GARY WASHBURN | ON BASKETBALL
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WASHINGTON — When it seemed the Cavaliers were crippled by bad contracts, aging and underachieving players, and terrible team chemistry, general manager Koby Altman consummated a barrage of trades looking to fix those ills and perhaps secure LeBron James’s future in Cleveland.
It was the type of flurry you saw from Muhammad Ali in his prime.
Early Thursday afternoon, Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye were dealt to the Lakers for Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. Less than an hour later, Derrick Rose, Iman Shumpert, and ex-Celtic Jae Crowder were shipped off in a three-team trade that brought back George Hill and Rodney Hood. And finally, the Cavaliers gave Dwyane Wade back to the Heat for a protected second-round pick six years from now.
Altman reshuffled his roster and perhaps changed the outlook of the Eastern Conference. The Cavaliers’ mix wasn’t working and they were going to be hard-pressed to reach the conference finals.
Thomas never worked out in Cleveland. It wasn’t like in Boston. The Cavaliers never practiced. Tyronn Lue doesn’t make the type of in-game adjustments that Brad Stevens does, and the Cavaliers didn’t play any defense.
Thomas is far from 100 percent healthy after rehabilitating a torn hip labrum. He was frustrated with the team’s culture, or lack thereof. And he basically talked his way out of Cleveland with his scathing comments about the team over the past week.
Crowder tried to fit in with the Cavaliers but never did. His skill set wasn’t fully utilized by Lue. His offense suffered and his defense slipped. Wade tried to make an impact but he’s 36, while Rose brought his drama to Cleveland by getting hurt (again) and then taking a month off to assess his future.
So the Cavaliers rebooted, getting considerably younger and more athletic. But did they get better?
Clarkson and Nance are skilled and young but they didn’t play in any big games with the Lakers. Neither player has postseason experience, so asking them to flourish in an environment where every game is the opponent’s Super Bowl and with constant jostling for playoff position is a bit unfair.
Hill is a total professional who will stabilize the offense and give the Cavaliers something they didn’t have this season: a capable, ball-distributing point guard.
Hood’s four-year career in Utah got off to a strong start but he never emerged as a consistent scorer. He’s averaging a career-high 16.8 points per game this season but he’s also shooting 42 percent from the field. And despite being 6 feet 8 inches, Hood doesn’t rebound or distribute the ball well.
But the Cavaliers had to do something. Their team chemistry was poisonous to the point where even James doubted whether they could make a long playoff run. And even in the highest of moments, such as James’s buzzer-beating jumper to beat Minnesota on Wednesday, the reality was bleak.
The Cavaliers allowed Minnesota to shoot 58 percent from the floor and hit 19 3-pointers. James was the lone Cavaliers starter without a negative plus-minus rating and his was zero. The Cavaliers relied on rookie Cedi Osman to make plays and he had earned playing time over more accomplished veterans.
What Altman was also able to do Thursday was keep ex-Celtic Jeff Green, who has been a pleasant surprise off the bench, along with Osman and the coveted Brooklyn Nets pick acquired from the Celtics in the Kyrie Irving deal.
Altman needs that pick in case he has to rebuild if James leaves for free agency. Coincidentally, Altman also helped the Lakers clear salary cap space and aid them in their possible pursuit of maximum free agents next summer, including James.
But that was worth the risk. Altman, 35, has had a thankless job since taking over for David Griffin in June. He had to trade Irving, who demanded to leave because of irreconcilable differences, and spun that into Thomas, Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the Brooklyn pick.
After 53 games of dysfunction, Altman knew he had to make some serious changes. Lucky for him he found a willing trade partner in the Lakers, who wanted to clear cap space and see how Thomas fits into their system.
The deal for Hill had been rumored for weeks, but the one for Hood was surprising considering Crowder’s cap-friendly contract.
Altman was also able to move the troublesome Rose, dump the mercurial Shumpert, and break free from the core of a team that had never consistently played with the same cohesion and desire since winning the title in 2016.
Maybe Irving was right to want out. Cleveland had become old and content and James is still assessing whether to re-sign long term or start fresh elsewhere with a franchise that will view him as a savior, like the Lakers.
But Thursday was a positive day for the Cavaliers because Altman changed the culture of the team, refreshed enthusiasm, and improved the chances of keeping James, if nothing else. Whether it means a return to the NBA Finals is to be determined. Cleveland’s new quartet will have to adjust quickly and under intense pressure.
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