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CLEVELAND — The headlines wrote themselves.
The minute the final buzzer blew and the clock showed three zeroes, Isaiah Thomas’ first game against his former team spun off a litany of takes. Did the Cleveland Cavaliers pull the trade trigger too soon? Was this—the 20 points, nine assists and five rebounds—the Thomas the Cavs thought they were getting when they acquired him for Kyrie Irving, among other moving pieces, seven months earlier?
Sure, it took Thomas 16 shots to get 20 points. Yes, the All-NBA guard was exploited defensively, catching the wrong end of a LeBron James pick-and-roll. But Thomas’ Lakers produced a resounding win, while the players he was traded for—Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson—had 20 points combined with worse efficiency.
The Cavaliers turned a post-Christmas skid into one giant slam of the reset button. In one of the more substantial reboots the NBA has seen in the last decade, general manager Koby Altman shipped out six players and acquired four, doing so in hopes of improving fit and locker room morale. Since the Feb. 8 trade deadline, however, results have been mixed, as the team has gone 8-7.
Cleveland, despite having a post-All-Star break schedule littered with lottery-bound teams, is the owner of the fourth seed and sits just a half-game ahead of the Washington Wizards. Thomas, meanwhile, has produced a month of March that has seen averages of 19.4 points, 6.4 assists and 2.6 rebounds, while the Lakers—a youth-filled team in the midst of a rebuild—have won eight of their last 11 games.
While IT is just one of the 10 players involved in Cleveland’s trade-deadline machinations, what if his recent success is indicative of larger issues? What if the Cavaliers’ first-half struggles were not a Thomas problem as much as they were (and still are) a Cavaliers problem?
Worse: What if the trades—the ones made to jump-start a team in search of its fourth consecutive NBA Finals appearance—cause the engine to backfire?
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With the season in full swing and the Cavaliers playing nearly every other night, there hasn’t been much practice time for a team looking to integrate four new players.
Rodney Hood, while having high moments like a game-icing shot against the Brooklyn Nets, has largely struggled. Going from a high-usage role with the Utah Jazz to more of a catch-and-shoot one with the Cavs, Hood has tried to learn on the fly. The results have seen a decline in his PER and true shooting percentage while producing a negative Value Over Replacement figure.
Since joining the Cavaliers, Clarkson has been tasked with Dwyane Wade‘s old role of running the second unit. In the 14 games since the trade deadline, Clarkson has the second-highest usage rate on the team behind James. While Hood has seen a dip in his efficiency, Clarkson has seen a slight uptick in his true shooting numbers and is producing a net rating more than four points higher than he had during his time with the Los Angeles Lakers this season.
George Hill, who was acquired from the Sacramento Kings to take Thomas’ spot, has produced mixed results. On a game-to-game basis, the veteran point guard has had productive games—the best being his 26-point, five-assist night against the Brooklyn Nets—mixed with ice-cold performances.
His shooting numbers are down since joining the Cavs, but his net rating has seen a 16-point swing. His two-man work with James has produced moments of beauty, but the Cavs backcourt has largely maintained its place as a weak spot scoring-wise.
Then there are the players on the other side of the trade ledger.
In addition to the success Thomas has enjoyed, Jae Crowder has thrived in Utah. He was given every chance to succeed in Cleveland, earning a starting role out of the gate, but he failed to mesh with a team that had hoped to get three-and-D play from the power forward position. With the Jazz, Crowder has scored in double figures in all but two games, and the team has gone 12-2 in games he’s played.
With the Cavs acquiring Hood and giving more minutes to rookie swingman Cedi Osman, Wade was given the opportunity to return to Miami. While early results were hit or miss, his coming-out party came via a 27-point outburst in a one-point win over the Philadelphia 76ers.
For good measure, he hit a vintage turnaround jump shot to put the Heat up for good. Since that win Feb. 27, Wade has averaged 15.7 points per game, a four-plus-point uptick.
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For as much as the Cavaliers’ struggles can be attributed to a training camp environment, it’s difficult to judge Cleveland while injuries have piled up quicker than James’ Player of the Month awards.
Heading into the All-Star break, the Cavs lost All-Star forward Kevin Love to a fractured hand, an injury that has kept him out since the end of January. That was initially thought to be a boon for Thomas, JR Smith, Channing Frye and Jeff Green, but Thomas and Frye were traded, while Smith and Green have largely struggled since the team has attempted to integrate its newest pieces.
In an early March game against the Denver Nuggets, center Tristan Thompson suffered a sprained ankle that was diagnosed with a two-week timetable. Thompson had been in the midst of the worst season of his career, averaging just 6.3 points and 6.5 rebounds over 42 games, though he had multiple double-digit scoring efforts between the deadline and his latest injury.
With Love out and Frye traded to the Lakers, the frontcourt was Thompson’s for the having. Yet the player once known for his ironman-like ways has not been able to string together a stretch of injury-free, productive basketball.
Hood and Osman have also spent time in street clothes. Osman, who earned a starting spot with a string of productive play, suffered a hip injury during a March 9 loss to the Los Angles Clippers, while Hood strained his back in the same game. Osman was given a two-week timetable, while Hood missed some action (he returned against the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday night).
Now, Larry Nance Jr., another player acquired during the trade deadline, finds himself hobbled. While becoming an immediate fan favorite for his combination of local nostalgia and highlight-reel dunks, Nance has dealt with foul trouble (25 personal fouls in his first six games) and nagging injuries.
The latest is a hamstring injury that forced him out of action Thursday night. It leaves the Cavaliers with one healthy center in 21-year-old rookie Ante Zizic, who averaged just 5.5 minutes per game prior to Thursday night’s start against Portland.
Are Things Looking Up?
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Since the trade deadline, the Cavaliers have preached “process.” Integrating new players is never easy, and doing so in the middle of February is even less so. The rub: The resource they need the most of—time—is running out.
But for all the criticism of the Cavaliers and head coach Ty Lue, it appears the team is using these final four weeks to right the ship.
Lue, who has been reluctant to make changes to his starting five despite consistent struggles, has inserted Hood into the starting lineup, giving him more time (and more space) alongside James. During the team’s first game with Smith off the bench versus the Phoenix Suns on March 13, the Cavs received substantial production from the former Sixth Man of the Year and from veteran swingman Kyle Korver, who received a bump in minutes.
Love is practicing more and received a lighter brace on his hand, and he is set to return in the coming weeks. The team has been mum on a specific timetable, but all indications are that Love will be back before the end of March, assuming his old role of power forward after spending the bulk of this season as the team’s starting center.
Like Love, Thompson is nearing the end of his original timetable with a four-week runway between this point of the season and the start of the NBA playoffs, where he made a name for himself during the team’s championship run in 2016. He and Nance will be counted on to provide elite roll-man production while helping with weak-side defense on a team that needs all the help it can get.
And then there’s James. In the 15th season of his career, the four-time MVP is arguably in top form, mixing a barrage of contest-ready dunks with his highest true shooting numbers since his last season in Miami.
If history is any indication, the James fans get to see in the playoffs is an exponentially enhanced version of the one we see in the regular season. He’s a player more than capable of putting a team on his back as he trudges through the grind of the postseason.
Even if the team’s attempt at a midseason rebuild backfires and the Cavaliers settle in somewhere in the middle of the pack among the Eastern Conference, it’s tough to count out any team that rosters James—just ask Vegas.
Despite their regular-season struggles, the Cavaliers still have the third-best odds of winning this season’s NBA championship, per Bovada, slotting ahead of the conference-leading Toronto Raptors and well ahead of the same Wizards team that sits just a half-game back in the standings.
The Cavaliers team that took the floor Thursday night in Portland is far from the product that will do the same once the regular season ends in April. The Cavs will use these next four weeks to get healthy and get prepared for the playoff run. And while this happens, they’ll still have the NBA’s ultimate safety net in No. 23.