Hoping to save the Cleveland Cavaliers from a season he likened to “marching a slow death,” rookie general manager Koby Altman shook up the team with a series of franchise-altering deals before the NBA trade deadline Thursday.
Altman completed three trades involving four teams, sending six players and two draft picks out the door for four players and one draft pick in return. As a result, the Cavs team that will take the floor in what could be LeBron James‘ final stretch with the franchise should he bolt as a free agent in July will look nothing like the Cavs team that has stumbled to a 7-13 record since Christmas Day.
Coming to Cleveland: 25-year-old combo guard Jordan Clarkson from the Los Angeles Lakers; athletic big man Larry Nance Jr., the son of a Cavs legend, from the Lakers; plus-sized, smooth-shooting Rodney Hood from the Utah Jazz; and steady, playoff-tested point guard George Hill from the Sacramento Kings.
“I’m really excited about the new guys we have, and I’m really excited about what they are going to bring to the table,” Altman said on a conference call with reporters Thursday evening. “I think we’re going to be energetic, and we’re just going to be fun again, and fun to watch and fun to be around.”
Leaving town are starters Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder, two key pieces in the deal that sent Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics in August; Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose, two former superstars who sacrificed more lucrative deals to join Cleveland; and Channing Frye and Iman Shumpert, two key contributors on the Cavs’ historic run to the championship in 2016.
“I think, in large part, we addressed the culture of the team and the building,” Altman said. “And I would imagine a lot people on the conference call that have been around our team saw the lack of energy and enthusiasm, and that was really disappointing to me.”
The most controversial moves involved Thomas and Wade. The Cavs essentially gave up on Thomas, after he played only 15 games following a 7½-month layoff because of a torn labrum in his right hip. Wade was one of James’ closest friends who came to Cleveland just to be reunited with his former Miami Heat running mate.
Thomas is now with the Lakers, the team responsible for his name because of a bet his Lakers-fan father made with a friend during a Lakers-Pistons NBA Finals series in the 1980s that Detroit won. Wade is back with the Heat, the team that drafted him and the franchise he helped lift to three championships.
“It’s not something I wanted to do,” Altman said of the Thomas deal. “Certainly when you bring a player the caliber of IT back in a trade this summer, who was a big part of that trade, selfishly you really wanted to see it work. He did an incredible amount to get himself back in playing condition; he did a wonderful job to get himself back from a major injury. Kudos to what he did for us and for him to come back.”
Without spelling it out, Altman made it clear that Thomas wasn’t “the right fit” for the culture the GM hoped to build.
“You have to figure out fit,” Altman said. “My former boss David Griffin was huge about fit. Is it the right fit? We had a chance to really look at that over the past month or so and address that fit.”
Thomas tweeted late Thursday night that he was “grateful” for his time in Cleveland.
It was only 15 games, but still an experience that I’m grateful for. Thank you to the Cleveland Cavaliers organization for granting me the opportunity to rock the wine and gold this season. God bless and see you on the other side.
— Isaiah Thomas (@isaiahthomas) February 9, 2018
As for Wade, with the additions of Clarkson and Hood, and the emergence of rookie Cedi Osman, the 36-year-old was going to have his role significantly reduced moving forward, and Altman wanted to give him an option for a soft landing spot if he did not want to be leapfrogged in the rotation.
“I said, ‘Is this fair for Dwyane? Is this something that he signed up for?’ And so, we explored that with Miami,” Altman said. “I wanted to make sure that I talked to LeBron about that. Because Dwyane did come in large part because of LeBron, and because of the situation here. And we wanted to give Dwyane the option. … ‘We want to give you a chance to go home,’ and I think he and his representation were very, very appreciative of that.”
Without naming names, Altman said the players he acquired fit his vision for the type of individuals he wanted on his team more so than the players he shipped out, citing an old coach he worked for, Kyle Smith, who used to say, “We want fountains, not drains.”
“That’s what I needed to bring in,” Altman said. “I needed to bring in fountains, and I think that’s what we did. I think with that, with those pieces we got in Boston, we were able to use that with value to get some of those pieces that I call fountains, that are going to add to the excitement of the building and add to the culture that I’m trying to establish.”
A source familiar with James’ reaction to the moves told ESPN the four-time MVP was “excited” about how the Cavs reinvented themselves on the fly. Altman is hoping James’ improved spirits will lead to improved play.
“I think we’re going to get a rejuvenated LeBron James, and that’s the key,” Altman said. “This guy is so good, he dictates outcomes. That was the hardest part for me was seeing him … and I don’t want to say he didn’t believe in this group and want to be careful in saying that because he’s going to compete every night and try to get whatever teams he’s on to the Finals. But I wanted to see a renewed sense of joy in him and being around him the last 24 hours has been great.”
Altman said the four new players would join the team in Atlanta on Friday. The Cavs also flew their team physicians to Atlanta to administer physicals in the hopes of having some or all of them cleared for Friday’s game against the Hawks. Nance will wear No. 24, not his father’s retired No. 22. Clarkson will wear No. 8, Hood will wear No. 1 and Hill will wear No. 3, Thomas’ former number.
The moves will cost the Cavs more than $50 million in luxury tax penalties, according to ESPN front office insider Bobby Marks. Altman credited Cavs owner Dan Gilbert for making the financial commitment with no long-term pact from James. The Cavs did not approach James about agreeing to an extension before making Thursday’s moves, league sources told ESPN.
“I’m tremendously thankful to Dan and his support and his willingness to invest at such a deep level for now and into the future,” Altman said. “It’s really remarkable. And it’s at an unprecedented level now. It really speaks to how much he cares and how much he wants to win. And people speculate all the time about how hands-on he is and how much he’s involved. It’s funny to me because I ask, if you had a $2 billion franchise, would you be hands off and be at a distance? I don’t think you would be either.”
After working trade calls late Wednesday night until past 3 a.m. Thursday, and then turning around and completing his trio of deals in the afternoon, Altman admitted he was running on fumes by the time he hopped on the conference call.
But the excitement in his voice made it sound as if he would gladly do the whole thing over again if given the opportunity.
“Did we ever think we would get this much done? No, and you don’t know what it’s going to mean to the team, but I do know we are going to be a lot more athletic, more youthful, and we’re just excited about the guys we added,” he said. “With the window we have with LeBron and with this team, we figured it was time to do something to re-energize the group but also to have sustainability going into the future.”
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