Prior to the trade deadline when the team overhauled its roster, the prognosis for the Cavs was not good. In fact, it was horrible.
Not only were they potentially in danger of bowing out of the playoffs in the earlier rounds due to their woeful defense, they were losing James’ confidence that the organization could put together a winning team around him if he re-signs with the Cavaliers.
The Cavs were suffering from the worst malaise that a LeBron-led team has ever experienced since his rookie season. It started after the Christmas day loss to the Golden State Warriors and carried over to the month of January and the first few games of February.
It was clear that the previous Cavs team would not survive a playoff series if the front office stood pat. As general manager Koby Altman said, the Cavs “were marching a slow death.” More importantly, it was increasingly becoming certain that James would bolt for another team if Cavs’ owner Dan Gilbert and Altman didn’t do anything before the trade deadline.
So out went Isaiah Thomas, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, Iman Shumpert, Jae Crowder, and Channing Frye, and in came George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood, and Larry Nance Jr.
Altman not only received passing marks for the trades he finalized within a matter of hours. He was the league’s valedictorian at the end of the day.
Not only did it change the Cavs’ immediate future, it also altered their long-term outlook. This team could compete for a championship now and be competitive even if James decides to sign with another team.
And a funny thing happened after the six players were shipped off to different teams—James looked like a renewed man.
In the game versus the Atlanta Hawks without the new players available to play, the Cavs’ undisputed leader played loose. It’s as if he had this deadweight lifted from his shoulders.
At the end of the 123-107 rout, James had 22 points, a career-high 19 assists, and added 12 rebounds. Even Kyle Korver seemed to have an extra bounce in his step, scoring a game-high 33 points.
After two games since the trade deadline deals that brought in new blood to the team, the Cavaliers appear to have found the perfect group of players to play with their superstar.
In the postgame press conference following the Team LeBron’s captivating win versus Team Stephen in the All-Star Game, James addressed a question about what another championship would mean to him personally, and to Cleveland as a city.
“We just added four news guys before the [All-Star] break, and we have a lot of work to do,” James said. “So, I really don’t like to think that too far ahead. But, obviously winning championships is what it’s all about. That is what this league is all about and hopefully at the end of the road then I have the Cavs there to actually compete for one, to be in the Finals representing the East. So, that’s my goal. Getting back. I’m looking forward to getting back to our guys. I know they’re excited, and that’s going to be my mindset. But we’ll see what happens.”
It’s refreshing to hear James excited about being with his teammates. As upbeat as he was trying to be in January, there was a noticeable lack of interest from the three-time All-Star MVP when he was on the floor. He was disengaged more so than at any time in his career.
The locker room drama that followed the Cavaliers’ string of losses took its toll on his psyche more than he cares to admit.
After the mass exodus that followed Altman’s housecleaning job, James praised the rookie GM.
“I think Koby did a heck of a job of understanding what our team needed,” James said according to Marla Ridenour of the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com. “It just wasn’t working out for us and he felt like he made the changes that he felt best fits our team. Then it’s on me to make sure the new guys that come in, I make sure they fit in and make it as seamless as possible. That’s my job.”
If the past two games are any indication, it looks like James is doing a fantastic, seamless job.
James saw firsthand what general manager Koby Altman saw in these players when he traded for them. Inasmuch as the trade was meant to infuse energy and youth to the Cavs who were lacking both, it was also intended to give the team a chance to compete for the championship this June.
Two nights after the Atlanta game, the wine and gold came to Boston to test their mettle against the league’s best defensive team. When the dust settled, the Kyrie Irving-led Celtics lost to the Cavs 121-99, one of their worst defeats at home while surrendering the most points they had ever given up this season. Nearly everyone in the media was raving about the new-look Cavs.
But that was just one game.
Visiting OKC, the question surrounding the team was, “Can they do it again?” More than two hours later, the answer came emphatically, “Yes they can. And they did.” Cleveland had an impressive 120-112 win against Russell Westbrook’s Oklahoma City Thunder.
On several occasions, the new Cavs players showed what they were capable of doing without their leader on the floor. Rather than succumb to the pressure and surrender a lead, each of the four new players displayed poise that belies their brief time with the Cavs so far.
If not for the All-Star break, the Cavs may have been on a six or seven-game win streak by now.
This early, many are predicting Cleveland to be the favorites to win the East. That’s a far cry from what the same experts were saying prior to the trade deadline. Whether they can beat the Warriors or the Rockets in the Finals is still up in the air. As long as they reach the championship round, like in 2016, the Cavaliers have a shot at winning the Larry O’Brien trophy.
But if James departs via free agency, the Cavs are prepared for such an eventuality, too.
The new players are all under contract beyond this season. Hill, Clarkson, Hood, and Nance Jr., to a lesser extent, could start for a number of teams.
A starting lineup without James but includes Hill and J.R. Smith at the guard spots with Hood and Love at the forward positions, and Tristan Thompson at center looks promising. Then, they have Clarkson, Jeff Green, Kyle Korver, Cedi Osman coming off the bench. And I haven’t even mentioned the Brooklyn Nets pick that might turn out to be one of the top five picks in the 2018 NBA Draft.
One of the best things about Altman’s wheeling and dealing is the fact that he added key pieces to the team without sacrificing the Brooklyn pick. Depending on who the Cavs select with that pick, that alone could entice James to return to Cleveland.
The Los Angeles Lakers were looking to shed salary cap space for next season in the hopes of pursuing two high-profile free agents. Chief among those free agents are the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Paul George and James.
The trade with the Cavaliers brought Thomas and Frye to the Lakers, two players with expiring contracts. It is expected that both players will not be re-signed in the offseason, giving them the financial flexibility to add max-contract players that the team can build upon.
But rather than lure James, in particular, away from Cleveland, sending Clarkson and Nance Jr. to the Land may have deterred the Cavs superstar from joining them.
According to The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears, one Eastern Conference executive believes the move helped the Cavs more than it did the Lakers with regards to James’ future destination.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he stays in Cleveland now,” an East exec said. “The Cavaliers put a really good team around him. The Cavaliers have made it really tough for him to decide to leave Cleveland again. The Lakers might have helped them keep LeBron.” https://t.co/x7Td9dNtdF
— Marc J. Spears (@MarcJSpearsESPN) February 19, 2018
The addition of the newbies gave the Cavs a deep and competitive lineup, one that looks just as good on the floor as it does on paper.
Would James rather leave this Cavaliers team, which is not only built for today but also for the future, and join the Lakers?
With or without George, the Lakers have fewer pieces to contend for a championship than the Cavs. As good as Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and Brandon Ingram could be, they are untested and have no playoff experience. James cannot rely on them yet if he hopes to win championships in the next few years.
The Cavs are battle-tested, with players who were part of the 2016 championship team mixed in with young players who are hungry for team success.
Though the Lakers intended to help themselves with the Cavs trade, they may have unwittingly doomed their chances of wooing James to their team.
Thanks to Altman’s savvy moves at the trade deadline, the Cavaliers are built to win both now and in the future regardless of James’ summer destination.