What a difference a trade deadline makes.
One game is practically a non-existent sample size, but the Cleveland Cavaliers had a different feel about them in their first appearance since revamping the roster.
All four of the Cavaliers’ new additions acquired in various trades ahead of last week’s deadline – George Hill, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr and Jordan Clarkson – contributed to an encouraging 121-99 win over the Boston Celtics on Sunday.
Considering it was their first game together and they faced the top-ranked defensive team in the league in an electric atmosphere at TD Garden on the night of Paul Pierce’s jersey retirement, the victory couldn’t have been a better start to the new era.
While it’s unlikely Cleveland have gone from floundering to world-beating in the span of a few days, their performance felt like statement – not necessarily that they’ll be unstoppable going forward, but that the pieces in place form a much better fit than what was there before.
The new guys showed out tonight on #NBAonABC!@JordanClarksons: 17 pts, 3 reb, 3-4 3PM, 2 stl@rodneyhood: 15 pts, 3 reb, 3-6 3PM, 1 blk + 1 stl@George_Hill3: 12 pts, 3 reb, 2-4 3PM@Larrydn22: 5 pts, 3 ast, 4 reb, 1 stl— Cleveland Cavaliers (@cavs) February 11, 2018
Game 1 as a Cavalier: ✔️#AllForOne pic.twitter.com/qQizuSJ4Bc
Forget for a moment just how well the Cavaliers played. Even putting the results aside, the way they played was a night-and-day difference from the first half of the season.
It’s debatable how much Cleveland actually improved from a talent standpoint with the moves they made at the deadline, but they undoubtedly got younger, more athletic and better defensively. That was evident in Boston as the Cavaliers played with an unfamiliar energy on both ends of the court, with their usual malaise replaced by exuberance and earnestness.
Even before they opened up an insurmountable lead, Cleveland appeared to at least play like a team – a novel concept – instead of five jaded individuals with their own motivations and agendas. Hill said before the game that the Cavaliers role players have to be the Robins to LeBron James’ Batman, and that’s exactly how the dynamic looked from the get-go. While James controlled the action in his typical conductor fashion, the accompaniment pieces around him played their part beautifully.
On the defensive end, where Cleveland have struggled most this season, the initial grade is incomplete, but promising.
It’s hard to tell how much their defence has truly gotten better when the only test has been against an offensively-challenged Celtics team, which entered the game ranked 21st in the league with 104.3 points scored per 100 possessions.
Though it’s not the most impressive feat to hold Boston under 100 points and just 40.4 per cent shooting, the Cavaliers showed real signs of life that they can at least jump up and become a below-average defensive team, instead of the dumpster fire they have been.
Hill was as advertised with his on-ball defence on Kyrie Irving, but seemingly everyone on the floor had a renewed sense and vigor to rotate off the ball and give second and third efforts. Even LeBron was defending closeouts and doing the little things like a man who’s no longer apathetic with his situation.
While Cleveland’s new length and youth was on display defensively, their depth shined on the other end of the floor.
Between Hood and Clarkson, the Cavaliers now have two sparkplug scorers to come off the bench and keep points ticking while James sits. They’re not always going to shoot as well as they did against the Celtics – Clarkson was 3-of-4 on 3-pointers while Hood was 3-of-6 from deep – but with LeBron feeding them cross-court drive-and-kicks, they’ll have plenty of uncontested looks.
Welcome to the Cavaliers!— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 11, 2018
Cleveland's four new additions shot 18-of-35 including 8-of-15 from 3 in their debut.
They were 4-of-6 off passes from LeBron James. pic.twitter.com/laABxPwP2T
Boston’s defence has slipped of late and they’re not playing anywhere near the 100.1 defensive rating they came into the contest with, but Cleveland’s offence, without much practice time or any game experience, was imposing nonetheless.
And though the joyful celebrations and fun-loving atmosphere the Cavaliers indulged in during the win are very much the byproduct of winning, the chemistry seems as if it’s heading in the right direction.
More, and sterner, tests are on the way, and it’s unclear how these new Cavaliers will deal with adversity.
For now though, everything is fine in Cleveland, which, after the season they’ve drudged through, is something to savour.
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.