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Will the Cavaliers Invest in Larry Nance Jr.?

Cleveland’s deadline deals have officially busted, with the team down 2-0 in the Finals and LeBron’s uncertain future looming. Nance might be the only acquisition who has a place both now and in the future. His development will tell us a lot about the Cavs’ plan.

There isn’t much trace of Cleveland’s trade deadline makeover in the NBA Finals. George Hill is the team’s only acquisition playing a big role in the series. Jordan Clarkson has become a walking meme, while Rodney Hood has been buried on the Cavs’ bench. Cavs GM Koby Altman was trying to pull off an almost impossible balance with those deals: improving his team’s chances in the present while preparing for a possible future without LeBron James. Things haven’t gone as planned in more ways than one. Despite having the lowest profile of the bunch, Larry Nance Jr. is the one newcomer who can help both now and later. His development will determine how Altman’s gambit is ultimately remembered.

Nance’s inconsistent play in the Finals is a microcosm of his up-and-down stint with the Cavs. He was excellent in Game 1, nearly recording a double-double (nine points and 11 rebounds) in 19 minutes and using his size to punish the Warriors’ guards on the offensive glass when they switched on him. However, like the rest of Cleveland’s supporting cast, Nance laid an egg in Game 2. Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue could keep him on the floor for only 12 minutes, as Steph Curry repeatedly victimized him in the pick-and-roll. These playoffs should be a learning experience for Nance, who spent his first three seasons in the NBA on a rebuilding Lakers team that was never playing for anything.

Nance has been the victim of a numbers crunch in Cleveland. He’s the third big man behind Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson on a team that often plays small and spreads the floor with 3-point shooters. Neither Nance nor Thompson threatens the defense from behind the arc, so playing time for one comes at the expense of the other. Thompson was out of the rotation when the playoffs began, which is why Nance averaged more minutes (19.6) in the first round against Indiana than in any of their other series. He barely played in their second-round sweep of Toronto, only to reestablish himself after Lue went to bigger lineups against Boston in the Eastern Conference finals.

Nance, in many ways, is a Thompson starter kit. At 6-foot-9 and 230 pounds, he’s a ridiculous athlete who was the runner-up in this year’s dunk contest (the last center to come in second was fellow Finals reserve JaVale McGee in 2011). Nance, like Thompson, is a dominant rebounder, and the two had almost identical total rebounding percentages in Cleveland this season: 18.9 percent for Nance and 18.4 percent for Thompson. And while both players would have been considered power forwards a generation ago, their lack of a perimeter game on offense means they are almost forced to play as undersized centers.

Where Nance has an edge on Thompson is in his overall skill and feel for the game. Thompson famously changed his shooting hand earlier in his career in a failed attempt to improve his accuracy, and he’s not much more than an above-average rim-runner on offense. Nance has much more to his game. He can put the ball on the floor, lead the break, and make plays on the move. He’s probably never going to be a primary option in the offense, but his statistical profile is far more intriguing than that of Thompson, who is one of the more limited players in the NBA:

Nance vs. Thompson, by the Numbers

Player Assists per-36 minutes Turnovers per-36 minutes FT% PPP at the rim
Player Assists per-36 minutes Turnovers per-36 minutes FT% PPP at the rim
Nance 1.8 0.7 72% 1.227
Thompson 1.1 1.2 54.40% 1.15

Where Thompson separates himself from Nance is on the other end of the floor. Given Love’s defensive limitations, as well as the need for LeBron to conserve energy, the other big man in Cleveland’s lineup has to do the heavy lifting on defense. The Cavs have made some marginal improvements in the playoffs since finishing with the second-worst defensive rating in the NBA during the regular season, but they are still prone to breakdowns and miscommunications all over the floor. Their game plan in the Finals has been to switch every ball screen, which often leaves Thompson or Nance on an island against Curry. Thompson is significantly more experienced than Nance, and he’s more likely to stay on the ground instead of flying at pump fakes.

The margin for error for undersized big men like Thompson and Nance is small. Neither is a shot-blocker, so they have to position themselves perfectly on every possession to be any type of deterrent at the rim. They have to rely on speed and energy, which is hard to maintain over an entire season. Guys with their skill set can’t afford to flip a switch: Thompson was almost unplayable for stretches of the regular season before reenergizing himself in the playoffs. He has regained Lue’s trust over the past month. A battle-tested veteran like Thompson, who is only 27 years old, is less likely to make mental mistakes in high-pressure situations than an inexperienced player like Nance, who is playing in meaningful NBA games for the first time in his career.

That was clear at the end of the Eastern Conference finals. After a strong performance in a Game 6 in Cleveland, Nance didn’t seem ready for the moment in Game 7 in Boston. Lue played him only eight minutes, compared with the 16.3 he’d averaged over the previous five games. Nor is he asking Nance to do all that much in the Finals: He’s playing him as a second-unit center with LeBron at the 4, and Nance isn’t facing Golden State’s best lineups with all four All-Stars. Giving him a bigger role would be one possible adjustment that Lue could make for Game 3 on Wednesday, but given the way Cavs have struggled to defend the Warriors on the perimeter in the series, he’s more likely to play smaller lineups with combo forwards like Hood and Cedi Osman.

The bigger question for the Cavs is what will happen with Nance going forward. They gave up a lot to acquire him. They took on the final two years and $26 million of Clarkson’s contract (which looks even worse than it did at the time, given the way he has imploded in the playoffs), and they sent their first-round pick (no. 25 overall) to the Lakers. Cap space and draft picks would have been valuable for Cleveland regardless of the direction it takes this offseason. If LeBron stays, the team will need as many assets as possible to upgrade the roster around him. If he leaves, those same assets will be crucial in a rebuild.

There’s no way to predict what will happen this summer, but the odds of LeBron staying seem to lower with every loss in the playoffs. Love will be the most important player in a post-LeBron era in Cleveland, and they will likely move him back to power forward, where he is far more comfortable, after experimenting with him at center this season. That opens up a spot in the starting lineup for either Thompson or Nance, unless the Cavs decide to draft a big man with the no. 8 overall pick they acquired from Boston in the Kyrie Irving trade. If the Cavs believe in Nance, they will probably look to take a perimeter player, even though the top of the draft is overloaded with centers.

The problem with acquiring non-elite big men is that there are only so many minutes available for them in a rotation. Nance was in a frontcourt logjam in Los Angeles, where he was fighting for playing time with Julius Randle, Kyle Kuzma, and Brook Lopez, and the same thing happened in Cleveland. There’s no guarantee he’ll beat out Thompson, who still has two years and $36 million left on his contract, next season. If the Cavs wind up drafting Wendell Carter Jr. or Mohamed Bamba, Nance could fall out of the rotation entirely.

It’s hard to know what a team would look like with Nance as the starting center. There aren’t many comparable players at the position around the league. Most starting 5s are either significantly bigger than Nance or much better shooters. The player he most resembles is Mason Plumlee, a skilled and energetic big man who had some success as a secondary playmaker with the Blazers before moving into a backup role behind Nikola Jokic with the Nuggets. Nance could thrive on offense as the center in a spread pick-and-roll scheme, but it’s unclear if he could handle the defensive responsibilities that come with that role given his unspectacular length (7-foot-1.5 wingspan).

Nance has shown flashes of why the Cavs were so interested in him at the deadline, most notably in a game against the Pistons in early March, when he dropped 22 points and 15 rebounds on Andre Drummond. Neither Love nor Thompson played that night, which allowed Nance to play 32 minutes, his second most all season. Now that both are healthy, Nance hasn’t been able to showcase his game. He has been a nice complementary piece, but the Cavs need more from him to justify what they gave up in their trade with the Lakers. What happens with Nance will be a good litmus test for their new front office. Do they have a plan, or are they just making it up as they go along?