As the NBA regular season runs its course, the interest in LeBron James’ impending free agency continues to rise. After last year’s Finals loss to the Golden State Warriors, it started to seem like the dream of James playing out the rest of his career in Cleveland was starting to die.
A successful 2017-18 campaign could have kept the dream alive. Kyrie Irving was traded, however, replaced with damaged goods in Isaiah Thomas. Cleveland also received Jae Crowder, who was supposed to lock down opposing wings on defense and knock down open 3-pointers on the other end.
Neither Thomas nor Crowder had the positive impact Cleveland hoped for when dealing their All-Star guard, and the Cavs sunk to 29th in defensive rating heading into the Feb. 8 trading deadline.
It was clear Cleveland had to make changes. If they didn’t, they were headed for a possible early exit in the playoffs – losing to Boston or Toronto and giving Golden State a new opponent to run through en route to a third title in four years.
And make changes they did. Cleveland sent out six players – Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Channing Frye, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade and Iman Shumpert – in exchange for four – George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr.
In the short-term – as in, this season – overhauling the roster to this degree will make Cleveland more competitive. The Cavaliers got back four useful players, all of whom add something Cleveland was missing before the deadline. Hill is a caretaker with the ball (he has never averaged more than 1.7 turnovers per game) and a point-of-attack defender – something the Cavs weren’t getting out of Thomas, Rose or Jose Calderon. That alone makes him a worthy upgrade; having a sturdy first line of defense makes everything easier for his teammates.
It is also nice that Hill is an excellent 3-point shooter, one who’s hitting at a 46 percent clip this season.
Hood, Hill’s teammate in Utah last season, is also a long defender who can shoot. He is hitting 39 percent of his 3-point attempts this season.
Clarkson is a gifted scorer. He isn’t a reliable 3-point shooter, never having made more than 36 percent of his attempts in a season. But he is capable, as he showed in his Cavalier debut, making both of his attempts. He is shooting 43.5 percent on pull-up 2-pointers this season. Clarkson can get his own shots, which will be something LeBron can appreciate.
Nance Jr. is an athletic lob threat and is shooting 76 percent at the rim this season, which would place him in the 95th percentile among bigs, according to Cleaning The Glass.
James doesn’t have Kyrie by his side any longer, and Thomas just wasn’t the same as last season. And instead of finding another star to pair with LeBron (and Kevin Love), general manager Koby Altman found complementary pieces. And maybe that’s all the Cavaliers needed – guys who fill certain roles and can step up when called upon.
After grueling battles against Indiana in the postseason, James knows he can rely on Hill – who played a vital role on offense and defense for the Pacers. As for the others, however, it remains to be seen how they will perform in the playoffs.
Hood’s first playoff appearance was last season in Utah, where he shot just 33 percent from the field in 11 games. Clarkson and Nance Jr. have never been to the postseason.
Expecting those players to carry a load would be foolish, but the additions seem to have given the Cavs a new energy. In their first game together, they beat the Celtics by 22 points in Boston. Everyone contributed and the new Cavs were active on defense.
They played with a giddy-up that the pre-deadline Cavaliers just didn’t have.
These trades may not end up saving Cleveland from another crushing loss to the Warriors (or Boston or Toronto or some other team). But it gives them hope for now, and it gives them hope for later.
With the pre-deadline roster, the Cavaliers would have essentially been a dumpster fire if LeBron were to leave in free agency. Thomas would be due a new contract and would likely ask for a long-term, big-money deal. Tristan Thompson would still be due $36 million over the next two years. J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert would both be on expiring contracts making over $11 million. Love would have one more year before having to decide on a $25.6 million player option.
To shorten that up, there would be a lot of money on the books for a team that likely wouldn’t be very competitive.
Now, the Cavs have some flexibility going forward. Hill will be owed $19 million next season, but he is only guaranteed $1 million in 2019-20. Clarkson will make $12.5 million next season and $13.4 million in 2019-20, which could be a movable contract if he has a good postseason showing. Hood will hit restricted free agency this summer, and he could become a centerpiece moving forward should LeBron leave. If LeBron stays put, Cleveland could possibly retain Hood at a fair market price. Nance Jr. will become a restricted free agent in the summer of 2019.
Whether Cleveland brings home another title or not, their future doesn’t look as bleak as it did on Feb. 7. Another LeBron departure would be crushing – there is no doubt about that. But at least they now have some younger options to carry them into the next chapter of their organization.