Change for the sake of change is often pointless, but in the case of this season’s Cleveland Cavaliers, it may end up being all they need.
Just when it appeared as if the trade deadline would come and go with nothing more than a whimper on Thursday, the Cavaliers reminded us how quickly the landscape can change in the NBA.
Cleveland pressed the big red button and blew up their roster, with fragments dispersing throughout the league. They traded: Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and their own 2018 first-round draft pick to the Los Angeles Lakers for Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr; Derrick Rose and Jae Crowder to Utah for Rodney Hood; Iman Shumpert and a 2020 second-round pick from Miami to Sacramento for George Hill; Dwyane Wade to Miami for a protected second-round selection.
It’s a lot of player turnover for what seemingly amounts to marginal gains. But the Cavaliers front office did the best they could do with the situation they were dealt.
The Cavs did not get a commitment from LeBron James that he will stay past this season before executing today's trade, sources said. Team still took on $28 million and traded a future first. https://t.co/Eal9t1E0bG— Brian Windhorst (@WindhorstESPN) February 8, 2018
It was obvious a shake-up was needed. Cleveland have been outright embarrassing since the turn of the calendar and they’ve managed to find innovative ways of hitting new low points every week.
The defence has been a disaster – like pick-up-run-at-the-local-YMCA bad – and the chemistry issues were boiling so far over the surface that there was no need to study body language or read between the lines. There was no subtext, just, well, text that made it clear these guys didn’t like playing with one another.
This hasn’t been akin to the last two years, when the Cavaliers struggled at times in the regular season, only to flip the switch in the playoffs and dominate en route to reaching the NBA Finals.
This season has been a different beast, based on a different roster and with different circumstances. If it wasn’t, the Cleveland front office wouldn’t have exorcised the nuclear option.
Will it ultimately change anything, in terms of the wider picture? Probably not. Because it’s LeBron James and there are so many moving parts, it’s impossible to immediately count out these new-look Cavaliers in a potential rematch with Golden State, but conventional wisdom and the on-paper product suggest the gap may not have closed enough to matter.
Nevertheless, this isn’t a zero-sum game. There was no trade out there that would have put Cleveland on par with the defending champions. What matters is they got better and maybe enough so that they’ll return to the Finals.
And they did it without giving up the Brooklyn pick, meaning they threaded the needle to be competitive now while hanging on to their fail safe for the future if LeBron bolts.
Initially, it didn’t look like the Cavaliers would come out of the trade deadline in better shape than they entered it.
The trade with the Lakers wasn’t exactly inspiring. Thomas has been a sieve defensively this season, while offering little of his offensive arsenal as he continues to get back to full strength.
He had also pointed fingers at others around him, pouring gasoline on the chemistry fire. But attaching a first-round pick with him and Frye, a contributor off the bench, while being forced to take back Clarkson’s contract along with Nance, was head-scratching.
It was only 15 games, but still an experience that I’m grateful for. Thank you to the Cleveland Cavaliers organization for granting me the opportunity to rock the wine and gold this season. God bless and see you on the other side.— Isaiah Thomas (@isaiahthomas) February 9, 2018
Nance is exactly the type of player Cleveland need – a try-hard, team-first guy who will do all the little things that no one with the Cavaliers was willing to do. Clarkson, however, is another score-first guard who brings nothing to the table defensively.
And his contract further hampers Cleveland’s cap flexibility during the next two years.
Fortunately for the Cavaliers, that deal was just part of their final equation. They won’t miss Rose, Wade, Crowder or Shumpert – all of whom had become expendable due to their overlapping skills, or lack of skills.
Hill, meanwhile, is the perfect type of point guard to play alongside LeBron. He doesn’t need the ball in his hands constantly to be effective and when he’s motivated, can be a defensive terror.
Hood is a gamble worth taking, even if it seems he may have already plateaued. He can shoot and while his defence can be shaky, he’s long and the effort is there.
In a vacuum, none of these new acquisitions are good enough to move the needle. It’s a drastic change of course and one that many general managers would be hesitant to make after three straight Finals appearances.
But the collective addition of fresh blood, coupled with getting rid of some of the bad vibes around the team, could conceivably save Cleveland’s season and, in turn, their chances at keeping LeBron.
The Lakers confirmed Thomas and Cavs forward Channing Frye were joining from Cleveland in exchange for guard Jordan Clarkson and forward Larry Nance Jr.
The Lakers will also get the Cavaliers’ protected first-round draft pick in 2018 as part of the deal.
Crucially, the trade frees up salary space for the Lakers which could enable them to pursue a blockbuster deal for James, who will enter free agency in the summer.
Lakers president Earvin “Magic” Johnson told reporters the deal was an important step on the team’s rebuilding journey.
“Hey, we had to do this deal for now and the future of the Lakers,” Johnson said.
“I came here to create flexibility for our organisation so one day we can have a superstar come here with our young core,” he added.
Thomas joined the Cavs last year as part of the move which sent Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics.
However the playmaker has been unable to settle in Cleveland, missing the first two months of the season with a hip injury.
On Wednesday, Thomas told reporters he did not want to leave Cleveland in what would be the fourth move of his career.
“I’m tired of being traded,” Thomas said following the Cavs’ win over Minnesota. “That’s not a good thing. But I just want to be where I’m wanted. I like it here. It hasn’t been as planned, but I definitely want to be here.
“We have a real chance to win an NBA championship, and I want to be a part of that.”
Thomas is now expected to form a partnership with rookie Lonzo Ball in the backcourt, despite the fact they both play at point guard.
“He’s a great player. He’s still coming back from injuries, so the (more time he has on the court) the better (he’ll get),” Lakers coach Luke Walton said of Thomas.
The Thomas deal deal marked a frenzied deadline day for Cleveland, who also offloaded Dwyane Wade back to the Miami Heat in exchange for a protected second round pick.
The Cavs also brought in Rodney Hood (Utah Jazz) and George Hill from the (Sacramento Kings), while sending Joe Johnson and Iman Shumpert to Sacramento.
Jae Crowder and Derrick Rose were also sent to Utah as the Cavs dramatically reshaped their roster in a bid to kick-start a season which has seen them fall away at the top of the Eastern Conference.
Whether the restructuring is enough to persuade James to remain in Cleveland however is an open question.
Cavaliers general manager Koby Altman said the arrival of Clarkson and Nance Jr. from the Lakers would “add athleticism, energy and length” to the roster.
“This trade is also a reflection of our continuing commitment to invest in our roster in ways that help us evolve and compete at the highest level now and into the future,” Altman said.
Et tu, LeBron?
But the notion that LeBron would leave in free agency and go to the team best situated to win titles for the foreseeable future was, until today, pure fantasy.
Well, the chances of that dream – or nightmare, depending on your perspective – appear slightly better after a bombshell report by ESPN’s Chris Haynes that James could meet with the Golden State Warriors and listen to their pitch on getting him to join.
The report isn’t saying James will join the Warriors, or even that he wants to. It’s just revealing that James would consider it.
Let’s break down why such a colossus move won’t become a reality, but also explore why it’s not totally out of the realm of possibility.
Why it wouldn’t happen
Before jumping into LeBron’s massive shoes and sifting through his motivations, let’s first look at the cold, hard facts – or in this case, the cold, hard salary cap.
The very first words of ESPN’s report make it clear that any meeting between James and the defending champions would be dependent on “if the Golden State Warriors can create a max salary slot this offseason”. So you can throw any thought of LeBron taking a pay cut out the window.
Golden State would need to create cap space to slot in LeBron’s max contract, which will be no easy feat considering their payroll is expected to once again be north of $128 million next season. Unless Kevin Durant declines his player option for 2018-19 and is generous enough to literally take next to nothing on his next contract, there’s really no way LeBron’s salary could fit without a trade going down.
Only realistic way for LeBron to clear a path to GSW (or Houston) is to go the Chris Paul route and opt-into his 18-19 contract and have GSW send back a package of players. This scenario would not impact the Durant FA.— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) February 1, 2018
Sign/trade scenario is challenging because GSW would be hard capped and have severe roster restrictions. Plus James would be subject to base year and his salary would only be worth 50% in a trade. https://t.co/10qYl5N3jG— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) February 1, 2018
LeBron is the best player in the world, even at the 33, and doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. In the short term, he’s an upgrade over every player in the league. So it’s not so much a question of whether the Warriors would be better right now in that scenario.
But it could come at the cost of what they’ve already built – a sustainable, egalitarian ecosystem that’s already set up to be a dynasty. Adding LeBron may remove all doubt, but Golden State don’t need him to keep winning titles.
And for LeBron, there’s more to consider than just basketball and titles.
If you thought James was killed for leaving Cleveland the first time and joining Miami, and Kevin Durant was dragged over the coals for bailing on Oklahoma City for the Bay Area, a LeBron-to-Warriors move would inspire fury never seen before from casual NBA fans.
“He’s done something similar before”, you say. Well, the decision to team-up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in South Beach was different. That was a case of three friends coming together and building their own ‘superteam’. James joining these Warriors, an already-constructed Voltron, would just be a more exaggerated version of Durant’s decision to take the path of least resistance.
Even if he won several titles with Golden State, his image, legacy and brand may not be better for it. LeBron should already be considered alongside Michael Jordan as the greatest ever and no matter what he does going forward, that should never be taken away from him. But what should happen and what will happen are two different things because the overwhelming narrative isn’t always right.
What if LeBron doesn’t care though?
LeBron joins GS same way Anakin joined dark side— R👽b Perez (@World_Wide_Wob) February 1, 2018
We’re all screaming “YOU WERE THE CHOSEN ONE”
But over time he is conflicted
After years of NBA imperialism he chasedown blocks Durant in a Game 7, falls into Giannis’ arms
“You were right about me”
Warriors era ends https://t.co/6yudw5CZf4
Why it could happen
Maybe James is just sick of it all. Sick of spending every season dealing with wild inconsistencies before righting the ship and making a run to the Finals, only to get bounced without so much as putting a scratch on the Warriors.
Maybe he’s sick of playing with aging veterans who are past their prime. Maybe he’s sick of Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert messing everything up. Maybe he’s sick of having all the burden and expectations placed on his broad shoulders.
Durant got characterised as someone who wanted to take the easy way out when he joined Golden State, but it felt like playing a fun, cohesive style of basketball was just as important to his decision as winning was. It wouldn’t be ridiculous if LeBron had that same yearning.
And yes, the chance to gobble up titles and close the gap, if not even the score, with Jordan remains a massive selling point.
While people who follow the league might put a mental asterisk on any titles LeBron wins with the Warriors, it’s entirely possible James is chasing the ghost of Jordan for his own personal challenge and not for anyone else’s judgement.
If it sounds like you’re being talked into the idea like a potential customer being talked into buying a car, you’re exactly right. Because at the end of the day, LeBron isn’t joining the Warriors.