Some NBA observers are calling the Cleveland Cavaliers “desperate.”
Well, yeah. That’s sort of what you do when you have LeBron James on your team. You do everything you can to win right, bloody, now. It’s the only sensible line of attack, and though we need to remain patient both this season and next as James and his new’ish teammates figure this out, you don’t want to waste any hours when LeBron James is on your roster.
The team’s front office proved as much on Wednesday when it dealt two future first-round draft picks to the struggling Denver Nuggets for center Timofey Mozgov. Mozgov (8.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 25 minutes a game, starting each contest) won’t be charged with solving all of Cleveland’s defensive problems – they ‘re currently ranked 22nd on that end and at times it boggles as to how they’re not ranked lower in that realm – but he can’t help but put a critical suture on an obvious wound.
The price Cleveland had to pay for such medical attention were picks owed to them by the Memphis Grizzlies and Oklahoma City Thunder – two winning organizations that could battle for the Western Conference crown this season if the seeds align right. These will eventually be solid picks, and the Cavaliers will miss them.
The Nuggets will take in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-rounder, which is protected through the first 18 picks of the draft this year and through the top 15 next season. OKC is currently in the 12th position right now, pre-lottery, but they’re expected to vault up the NBA standings after injuries to both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook led to a 17-18 start to the season.
Denver may miss out on the pick this year, but unless something catastrophic happens to the Thunder in 2015-16 the Nuggets will most assuredly receive the pick in 2016 (the same protections are in place for 2017, and it turns into two future second round picks should the catastrophic thing happen two seasons in a row).
Memphis’ selection is more appealing. The pick is currently protected through the top five and between spots 15-30 this year and next, 6-through-14 slots the championship-level Grizzlies aren’t falling into unless injuries hit or Marc Gasol shocks the world by leaving the Grizz as a free agent this summer. Beyond that, though, as the group ages it might be possible that the Nuggets fall into a very good pick as the protections (top five in 2017 and 2018, completely unprotected in 2019) dissipate.
This is why the immediate reaction to Cleveland’s deal seems to have sent the NBA into a tizzy. This is also why we need to re-introduce ourselves to the context the Cavaliers are dealing with.
The Cavs, due to the miserable work of their previous general manager, will have to swap picks with the Chicago Bulls this June if the Bulls (who are currently six games ahead of Cleveland) finish with a better record than Cleveland. Unless the wheels completely fall off in Ohio and the Cavs end up with a top ten lottery pick in 2016, they’ll have to send their pick in that year’s draft to Boston. They’ll have their 2017 selection, per NBA rules, but those two other assets in the Thunder and Grizzlies’ picks are gone for good.
On top of that? The trade exception used to acquire Mozgov on Wednesday was grabbed from the Boston Celtics in exchange for two second-round picks (and that 2016 first, in exchange for what could have been a needed player in Tyler Zeller and more cap space for LeBron). This move, coupled with other deals, means that the Cavs won’t have a second-round pick until 2020.
This is sort of how goes, though.
The Cavs have to win now. They have to put themselves in a place where a healthy LeBron and just now getting it Love, Irving and helpers can trump regular season records and make it to the Finals. Just as Kevin Garnett is the oldest 39-year old in NBA history and Kobe Bryant is the oldest 36-year old in NBA history, LeBron James is the oldest 30-year old in NBA history due to the ungodly minutes he’s taken in – his career arc isn’t comparable to Michael Jordan in his 30s. James working as a B-level version of his former championship self should be more than enough to build around as a championship contender, but he needs help. Now.
Many criticized the Cavs for bringing in the sort of players that tend to follow in LeBron’s wake during the 2014 offseason, shooters like Mike Miller and James Jones or a veteran former star in Shawn Marion, but the reality in retrospect (and even then, to those working through this stuff daily) was that the Cavaliers didn’t have a whole heck of a lot of options. Players like Mozgov (or better) just weren’t really available for the Cavs to either sign or deal for. The Cavs’ needs – defense, rim protecting – mainly were just listed as attributes as opposed to actual living and breathing NBA players that were available for acquisition.
Even now, players better than Mozgov weren’t really available. Cleveland lusted after Memphis’ Kosta Koufos, who is currently a reserve center luxury working on a team featuring (at worst) the second-best center in basketball right now, but there is absolutely no guarantee that the Grizzlies would take back their own future pick, the Thunder selection, and even an anti-efficiency type like Dion Waiters in return for that reserve.
Is that the wrong move for Memphis in the long term, especially considering the potential of the pick they owed Cleveland and now Denver? Sure. The Grizzlies would have likely passed on that deal for the same reason Cleveland just made this deal – for some teams, it is about winning now.
These are penny-wise moves made with the knowledge that the long term ramifications will be hard to swallow in a few years, and that’s just fine. In an era that seems to fetishize first-round picks and as-yet-acquired players that are only currently listed as “assets,” this was a refreshing move. All with Cleveland’s un-guaranteed Brendan Haywood contract still lingering as the last chance trade chip.
Sometimes a desperate move is a needed move. Sometimes they’ll fall flat on their face, but sometimes that’s what you have to risk with your back against the proverbial wall.
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