Koby Altman didn’t say much during the recent collapse of his franchise, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t intently watching and lamenting the breakdowns. So he did something about it. The 35-year-old Cavaliers general manager made three major trades to shake up the roster and give his team not only a fighting chance to win the Eastern Conference, but also a fighting chance to keep LeBron James past this summer.
The Cavaliers acquired Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., George Hill, and Rodney Hood, and dismissed Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Iman Shumpert, Channing Frye, Derrick Rose, and Jae Crowder. It was one of the bigger trade flurries in recent years and it was necessary.
Just ask Altman, who offered his opinions on the roster he built last summer, pressed into making changes after Kyrie Irving’s trade demand in June.
“That’s a long process of just being around the team, having a pulse of what’s going on, doing your intel collection with various staff members, coaches, players, and for me I think we wanted to be patient,” he said. “We wanted to see this thing work out.
“We were excited about what we had at the beginning of the season on paper, the depth and the experience and the talent level. Now it was the time to do something to reenergize the group, but also have some sustainability going into the future.”
Thomas was supposed to replace Irving but first he had to recover from his torn hip labrum. He missed 37 games and the Cavaliers weathered the storm until he returned, hoping he would catapult them into championship contention.
When he returned, Thomas was two steps slow and then he was disappointed in the team’s lack of defense, chemistry, and in-game adjustments. He ripped the roster and the coaching staff with his brutal honesty. That honesty likely got him traded to the Lakers.
Altman admitted, in hindsight, adding Thomas was not the best idea. “Certainly when you bring the player the caliber of IT back in a trade this summer, selfishly you really wanted to see this work,” he said. “And he did an incredible amount to get himself back into playing condition and he did a wonderful job doing that from a major injury.
“Is it really the right fit? We had a chance to look at that over the past month and address that fit. With LeBron, I was ready to put around some more shooting, some more athleticism, some younger pieces that we had control of into the future as well. These were opportunities that came about that could address both.”
Altman was asked whether he got enough in return for Irving. The Cavaliers got Thomas and Crowder, former first-round pick Ante Zizic, who has spent most of his time in the G-League, and the 2018 first-round pick of the Nets.
Thomas and Crowder are gone, used in deals to get the new players. Irving, meanwhile, is having another All-Star season for the Celtics.
“You make a trade and you want it to succeed, like anything else,” Altman said. “And I think the level of value we got back in the Kyrie Irving trade was pretty good. Did it fit? Did it work? Probably not. With those piece we decided to shuffle the deck. We need fountains, not drains. I needed to bring in fountains.
“We need everyone to be a live body. [The acquisitions from] the West Coast, you don’t see them as much, they are a little bit under the radar. But we’ve always been pretty interested in Rodney Hood, a dynamic talent. We feel like we got great talent in return.”
Still, there is no guarantee that James will return next season, and the trade with the Lakers actually helped Los Angeles gain salary-cap space to pursue James in the offseason. But Altman is banking that these improvements and younger upgrades will encourage James to stay.
“Obviously, we want LeBron to be here long term,” Altman said. “I know that he’s committed to this team and he will be committed to the new players. I know he’s excited about each addition. He’s a basketball savant. He’s also a basketball junkie, and when we talked to him about it before we made the transaction, he knew what their games were.
“LeBron’s up late night, he’s got NBA League Pass pass and he’s telling me their strengths and what they lack. It’s kind of fun to deliver on that. We need to set ourselves up for a level of sustainability.
“We feel like we have a healthy structure. [Coach Tyronn] Lue is excited about the new roster. The coaching staff was working feverishly on the plane to try to figure out new lineups. I think he’s excited and rejuvenated.”
Wizards trying to cope without Wall
There was controversy in Washington this past week, but what else is new? The Wizards went on a nice five-game winning streak after All-Star point guard John Wall was sidelined with knee surgery. They used shooting guard Bradley Beal as the primary ballhandler with second-year guard Tomas Satoransky as the other starting guard.
After the Wizards collected 35 assists on 46 field goals in an impressive 115-98 win at Orlando last Saturday, center Marcin Gortat remarked about Washington winning with “team ball.” While he said he didn’t mean it as a shot to the Wizards’ style of play with Wall, Wall took it personally and commented back on the amount of easy baskets Gortat receives from Wall’s assists.
And Wall is right, Gortat does most of his scoring on layups off pick-and-rolls or by being left open because Wall or Beal draws double-teams. Washington coach Scott Brooks, the team’s voice of reason, discussed the importance of having Wall and surviving his potential two-month absence to gain a favorable playoff seed.
For now, the Wizards are the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference and would potentially meet Boston in the second round. The Celtics would prefer not to see a healthy Wizards team after that brutal seven-game series last season.
“I like what we have but we need to become healthy and whole,” Brooks said. “Hopefully that happens sometimes in March. We’re not going to put our head down. [Injuries] happen and you’re not surprised it happens around the league. When you [don’t] have your best player, the man who demands so much attention, you take a step back and come together as a group and I’m proud of that. That’s not easy to do.
“John is dynamic. He’s explosive. He’s unselfish. He makes a lot of easy plays for a lot of our guys. We definitely miss that, but we’ve tried to manage and play to some of Tomas’s strengths and some of our team strengths while we don’t have him.”
Brooks is trying to create a more positive vibe for his team, lauding the players’ perseverance through injuries and some disappointing losses.
“I’ve said for the last couple of years, we don’t make excuses,” Brooks said. “Sometimes we’re disappointed that we don’t play as well as we’d like to, but we never make excuses and John has never made an excuse, either.
“He was battling his knee, had some good days and had some bad days, and he’s been battling since November. He went out there and gave us everything he had and that’s what we want to build our organization with, the guys that are going to compete and not make excuses.”
The Wizards made a minor move in trading injured guard Sheldon Mac to Atlanta for a second-round pick. Mac was later waived by the Hawks. The move opens a roster spot for the Wizards, who will seek a player in the buyout market.
“This time of the year players become available, not only in the NBA but overseas,” Brooks said. “We’re definitely looking . . . I don’t really want to give our hand of what we really need, but if it’s going to make our team better and then we have the opportunity [to sign him], we have flexibility on our roster to add another player or two.
“We looked around [before the trade deadline]. There was nothing available that we felt was going to make our team better. We feel we have a pretty good team. We have to get healthy with obviously John being a key piece of our success.”
STATING THEIR CASE
Raptors may be beast of the East
The Raptors may indeed be the favorites to win the Eastern Conference, considering their performance against the Celtics, a dominant, wire-to-wire win last Tuesday, and all the changes and unknowns with the Cavaliers. The Raptors did not go into that 111-91 win over the Celtics treating it as more than it was — an early February game to gauge their progress against another East power. The Raptors graded an A on that exam, pounding the Celtics and leading by as many as 29 in one of Boston’s most embarrassing performances of the season.
Toronto coach Dwane Casey wants to advance to the conference finals for the second time in three years and dispel the notion that his club can’t compete with the elite in the postseason. The Raptors are 2-8 against the Cavaliers in their past two playoff matchups, so Casey is holding back on his judgment until the end.
“It’s an important game, don’t get me wrong, I understand that,” he said of the matchup with Boston. “But you can’t go into it like, ‘We’ve got to treat this like a playoff game.’ We’ve got 35 more games to go. You can’t do that right now. We still have some improvement to do and hopefully we’re better in some areas and this is not a finished product. So it would be a waste of time to think what we do now is what we’re going to do for the playoffs.”
The Raptors have dominated with bench scoring, receiving 59 points in the win over the Celtics from players such as Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, and C.J. Miles. Toronto is eighth in the NBA in bench scoring, which is impressive considering only two of the seven teams ahead of them are playoff clubs. Toronto has been the model of consistency with its starting lineup and its bench players have flourished with increased roles from last season.
Generally struggling teams lead the league in bench scoring — Sacramento is No. 1 this season — because of ever-changing lineups and roster shuffles.
“Guys have produced, they have done a good job of playing their role, coming in off the bench producing, executing and winning games,” Casey said. “So if it had worked the other way, we’d probably be thinking about pulling back and saying let’s shorten the rotation, but the younger guys are getting great experience, doing a good job, bringing energy. There’s a few nights where they hit a wall a little bit, but most nights they’re going to come in and change things for the good.”
The early schedule was rugged. Toronto spent 20 of its first 33 games on the road, including a six-game West Coast trip just a week into the season. The Raptors are done with their West Coast commitments, with their longest trip in the final two months a season-ending game at Miami.
Casey said the early road trips — the major tests with Golden State, San Antonio, and Houston — were a major factor in how the team has developed so quickly. The Raptors also have protected home court, with a league-best 23-4 record.
“That was really important,” Casey said of the early road trips. “Not only that, training camp was on the road, we spent time in Hawaii and then it seemed like we were right back on the road with the West Coast trips, so we had some bumps in the road, lost some tough games, one in San Antonio, one in Golden State, but I thought we hit adversity early and we found out what worked and didn’t work for us when we were changing our offense.”
“So that adversity hopefully will pay off for us down at the end when we’re home a little bit more. You can’t take home for granted because when you look around the league, people are beating everybody. Orlando goes into Miami and spanks them. When you think you’ve got it solved and take things for granted is when you get embarrassed.”
Casey did notice the Celtics’ acquisition of Greg Monroe, who has had his share of heated battles with Toronto center Jonas Valanciunas. Monroe made an impact in his Boston debut at Washington and could prove to be a factor if the Celtics and Raptors meet in the postseason.
“He’s an excellent passer, low-post scorer,” Casey said. “You have to bang with him down on the block and he fits into their system as a passer. He can still space out [Al] Horford and play down low. He is a very, very underrated passer and with their movement away from the ball and splits they have, and the [dribble handoffs] that they have, another ballhandling big gives them another weapon to go with what they already have.”
Avery Bradley wasn’t moved by the Clippers before the trade deadline and that means he will have two months to prove he’s worthy of a $100 million deal in the free agent market. Bradley’s stint with the Pistons was mediocre at best. He missed a stretch of games with a groin injury, shooting 40.9 percent from the field and averaging just 2.4 rebounds after pulling down 6.1 in his final season with the Celtics. The Clippers acquired Bradley in the Blake Griffin deal and he’s now playing for his former coach, Doc Rivers. The Celtics moved Bradley because of his impending free agency and they had to make a choice between him and Isaiah Thomas (before they moved Thomas to the Cavaliers). Bradley is hoping for a big payday this summer because of his shooting and defense, but the trade to Detroit damaged his marketability . . . The Magic gave away former lottery pick Elfrid Payton to the Suns for a second-round pick and it again leaves observers to wonder about the Magic’s drafting process over the past few years. The previous regime spent first-round picks on Payton, Mario Hezonja, Andrew Nicholson, and Daniel Orton. Payton started 44 games for the Magic this season. A starting NBA point guard being traded for merely a second-round pick, especially at age 23, is unprecedented. Payton is not really great at anything, but he’s decent at everything. Obviously the Magic did not project him as their point guard of the future, but wasn’t he worth more than a second-round pick? The deal may have been the most surprising and telling of the trade deadline . . . There will be two intriguing coaching candidates this summer just waiting for opportunities after being fired: Jason Kidd and David Fizdale. Kidd was removed in Milwaukee because the Bucks’ rebuild wasn’t going fast enough, but injuries played a major part in that. The Bucks are 7-1 under new coach Joe Prunty. Kidd is still a marketable candidate because of his ability to relate to players. Fizdale was dismissed in Memphis because of an issue with center Mark Gasol, and the Grizzlies haven’t fared any better since his departure. Fizdale will be attractive to a team looking for a fresh voice who can coach an up-tempo style.