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One monster performance and game-winning shot weren’t enough to convince the Cleveland Cavaliers they’d fixed what’s been ailing them for months. The question now: Has the Cavs’ attempt to salvage what’s left of this season brought them closer to catastrophe once it ends?
Owner Dan Gilbert and general manager Koby Altman took a long, hard look at the state of play in Cleveland — 7-13 since Christmas, with the league’s second-worst defense and third-worst net rating in that span, and more in-house drama than you could fit into two seasons’ worth of reality TV — and took a wrecking ball to their roster before Thursday’s trade deadline. The first act of demolition: sending point guard Isaiah Thomas, center Channing Frye and the Cavs’ own protected 2018 first-round draft pick to the Los Angeles Lakers for guard Jordan Clarkson and forward Larry Nance Jr., as confirmed by Yahoo Sports NBA insider Shams Charania. ESPN and The Ringer first reported the framework of the deal.
By trading their own first-round pick this year, the Cavs are now officially restricted from trading the Brooklyn Nets’ unprotected 2018 first-rounder, which they received in the summertime blockbuster that imported Thomas from the Boston Celtics in exchange for Kyrie Irving, until after the draft. Not that that’s stopped the Cavs from making more deals before the deadline.
The trade came mere hours after Thomas expressed his desire to stay in Cleveland, despite an abysmal start to his career in wine and gold. The two-time All-Star has struggled mightily to regain his form, fitness and rhythm since returning to the court following seven months on the shelf rehabilitating a torn hip labrum. In 15 games back, Thomas has averaged 14.7 points, 4.5 assists and 2.1 rebounds in 27.1 minutes per game, shooting a career-worst 36.1 percent from the field and 25.3 percent from 3-point range.
Thomas has also been a major defensive problem for a Cleveland team that already struggled to corral ball-handlers at the point of attack. Since his return, the Cavs allowed 106.4 points per 100 possessions with Thomas off the floor, and a staggering 118.6 points-per-100 with him on it. In essence, whenever IT’s been in the lineup, Cleveland’s average opponent has performed like an All-Star team dosed with Super Soldier Serum just before tipoff.
That’s not all Thomas’ fault. There’s plenty of blame to go around for the Cavaliers’ defensive sins. Nor is it Thomas’ fault that, just five weeks removed from returning after a career-halting hip injury that forced him to completely re-learn how to move his legs — kind of a big deal for a 5-foot-9 guard whose game has long been predicated on using quickness and craft to wrongfoot defenders — he’s not yet back to the world-beating form that made him a top-five MVP candidate. But the Cavs need to be better now. They can’t wait for that anymore.
Thomas hasn’t helped on offense — Cleveland’s scored 3.7 more points-per-100 with the high-volume-but-inefficient IT out of the lineup since his return — and has been perhaps the league’s most flammable player on the other end. He has also reportedly played a central role in the internecine squabbling that’s festered inside the Cavs’ locker room (and fan base) during their recent downturn.
Thomas hasn’t had enough time to become Isaiah Thomas again. But with everything on fire in Northeast Ohio and his unrestricted free agency looming after this season, it had become clear that his time in Cleveland had run out. So Gilbert and Altman put a period at the end of a decidedly underwhelming sentence, pairing Thomas’ $6.26 million expiring contract with the expiring $7.42 million deal of veteran center Frye — still a valuable floor-spacer and versatile frontcourt piece who helped Cleveland find its most comfortable spread-and-bomb-away identity, and in whose minutes the Cavs played like a 60-win team this season, according to Ben Falk’s on/off stats at Cleaning the Glass — to make the salary math work on a deal with L.A.
Take a step back, and what’s happened here is mind-blowing. In just seven months, Isaiah Thomas went from being a top-five MVP candidate and folk hero to his team needing to attach a first-round draft pick to him to get back two bench players. It’s kind of heartbreaking, when you think about all Thomas has been through this year. But this can be a pretty heartbreaking business sometimes.
In return, what was the oldest team in the NBA gets a two-pronged infusion of youth and athleticism. Clarkson, 25, is a 6-foot-5 combo guard out of Missouri who has settled over the last two seasons into a role as an instant-offense scorer, a reserve microwave in the vein of Vinnie Johnson, Jamal Crawford and Lou Williams who can play on or off the ball, produce points in bunches and carry a second unit for stretches.
Clarkson’s not an especially stout defender, but that surely won’t bother the Cavs too much, considering they’ve been running out Thomas, Derrick Rose and Jose Calderon as the tips of their stunted spear. Of greater concern when considering Clarkson’s fit on this Cleveland roster: a subpar 3-point shooting record that’s seen him knock down just 33.2 percent of his long balls in a four-year career, and only 32.4 percent this season. The Cavs will look to the silver lining of Clarkson’s improvement as a catch-and-shoot option every year of his career, and that he’s hit an above-average 37.4 percent of his deep tries off the catch this season, for hope that his long-distance numbers will nudge north playing alongside one of the greatest facilitators in league history. (Sorry, Lonzo.)
Nance, though, might be the more important piece. The Cavs haven’t gotten nearly what they need on the defensive end from Tristan Thompson. They will be without All-Star power forward Kevin Love for the next two months. They have been relying on the combination of Jae Crowder and Jeff Green to hold down the fort at the four spot. Enter Nance, a 6-foot-9 forward best known for his skyscraping, and being the son of former Cavs great Larry Nance Sr., but who’s a hell of a lot more than just a dunker.
Nance is a deft screener who crunches opposing guards to create space for his ball-handlers to maneuver. He’s an active defender who can tread water when switched out on smaller guards, and averages nearly six combined steals and deflections per 36 minutes of floor time.
He’s a reliable finisher who’s shooting better than 60 percent from the floor, a weapon trailing on the break in transition, a good rebounder on both the offensive and defensive glass, and a quality team defender who knows where to be and when. He’s big, long, athletic, smart and super-solid — a high-floor player in whose minutes the Lakers defended at a top-five level. His lack of a reliable jumper could create headaches in pairings with Thompson, but he should pay immediate dividends on the defensive end for a team that’s been unable to stop just about anybody this season.
He’s also under contract after this season, set to make just under $2.3 million next year before entering restricted free agency in the summer of 2019. Clarkson’s on the books through 2020, too, though at a higher rate after signing an extension in the summer of 2016. In a vacuum, this does not represent an ideal return on the asset that was Kyrie Irving under contract through 2020:
Cleveland wasn’t operating in a vacuum, though; they were operating on a hellmouth. Combine the L.A. trade with the other multi-player deal Cleveland struck Thursday — a three-team swap that landed both George Hill (owed $19 million next season) and Rodney Hood (about to hit restricted free agency) — and the message is clear. The Cavs, reportedly the only team in the NBA that operated at a deficit last year, are comfortable adding salary after this summer, and paying a $50 million luxury-tax bill, because they think that — reports about dissension in the ranks and wandering eyes aside — they can convince LeBron to stick around beyond this season.
Their path to doing so involved helping the Lakers — long one of the teams most frequently discussed as a potential LeBron destination this summer — clear money and create as much as $69 million in salary cap space this summer or $79 million in the summer of 2019. That’s enough for two maximum salary slots either year, should Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka decide that they do in fact want to wade into the free-agency shopping market. (L.A. also recoups a first-round pick in this year’s draft; their own is headed to either the Philadelphia 76ers or Boston Celtics as part of a string of deals that began with the trade of Steve Nash in 2012 and ended with the trade of Markelle Fultz this past summer.)
This, to put it mildly, is one hell of a gamble by Dan Gilbert … especially since LeBron reportedly didn’t specifically give the go-ahead on the Cavs’ flurry of deadline-day activity:
But then, Gilbert’s pretty comfortable dealing in risk. He’s pushed the Cavs all-in on pursuing a fourth straight NBA Finals berth, betting that success in that regard will secure the future presence of the most important figure in franchise history. We’ll find out in July if his wager paid off or went bust. In the meantime, the Cavs ought to be a lot more interesting to watch — on the court, at least — once everybody learns everybody else’s names.
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