With just hours remaining before the NBA trade deadline, the slumping Cleveland Cavaliers took drastic action: They traded away half of their rotation. They added younger, more athletic wing players and solid bench contributors. They added a veteran point guard. They at least attempted to shore up a disastrous perimeter defense. And while the team is undeniably improved as a collection of talent, and probably improved as an Eastern Conference contender, it’s unclear whether the moves will be enough to stage a legitimate challenge to the Golden State Warriors — or to convince LeBron James to stick around this summer.
Cleveland added Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. from the Lakers and reportedly George Hill from Sacramento and Rodney Hood from Utah. The Cavs also brought back a conditional second-round pick in the deal with Miami for Dwyane Wade.
Just as important as the players coming in for Cleveland are those on their way out: Isaiah Thomas — the centerpiece of the Kyrie Irving trade during the offseason — has been terrible since returning from a hip injury early last month. Derrick Rose, Jae Crowder and Iman Shumpert have each disappointed in their own way. They are now all gone. Reallocating their minutes to even replacement-level players would have nudged the Cavs’ outlook upward; giving them to competent or above-average players should provide a massive lift. Wade is a more significant loss — it was his stewardship of the second unit that stabilized the team early in the season — but with rookie Cedi Osman seeing more playing time and now with the additions of Hood and Clarkson to the wing rotation, Wade’s role likely would have been reduced.
Cleveland has more live bodies and young talent than it did before these moves. But young talent doesn’t necessarily translate to a better outlook on the season. According to an updated version of FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO projection that uses Box Plus/Minus and Real Plus-Minus data from this season, the current Cavaliers roster would project to win 46 games in a fresh 82-game season. That’s an improvement from the weak projection for Cleveland’s previous roster, which came in at a projected 43 wins, but still not very impressive for a team that views itself as a legitimate title contender.
This is obviously a rough projection that doesn’t take into account the relatively good fit for the incoming players, nor does it account for further tinkering. (According to Marc Stein of The New York Times, Cleveland is leaning toward adding Kendrick Perkins, who was recently playing in the G League, to improve its locker room chemistry.) And on those fronts, there are reasons for Cleveland to be optimistic.
Hill is the quintessential off-ball point guard who thrives on off-ball shooting but can initiate the offense if necessary. His overall numbers have been down with Sacramento, but at age 31, he is shooting a career-best 45.3 percent on 3-pointers and 48.1 percent on corner threes; he will see a lot of open looks playing with LeBron. More important will be whether his plummeting defensive numbers are an accurate reflection of his ability or a symptom of playing with other Sacramento Kings. The Cavs have had a rotating cast of some of the league’s worst defenders playing point guard this season — Rose, Thomas, Jose Calderon — so it’s not as though Hill could do much more harm than has already been done. But if he can contribute competent defense at the point guard position, it would be a first for this iteration of LeBron’s Cavs.
Hood’s role will be as a volume scorer and the Cavs’ secondary shot creator. He obviously isn’t a one-to-one replacement for Irving, but he’s been relatively efficient (55.1 true shooting percentage) on relatively high usage (27.5 usage percentage). For reference, that’s roughly comparable to John Wall’s usage rate and better than his efficiency. It’s his first season carrying that sort of load, and he’ll have to adjust to the Cleveland offense, but his solid outside shooting (38.9 percent this season, 37 percent for his career) should ease that transition. And while Hood is a below-average defender, at 6-foot-8 he isn’t as difficult to hide as Thomas. Plus, with Rudy Gobert missing a bunch of time to injury this season, there’s reason to believe that Hood’s terrible on/off defensive numbers (the defense is 6.2 points better with him off the floor) were thrown off a bit because of mismatched lineups.
Nance and Clarkson should see big minutes in bench roles. Nance is a good defender and rebounder and a strong finisher, but he has struggled as a pick-and-roll screener. According to Second Spectrum, the Lakers have scored just 78.2 points per 100 chances created by Nance pick-and-roll possessions, including 82.1 points per 100 when paired with Clarkson. Both numbers are awful. The Cavs don’t play at the same warp speed as the Lakers, so Nance will have to adjust to the new offense. But he provides a sturdy, young big off the bench for a team that had relied on calcifying veterans, undersized stretch fours and combinations of the two.
Clarkson, meanwhile, gives the Cavs an acceptable backup point guard. He’s a decent shooter, a decent passer, a decent scorer and a half-decent defender, which makes him a seismic upgrade over what the Cavs have been working with at that position.
For the first time since LeBron has been back in town, the Cavaliers have a roster stocked with young, active contributors, not young stars mixed with ancient role players. LeBron has a history of incorporating the aged — think Kyle Korver, James Jones, Mike Miller, Richard Jefferson — but hasn’t had to incorporate many younger players whose talents extend past standing behind the 3-point line waiting for him to make something happen. If things go well, the Cavs may thrive in a way they haven’t to this point. If they don’t, well, they were dysfunctional to begin with. They could have swapped in a half-dozen potted plants wearing Adidas and improved the defense.
It’s difficult to project just how such a drastic retooling will gel by the time the playoffs roll around. But the effect on James’s free agency should be more clear: The Cavs have committed to winning in the current window but are doing so on their own terms. According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, Cavs GM Koby Altman neither consulted LeBron on today’s moves, nor did he ask James to make a commitment beyond this season before the moves were made. Hood and Nance are solid pieces around whom the Cavs can build a respectable roster if James leaves in free agency. And they still have the Brooklyn first rounder that came in the Kyrie Irving deal. Cleveland began the day attempting to chase down DeAndre Jordan and Kemba Walker and, more abstractly, to erase the disarray that the Irving trade set into motion. They ended up making a complex series of moves that makes them better without adding an All-Star. That may be enough. Or it may not.
— Neil Paine contributed research.
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