will be a title contender again if LeBron leaves. At the very least, though, they have raised their floor. This version of the Cavs won’t embarrass themselves this season, and they won’t be as embarrassing as they were after LeBron left town the first time. Considering where they were at the start of Thursday, that has to count as a win.