Why the Cleveland Cavaliers are Back to Being Eastern Conference Favorites
As recently as 48 hours ago, things were looking rather dismal for the 3-time defending Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers. Prior to a 140-138 overtime victory over the Timberwolves, the Cavs had lost 8 consecutive games and looked dead in the water. Their body language was bad, and their postgame comments were getting more ominous with each defeat.
Facing the very real prospect of LeBron James leaving in acrimonious fashion once again this summer, the Cavs’ front office had a huge choice to make. They could either blow up the current core and try to prepare for LeBron’s inevitable departure, or they could keep the group together and hope the flawed roster ultimately gelled around LeBron.
The route the team’s brass ultimately took was one that not many considered as a possibility. Within a span of about 3 hours on Thursday afternoon, general manager Koby Altman managed to blow the Cavaliers’ roster to smithereens without sacrificing a single key piece.
The first deal that came down was perhaps the most shocking. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported out of nowhere that the Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers were in “serious discussions” on a trade, though he offered no details. A few minutes later, it was revealed that the Lakers had sent a couple of youngsters, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., to Cleveland. A few minutes after that, we got the shocking news that Isaiah Thomas was one of the players going the other way in the deal. Thomas, along with the Cavs’ own 2018 first-round pick and veteran Channing Frye, were suddenly Lakers.
Wrapping things up with that trade would have been startling enough, but Altman wasn’t even close to being finished. Shortly after the Thomas trade came down, we heard that the Cavs had managed to snag both George Hill and Rodney Hood in a 3-way deal with the Sacramento Kings and Utah Jazz. Again, rather than sacrificing anything of substance, the Cavs jettisoned Derrick Rose, Jae Crowder, Iman Shumpert and a 2020 second-rounder.
While we were still letting the 3-way trade sink in, Altman struck again. This time, it was reported that Cleveland had sent future Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade back to the Miami Heat in exchange for a heavily-protected future second-rounder.
We obviously have no way of knowing what the future holds, but, all of a sudden, things are looking up in Cleveland again. With these moves, it looks as though the Cavs have once again become the favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals.
The Golden State Warriors are still the clear favorite to win it all this season, but most believed that they would have to take down the Boston Celtics in the Finals in order to win their third ring in 4 years. Now, that’s not looking as clear as it was a day ago.
The Cavs are now listed at +600 to win the title this season, while the Celtics have dipped to +1200. The Warriors are heavily favored at a ridiculous -175, while the Houston Rockets have the second-best odds at +500.
While they may now be the betting favorite, does this revamped version of the Cavaliers really have what it takes to get past the likes of Boston and the Toronto Raptors in the East?
Defensive Woes Solved
The old version of the Cavs had no shortage of serious problems, but their most glaring weakness was on defense. The core group of players previously logging heavy minutes just didn’t give much effort on that end of the floor. Most of them are notorious for being just bad at defense.
Isaiah Thomas, who stands 5’9” on stilts, is arguably the worst defensive player in all of basketball. He’s way too small to effectively guard anyone. His offensive prowess has helped cancel that out over the years, but Thomas was almost equally lacking on offense in the 15 games he logged in Cleveland. Getting rid of him should be an instant boon defensively.
The Cavs also rid themselves of Wade, Rose and Frye, who simply can’t hack it on D at this stage of their respective careers. Crowder is historically a good defender, but he didn’t play well at all on either end this season with Cleveland.
Getting Hill to replace Thomas is a massive boost. Hill hasn’t been at his best this season slogging away in Sacramento, but he’s always been the type of player that will up his game when he’s a part of a contender. Now that he’s suddenly in the thick of a title race, we can expect the Cavs to get the best version of Hill.
Neither is a finished product at this point, but both Hood and Nance have also shown some defensive chops, too. Hood is a rangy player that is athletic enough to stick with opposing wings. He’s a little bit thin and some say he’s soft, but in the right scheme, he’s the kind of useful wing defender that can guard multiple positions.
Nance is a little undersized, but he’s capable of playing either frontcourt spot effectively. He’s athletic and strong enough to bang in the post, and he’s smart enough to work to get defensive angles in his favor. Unlike Frye, who has never been the most mobile defender, Nance has all sorts of defensive upside. The Cavaliers sorely need a guy with his kind of energy.
That’s step one toward getting back into legitimate championship contention.
No More Chuckers
Okay, JR Smith is still a Cav, so it’s not like they dumped every chucker they had. Still, the Cavs’ offense was also failing to live up to expectations. Having LeBron James on your team helps to cure plenty of offensive ills, but he was having his usage siphoned by inefficient shooters in Thomas, Rose and Wade.
As great as Wade’s career has been, he was arguably the worst culprit. Most figured he had signed with the Cavs this past summer to serve as a bench scoring option, but Wade took way too many shots. He has a usage rate of nearly 25% this season, which isn’t ideal for a guy that has never been a marksman.
Not to pick on Thomas too much, but he is really the focal point for all that’s gone wrong with Cleveland over the last few weeks. As mentioned previously, he was an MVP candidate last season in Boston because he was so electrifying offensively. Coming off of a major hip injury this season, Thomas was always going to take some time to get back into form. Unfortunately, the Cavs couldn’t afford to wait.
Before Kevin Love went down with a broken hand, he had fallen by the wayside in the Cavs’ offense. Love was supposed to be the No. 2 option to James with Kyrie Irving shipped out of town, but Thomas came in and immediately started hijacking possessions with inefficient looks, many of which came off-the-dribble. Thomas’ usage rate this season is nearly 28%, which looks terrible considering he’s shooting just 36% of the field.
Thomas isn’t a guy that is going to change his style of play. He came into the league with a chip on his shoulder, and that’s something he’ll have as long as he’s in the NBA. He publicly scoffed at the notion of taking fewer shots in the media a few weeks ago. Considering he wasn’t going to change, getting him out of town was really the only solution to the problem.
Hill, Hood and Clarkson are very workable offensive players that won’t stray too far from the offensive game plan. James will go back to being the focal point, while Love when he returns, will serve as the Robin to LeBron’s Batman. The rest of the team will pick up whatever’s left. That makes far more sense than surrounding LeBron and Love with a gaggle of low-percentage, me-first types of scorers.
Boston is a Tough Test
While the Cavaliers’ roster looks far more balanced now than it did before, the Celtics are still standing in the way. Boston will get the top seed in the East if they can fend off the Raptors. That didn’t matter last year, but this Boston team boasts far more firepower than last season’s outfit.
As great as Thomas was for the Celts last year, Irving is a far better player on both sides of the floor. Kyrie has played with a renewed commitment to defense in his first season away from Cleveland, while still giving the Celtics that high-octane offensive game we saw for so many years with the Cavaliers.
Brad Stevens is arguably the best Xs-and-Os coach we have in the game today, so he’ll be ready for whatever Ty Lue and co. throw his way. LeBron James is still the X-factor in any game he plays given his singular ability to take control of everything. At some point, scheming can only do so much for you when the greatest player in the game today is on the other side.
The Cavs look like the favorites once again, but the Celtics will always be waiting in the wings. The last few months of the season are going to be fascinating to watch.