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If Cleveland Cavaliers general manager Koby Altman were a lesser man, he would’ve done a Jim Thome home run trot around the city of Cleveland following his NBA trade deadline magic on Thursday.
Instead, Altman, 35, was up early Friday after conducting a teleconference Thursday evening. He was on his way to Atlanta to meet with the team and new players acquired in the mega deals Altman and his front-office staff orchestrated.
On Thursday before the 3 p.m. ET trade deadline expired, Altman acquired Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. from the Los Angeles Lakers, Rodney Hood from the Utah Jazz and George Hill from the Sacramento Kings and sent out Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Iman Shumpert, Channing Frye, Jae Crowder, Derrick Rose and a 2018 first-round draft pick.
Drastic times call for drastic measures, and the Cavs’ road to nowhere compelled Altman to make bold moves. Cleveland is 31-22 and in third place in the Eastern Conference, barely ahead of Milwaukee, Washington and Miami and 6½ games behind Toronto and 7½ behind Boston. The Cavs were rotten defensively and slipping offensively, and Altman didn’t like the decaying culture the team had established.
“We wanted to be patient and wanted to see this thing work out,” Altman said. “We were excited about what we had at the beginning of the season on paper … but we were really worried that what was going on on the floor and our culture in the building, we were marching a slow death. We didn’t want to be a part of that.”
So, Altman revamped the roster. There is no guarantee this group works better than the one two days ago, but it can’t be worse
“It’s obvious that the goal was to get younger,” Altman said on a conference call Thursday. “I felt we got more talented. We certainly got more athletic, and I think we got more sustainable into the future. But in large part, we addressed the culture of the team and the building, and a lot of people around our team saw the lack of energy and enthusiasm. That was really disappointing to me.”
“I’m really excited about the new guys we have and about what they’re going to bring to the table. We’re going to be energetic. We’re just going to be fun again – fun to watch and fun to be around.”
Trades didn’t happen on the fly. Altman and his staff evaluated every team in the league, deduced teams’ motives and goals and targeted available players. This was the result of long-term planning.
Altman acknowledged some paths led to dead ends. But he found willing trade partners and quiet ones, too. There was no reason for Cleveland to leak any news, though word began to trickle out that Thomas was available.
The Lakers deal materialized first, and while the trade created cap space for two maximum salary players for the Lakers – one who could end up being LeBron James – Altman knew the Lakers planned on creating that space somehow. Why not net value?
But Altman didn’t stop with the Lakers deal. More was required. Teams had called Utah about Rodney Hood’s availability, and Altman had talked to Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey, who runs a tight and quiet ship in the shadow of the Wasatch mountain range.
The possibility of the Hill deal had been reported, but hurdles remained up until Thursday. The Kings weren’t sure a deal would happen, and the idea of a buyout for Hill had been broached between the two parties. But the idea of shedding Hill’s $19 million contract for 2018-19 and getting Joe Johnson’s expiring contract from Utah pushed the Kings into the deal.
Altman and his staff – many involved in deals Cleveland made in previous seasons – created the moves. Altman isn’t oblivious to what had been said: that he was in over his head in the job as a first-time GM and nothing more than a puppet for Cavs owner Dan Gilbert. The Cavs and the front office were under siege. The criticism was pointed and loud. That rankled Altman, but he knows the proof is in the work.
And here’s a secret. All GMs and presidents of basketball operations answer to an owner who has final say. The only situations in the league where front office execs have near autonomy to make deals are the Pat Riley-Micky Arison and R.C. Buford-Gregg Popovich-Peter Holt relationships in Miami and San Antonio. Even then, ownership must sign off on deals.
Yes, there are varying levels of hands-on owners, and Gilbert likes to be a part of what’s happening. It is a business that generates billions of dollars and invests hundreds of millions into players. It would be strange if the owner of such an operation had no interest actually. But Gilbert wasn’t making trade calls, and he trusted Altman’s vision and analysis.
There was no mandate from Gilbert to do this or that. Altman came up with the deals, and Gilbert said yes, signaling that Cleveland isn’t ready to move on from LeBron 2.0. It’s the opposite. This trade is designed to help James now and convince him to re-sign with the Cavaliers.
James appears happy with the moves, which he had an idea about Wednesday when he was briefed on the possibilities.
Altman did his job. Now it’s on the coaches and players