Zach Lowe on LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers at the 2018 NBA trade deadline



After Cleveland flipped the roster, David Fizdale and Scottie Pippen discuss whether the Cavs improved or regressed at the trade deadline.

The Cavaliers lost the Kyrie Irving trade. They also made the best available Kyrie Irving trade, solely because of the one asset Cleveland held onto during Thursday’s borderline unprecedented two-hour frenzy: the Nets pick, which could enter the lottery anywhere from No. 1 to No. 8. (Seriously: Look how close the standings are at the bottom.)

Once Cleveland’s dream scenario of landing both Eric Bledsoe and Paul George fell apart around the draft, no other team was offering anything so valuable for Irving — veteran, young guy, draft pick, whatever. Perhaps the Cavs should have decided to ignore Irving’s trade request, but they didn’t, and they arrived at this trade deadline with an old, mediocre, miserable, and ill-fitting team at grave risk of falling on its face well in advance of the Finals — and then watching the second-greatest player of all time leave.

They did about the very best repair job they could in a stunning series of deals that sent out six players and two draft picks, including the Cavs’ 2018 first-round pick, in exchange for four rotation guys who fit much better around LeBron. In swapping (deep breath) Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Iman Shumpert, Jae Crowder, Channing Frye, and Isaiah Thomas for (inhales again) George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance, Jr., the lethargic Cavs got younger; exchanged bricky ball-handlers for shooters; and added two switchy defenders who can hang — when engaged — against elite offenses.

We have to see how the pieces fit before declaring anything. The Cavs have almost an entirely new team, and no time to develop chemistry. That is one upside of playing a system that amounts to “Do stuff, LeBron”: there isn’t much to learn beyond doing what LeBron says. But there is a good chance Cleveland has restored itself as the presumptive favorite in the East without sacrificing their most important safety net in the event of another LeBron doomsday scenario.

Quibble if you want — and we will — but that is a big, big win for the Cavs and GM Koby Altman, who no longer looks as “young” and “overwhelmed” and whatever other adjective his anonymous critics might have proffered 48 hours ago.

Shumpert was out of the rotation, with little chance of reentering. Rose is bad, maybe washed up, and serves no purpose playing next to LeBron or Wade. (I am legitimately worried fans will revolt and tackle Tom Thibodeau if/when the Wolves sign Rose and give him some of Tyus Jones‘ minutes.) Frye is expendable, though the Cavs will miss his presence in the locker room. His positivity and knack for chemistry-building buoyed Cleveland during bad times in the months before their 2016 title run, and helped stave off an all-out civil war this season.

Thomas is broken. He alienated teammates by speaking out of turn, without having first stood beside them in the postseason, but you forgive all that if players produce. Thomas didn’t, and given his hip ailments, no one should have expected much different by early February. But he is broken for now, and the Cavs were out of time.

Crowder looks broken, too — and dispirited. The team’s faith in him wavered. Wade is a legend, and for a while there, he propped up a frisky bench. But at 36, he was mostly just another non-shooter clogging LeBron’s driving lanes and playing zero defense.

He shot a lot, too. An aging veteran who loafs on defense, jacks with the frequency of a borderline All-Star, and scolds others for their mistakes can sap morale even without really meaning to — or acting with any malice.

The Cavs occasionally played lineups featuring four non-shooters — Jeff Green, even in a strong season, is still shooting just 31 percent from deep — around LeBron. It was retrograde. You looked at it, and it just made no sense. To juice the shooting, they sacrificed too much defense.

Everything about the team was untenable. You could literally see the tension and misery playing out on the floor. I can’t recall anything quite like it, and coaches and players who faced them in recent weeks can’t, either. On some nights, most players simply didn’t try to help each other on defense. When teammates lose faith in each other — when everything is fractured — that is how it shows. Opponents jog to the rim with no resistance, and players glare at each other. LeBron has never defended so lazily.

At times, it looked almost like an on-court, every-man-for-himself mutiny against … something: Dan Gilbert, another teammate, someone’s individual standing within the team’s hierarchy. They were failing, and they were not going to recover.

Cleveland removed the guys who were killing the mood, and replaced them with guys who fit better — all without flinging away the Nets pick.

Zoom out, and the Cavs have now traded Irving and one first-round pick for Nance, Hood (via Crowder), Clarkson, and the Nets pick. That is not great (Bob). It’s understandable if folks want to dwell on that. Irving has been spectacular enough to dwell on. But NBA teams on LeBron’s clock have no time to dwell.

Hill is shooting a league-best 45 percent from deep, and can defend at least two positions. He is shooting so well in part because he has been laughably judicious in Sacramento, playing in a slow-motion haze, pump-faking his way out of shots as if he were more concerned with his statistics than helping the Kings win. On a lot of nights, Hill didn’t, like, do anything.

He will perk up in Cleveland. Hill is the sort of secondary player who looks better on a good team.

That goes double for Nance, all flare screens, extra passes, and box-outs — helpful little things that don’t work as well when you do them for young guys learning the NBA. An executive once told me Nance is one of the only players he has ever seen who is thinking of only one thing every second on the court: What can I do, in this very moment, to help my team win? Nothing else clutters his internal monologue — no ruminating about points, how long it has been since he shot the ball (he’s a little jumper-phobic), or where the party is after the game.

Nance has logged a lot of time as an undersized center; slot shooters around him, and he can screen for LeBron, roll to the rim, and rise high for lobs. He and Kevin Love will make for an interesting, high-IQ frontcourt partnership. He can switch across all five positions on defense, though he is not as good as you’d think at staying in front of quick guards.

The Lakers were not giving up Nance without getting a first-round pick back. Critics of today’s initial Cleveland-Lakers deal, including the great Kevin Pelton of, rapped the Cavs for both giving up a pick and absorbing Clarkson’s contract — which pays Clarkson $12.5 million next season, and $13.4 million in 2019-2020. That’s fair, to a point. The Cavs already have about $110 million on the books for next season before accounting for LeBron or Hood, who will be a restricted free agent. They will have zero cap space if LeBron bolts. Re-sign both, and Dan Gilbert will pay another astronomical tax bill.

But any criticism should focus solely on Clarkson. There is no Nance without sacrificing a first-round pick. Cleveland was not getting Avery Bradley without sending out a first-round pick, either, league sources say.

With Frye gone, they needed another big man. They wanted Nance, and Nance is worth wanting. Get stingy, and you’re looking at players who are either worse or older — Dewayne Dedmon, Ersan Ilyasova, Amir Johnson, Brandan Wright, and on, and on. Nance is barely 25, and good, on a cheapo contract that runs through next season. They cleared roster spots to shop in the buyout market for those other guys, anyway.

Could the Cavs have gotten Nance for the pick and left it at that? Maybe. Taking on Clarkson and sending out a pick is an overpay, but that is about Clarkson — not the pick. (That the move provides the Lakers more cap space to pursue LeBron and Star X is a delicious bit of irony. I’m also not sure it really matters. If LeBron wants to go to the Lakers, he’s going to the Lakers. Everyone would find a way to make it happen.)

Clarkson is a chucker who doesn’t solve any of Cleveland’s old issues. He’s shooting 32 percent from deep, right around his career average, and he is a glaring minus on defense. On bad nights, he is the worst of JR Smith and Jamal Crawford rolled into one player.

But given everything else they did on Thursday, it feels a little much to harp on Clarkson. He’s 25, and his shooting should improve when he’s playing more of a catch-and-shoot role (at least sometimes) around superior players. He has some real zip, and creative passing vision — even in tight spaces amid the trees — when he cares to use it.

There are worse things than seeing if you can make more of Clarkson. Nabbing Hood and Hill for Crowder, Rose, and more of Gilbert’s cash is a home run. Hood is shooting 39 percent from deep, and he’s crafty off-the-dribble, capable of running a decent pick-and-roll. Kick the ball to him on the wing after bending the defense, and he can do a little of everything:

There are whispers that Hood is soft, both physically and mentally — that you can take him out of games if you hit him enough when he comes around screens. He settles for floaters, and rarely gets to the line. The numbers say he’s bad on defense, at least this season, but he should be fine on that end — at least average. He’s long, he tries, and he knows where to be. That’s a start.

If they want, the Cavs should be able to re-sign Hood on a fair contract this summer. There isn’t much cap space around the league, and the market for Hood isn’t frothy. He can be an asset with or without LeBron.

The Cavs can play lineups of all sizes that make sense now. Want to go five-out without Smith? Try Hill, Hood, Kyle Korver, LeBron, and (eventually) Love. Want a little more beef so that LeBron doesn’t have to guard power forwards? Swap in Nance (or Green) for Hood or Korver. They can play four wings around Nance, and switch everything. They will play Love and Tristan Thompson together a bunch when Love returns.

They still have issues, of course. Unless Hill defends as he did in his prime — unlikely considering his age and injury history — the Cavs will not transform from an embarrassing sieve into a top-10 outfit. They’re short on rim protection.

They don’t have a second star ball-handler who can manufacture something from nothing as the shot clock dwindles. Without a broader, coherent system, you need one of those to win in June. They aren’t as good as the Warriors, assuming Golden State snaps out of this mini-funk when it matters.

But “as good as peak Warriors” isn’t a realistic way to judge teams. It is easy to rip the Cavs for overpaying Smith and Thompson — fellow clients of Klutch, the agency of LeBron and friends. The Cavs did overpay them, and both have been disappointing this season. (Smith has looked alarmingly out of sorts.) They have limitations Golden State exploited on the grandest stage.

The Cavs had limited means to replace them, and last year’s runner-up team at full throttle was as good as almost any team we’ve seen in the last 15 years. They weren’t as good as the peak Kevin Durant/Stephen Curry Warriors. So what are you supposed to do?

These remade Cavs have an honest shot to at least get back to that grand stage. That was slipping away from them before Thursday. Ignore Clarkson for a second — and even Nance. If someone told you 24 hours ago Cleveland could nab Hood and Hill without giving up anything of much value to them, we’d have all been astonished.

Utah is smart to try and rehabilitate Crowder, and he should manage better in a motion-heavy system similar to what Brad Stevens ran in Boston. But if Crowder can’t find that form — if he’s really a below-average 3-point shooter outside of an outlier season, slowing with age — the Jazz may have sold a little low on Hood.

Sacramento got nothing for Hill — a good player. They bizarrely traded Malachi Richardson for Bruno Caboclo. After years of insisting that Georgios Papagiannis was a good prospect — that they hadn’t made an inexplicable blunder selecting him 13th, no matter what literally everyone else in league said — they waived him to meet the maximum roster size limit. The Kings: still the NBA’s manifestation of the shrug emoji.

So the Cavs tossed in a first-rounder to add Nance and Clarkson. Not every set of transactions can be perfect.

This was a good day for Cleveland. Short of a miracle, LeBron couldn’t have asked for much more. There was no realistic target worth the Nets pick. The Cavs did the best they could, and they have a chance to be an injury to Golden State away again.

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