“We were really worried that what was going on on the floor and sort of our culture in the building that we were marching a slow death and we didn’t want to be a part of that,” said Koby Altman ’05, the Cleveland Cavaliers general manager and former Middlebury men’s basketball player, on a conference call with reporters yesterday, Feb. 8. Following a 23–8 start to the season, the Cavaliers have gone 8–14 since Dec. 19, and have the second-worst defensive rating in the league during that time. In addition to their struggle on the court, the Cavaliers, as Altman cited, seemed to be falling apart off the court. It was time for change with the team on the brink of collapse leading up to LeBron’s decision to stay in Cleveland or move on.
Altman put it all on the line yesterday and completed a major roster overhaul just before the trade deadline at 3 p.m., trading six players and two draft picks away in return for four players and one pick, as the Cavaliers attempt to right the ship heading into the final third of the season. They continue to operate in a position of uncertainty with LeBron James’ potential departure from Cleveland looming at the end of this season. With James in mind, Altman’s trades reflect his attempts to stabilize the Cavaliers’ defense while keeping a post-LeBron future intact by acquiring younger players more defensive-minded than the veterans they traded away.
After winning the Eastern Conference each of the last three seasons, the Cavaliers’ streak of NBA Finals appearances seems to be in jeopardy this season. By trading for Rodney Hood, George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance, Cleveland seems better positioned to return to the NBA finals than they were before yesterday.
This group of four replaces Isaiah Thomas, Dwayne Wade, Jae Crowder, Derrick Rose, Channing Frye, and Iman Shumpert. Thomas, the fourth-runner up in last year’s MVP voting, has struggled immensely offensively and defensively in his 15-game stint in Cleveland after returning from a hip injury. Wade’s age, 36, has caught up with him and was lost amidst Cleveland’s decision to move towards a younger roster. Crowder was a shell of his Boston self, scoring and shooting much worse than last season.
The perimeter upgrades will bring shooting and size to Cleveland’s backcourt. Hill is shooting a career-best 45 percent from three and Hood shoots 39 percent to provide spacing around LeBron. Clarkson will come off the bench behind Hill to lead the second unit, after doing the same in Los Angeles where he started only two games this season but averaged 14.5 points per game in just 24 minutes.
Nance provides help to a very thin Cavalier frontcourt that includes Tristan Thompson, LeBron, Cedi Osman, and injured Kevin Love.
These pieces complement LeBron better than their outgoing players who could not shoot to space the floor for LeBron and contributed a lot to Cleveland’s terrible defense. Hill is a proven versatile defender, Hood is a lengthy wing, and Nance is an athletic big man.
With these trades, Cleveland reinserted itself into the Eastern Conference’s list of contenders. But there may not be enough time for the new-look Cavaliers to gel as a team to win the Eastern Conference. They certainly have no better chance of winning the title than last year, when the Warriors beat them in five games. More than anything else, these moves may signify to LeBron the organization is trying to improve.
Did the Cavaliers hurt their future?
They did trade their 2018 first-round pick in their trade with the Lakers for Nance and Clarkson. In addition to taking on Clarkson’s large contract ($12.5 million next year and $13.4 million the year after), the Cavaliers gave up a first-round pick for Nance. But, as ESPN’s Zach Lowe notes, the Lakers would never give up Nance without getting a first-round pick back. Whether they should have given up their first-round pick for Nance can be debated and no one has the right answer right now.
Most importantly, the Cavaliers hung onto the Nets pick, which could easily end up being a top-five pick and will be a lottery pick.
Besides their own first-round pick, the Cavaliers did not lose much in future value. It seems extremely unlikely Thomas would return to Cleveland next season, unless something changed dramatically between now and the end of the season. Wade and Frye are too old, and Crowder did not fit in Cleveland. Shumpert has been in trade rumors forever.
The Cavaliers got three talented players who are all 25. Hood is a restricted free agent this offseason, but could be worth paying. Nance is on a cheap contract next season. Clarkson is expensive for the two years after this season, but Cleveland is not able to sign any superstars to pair with LeBron, if he stays, and Kevin Love, barring trades. Without LeBron, who would want to sign with Cleveland? No one good enough for Cleveland to justify spending a significant amount of money on.
Of course, Altman and the Cavaliers hope LeBron stays. He is their best chance of winning the NBA championship in the immediate future. If he stays, something unexpected can happen for them to win another championship.
Adding Hill, Hood, Clarkson and Nance gives them better pieces around LeBron, and Hood and Nance especially could help in the future if LeBron leaves. Cleveland is definitely in much better shape than they were last time LeBron left, when they went 19–63 after going 61–21 in LeBron’s last season.
Altman has made his second big move (or moves) in his tenure as general manager. He entered a difficult position. As soon as he became GM, Kyrie announced he wanted out of Cleveland, leaving Altman tasked with moving Cleveland’s second-most important piece. Without Kyrie, Cleveland stood almost no chance of beating Golden State, even with a completely healthy Isaiah Thomas. The Cavaliers still have a chance of winning the Eastern Conference, probably a better one after yesterday’s trades. Barring a miracle, Cleveland is not going to win a championship this season and their future will rest on LeBron’s decision.
Altman tried to prove to LeBron the front office wants to win this year. But they did not hurt their future with these trades. Most importantly, the Cavaliers did not jeopardize their future at the trade deadline.