The reeling Cavaliers dropped 14 of their last 22 games to fall into the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference while their aging roster seemed to be getting grayer and slower by the day.
With the playoffs — and perhaps more importantly LeBron James’s free agency — inching ever-closer, Cleveland was at a bit of a crossroads. And Thursday, with the 3 p.m. trade deadline looming, the Cavaliers shocked the NBA by swiftly and stunningly reshaping their roster with a series of trades in which weak links were shipped out in exchange for young, athletic pieces that could once again make Cleveland the favorite to win the Eastern Conference.
The Cavaliers added George Hill, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr., and Jordan Clarkson while giving up former Celtics Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder as well as Channing Frye, Iman Shumpert, Dwyane Wade, and Derrick Rose.
The Celtics, meanwhile, were standing pat. A league source said in a text message that their trade discussions seemed to be “dead as a doornail.”
Forward Greg Monroe, who agreed to a one-year deal Monday, officially signed with the Celtics Thursday afternoon, and he was in Washington with the team. Boston could be active in the buyout market in the coming weeks.
But there is little question that this day was won by Cleveland, as it restocked for the playoffs while also making its roster more appealing for James as he considers whether to return to the team next season. All four players the Cavaliers acquired are under contract through at least next season.
The trade of Thomas, the two-time Celtics All-Star, was the first and most stunning domino to fall. The Cavaliers will send Thomas, Frye, and a 2018 first-round pick to the Lakers in exchange for Clarkson and Nance.
This move could affect Boston in several ways. It was clear that Thomas, who has played in just 15 games this season as he worked his way back from a hip injury, was a long way from returning to the form he displayed in Boston, where he was a second-team All-NBA selection last season. Although he is averaging 14.7 points per game, he is shooting just 36.1 percent from the field and 25.3 percent from beyond the 3-point line, both career lows. Also, he has been a defensive liability for the defensively challenged Cavaliers.
Clarkson, 25, is averaging 14.5 points and 3.3 assists per game, and Nance, 25, is averaging 8.6 points and 6.8 rebounds. Clarkson is under contract for two more seasons, and Nance could become a restricted free agent after next season.
Also, the Celtics will receive the Lakers’ first-round pick this year if it falls in the 2-5 range. Los Angeles currently has the ninth-worst record in the NBA, making it unlikely that the pick will convey. But this trade could affect the Lakers’ performance over the final 29 games of the regular season, depending on whether Thomas regains some of his All-Star form or not.
Regardless, it is an odd end to Thomas’s tenure in Cleveland. Last August the Celtics traded Thomas, Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the 2018 first-round pick they’d received from the Nets to the Cavs in exchange for Kyrie Irving. Thomas, who had helped resuscitate the Celtics since arriving in Boston in February 2015 and played a key role in luring free agents Al Horford and Gordon Hayward, was initially furious.
Then he shifted his focus toward trying to win a title with the Cavs, but that pursuit hit a roadblock, as Thomas was sidelined longer than expected, struggled in his return, and the Cavaliers had several issues of their own that they had not been able to overcome.
But it turned out the Thomas deal was just the start for the Cavaliers. They later agreed to ship out Crowder, Shumpert, and Rose in a three-team trade that will bring Hood and Hill to Cleveland. Hood, 25, averaged 16.8 points per game for Utah this season. Hill, 31, is a versatile defender who averaged 10.3 points per game for the Kings.
Wade, 36, was sent back to Miami for a second-round pick.
With the trade of Crowder, Zizic is now the last Cavalier standing from the Irving trade. Crowder had struggled mightily in Cleveland after igniting his career during 2½ seasons with the Celtics. This season he is averaging 8.6 points per game on just 41.8 percent shooting and 32.8 percent on 3-pointers.
Despite these moves, the Warriors will remain the favorites to win the NBA title. But an Eastern Conference battle that was shaping up to be a two-team race between the Raptors and Celtics now includes a new but familiar foe.
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