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The Cleveland Cavaliers, tired of losing games and unwilling to let any more animosity fester, blew up their roster on Thursday, got younger and retained their coveted Brooklyn pick. In three separate deals, the Cavs kept themselves competitive for this season and positioned themselves well depending on what happens this summer.
By bringing in Utah’s Rodney Hood, Sacramento’s George Hill, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. from the the Los Angeles Lakers, the Cavs took on money and sent a direct message to LeBron James. Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Jae Crowder, Channing Frye, Iman Shumpert and Isaiah Thomas are out, giving the Cleveland locker room a breath of fresh air.
USA TODAY’s NBA insiders Sam Amick and Jeff Zillgitt shed light on Thursday’s surprising trade deadline.
What does this mean for LeBron’s future with the Cavs?
Amick: Forget for a minute that this deal helps the Lakers have a better shot at being able to afford LeBron – we’ll have more on that later. As it pertains to the Cavs and their ability to mend fences with their “hometown” hoops hero, to re-sign him this summer rather than seeing him leave for a second time, this is a huge win.
So much for the supposed discord between James and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert compelling Cleveland to stand pat.
The league’s oldest roster gets an infusion of talented youth (Hood, Clarkson and Nance Jr. are all 25), becomes more potent and versatile on both ends of the floor, and Gilbert shows a willingness to take on future money that sends an important message about his commitment to title contention. Clarkson is owed $25.9 million combined in the next two seasons; Hill is owed $19 million next season and has $1 million guaranteed in the 2019-20 campaign.
Here’s all you need to know: The behind-the-scenes reaction from James’ inner circle was a resounding thumbs-up, meaning first-year general manager Koby Altman should take a bow.
Zillgitt: The Cavs need to make trades for the present and the future. This season’s Cavs were sputtering with no signs of “flipping the switch” as they have done in previous seasons. Cleveland is 7-13 since Dec. 21 and has lost nine of its past 14 games – barely holding onto third place and Toronto and Boston creating distance ahead of it.
The Cavs needed defense and additional offense, especially non-ball dominant players, who can blend in with LeBron James, Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, etc. They got that in these trades. While it might take time for the offense to mesh, Cleveland must get immediate help on defense, which ranks 29th in points allowed per 100 possessions.
Getting younger with capable players and without trading Brooklyn’s first-round pick they received from Boston, the Cavs are trying to show James Cleveland remains the best place for him to compete for championships. It also gives Cleveland protection in the name of youth in case James leaves.
On paper, this gives the Cavs a better chance to reach the NBA Finals for a fourth consecutive season. They have two months and the playoffs to figure it out after this trade, which dispelled the notion that first-time GM Koby Altman is in over his head or that owner Dan Gilbert wants to move on from James 2.0. Now, they need to win games.
But what about the Lakers, who have two max salary cap slots for free agents this summer and have a better shot at LeBron?
Amick: Oh, the irony.
All around the league, there was a sense that no one wanted to help the Lakers trade Clarkson because it was the move they had to make to land LeBron. Lo and behold, it’s the Cavs doing this deal.
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Yet while the money aspect of this matters for the Lakers, the harsh truth about their LeBron candidacy is that the Cavs are suddenly the far superior option for James’ services — even moreso than before. Even with the Lakers’ recent uptick (seven wins in their past nine games), and even if Oklahoma City star/fellow free-agent-to-be Paul George decided to join James in Los Angeles, it’s hard to project how competitive they would be in the West. What’s more, the prospect of the Cavs returning to Eastern Conference supremacy by way of these moves should concern Magic Johnson & Co.
Zillgitt: Let’s take James’ words from training camp at face value when he said nothing has changed his mind that Cleveland is the place where he intends to finish his career. That gives the Cavs the incumbent’s advantage over 29 other teams. That doesn’t mean James will stay in Cleveland either. Until James makes a decision on the 2018-19 season and beyond, the Lakers are a possibility because they have the cap space to not only add James but another max player, too, such as Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins. James also has an entertainment company that relies on Hollywood, and he has two homes there.
Also, let’s believe that James still wants to win another title or at least compete for a title. Do the Lakers give him a better chance to accomplish that? In the West – with Houston and Golden State and Minnesota – the Lakers have roster improvements to make even with James and another star to get that level.
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Did Isaiah Thomas inspire this move with his outspoken ways in these past few weeks?
Amick: In a word, yes.
The locker room dynamic was not healthy, and Thomas’ penchant for speaking his mind about the inner turmoil only made matters worse. Add in the fact that he struggled during his 15-game stay and the Cavs were more than happy to send him to the exits.
There is a strong sense from Thomas’ side that James was among those who wanted to see him go – a claim that is refuted by James’ associates. Either way, Thomas now gets a better pathway to his own free agency this summer while the Cavs can get to work repairing their well-chronicled chemistry problems.