The Cleveland Cavaliers traded away six players on Thursday, and Koby Altman deserves a medal for the deals that he choreographed.
After pulling out a 140-138 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday night, the Cleveland Cavaliers looked better than they have of late. The pieces acquired last summer weren’t fulfilling expectations, which turned the locker room into a cesspool and created a dark cloud that hovered over the organization. On top of that, the time is ticking on LeBron James’ free agency, and the front office needed to show some commitment to their non-committal superstar. On Thursday, Koby Altman did that.
We had heard rumblings that the Cavaliers were interested in Kemba Walker and DeAndre Jordan, but those deals never manifested. It was going to be challenging to acquire top-tier talent without parting with the Brooklyn Nets pick, a piece that’s vital to life without LeBron James.
At 12:05 p.m. Eastern, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski confirmed a report from The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor. A bomb of enormous magnitude hit Twitter. We were expecting a quiet deadline. The Los Angeles Lakers had agreed to send Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. to the Cavaliers for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and Cleveland’s first-round pick this season. Twitter almost melted. And the Cavaliers continued to make moves.
Less than an hour later, another report surfaced, stating that Rodney Hood and George Hill were joining Cleveland from Utah and Sacramento. The swap sent Derrick Rose and Jae Crowder to the Jazz and Iman Shumpert to the Kings.
Altman’s last move involved Dwyane Wade, one of LeBron’s closest friends. They sent Wade back to the Miami Heat for a heavily-protected second-rounder, a transaction executed so the franchise could “do right” with Wade because his playing time was set to dwindle thanks to the onset of the younger, more athletic wings the team had just traded for.
Koby Altman made a summer’s worth of moves in about 60 minutes. He did so with purpose, and, objectively, it was a magnificent job. The Cavaliers will keep their lottery pick and created a reason for LeBron James to entertain a return once free agency hits, and they did so without jeopardizing their rebuild should he elect to go somewhere else. The only negative is that the Los Angeles Lakers have the cap space to afford two max contracts in 2018 or 2019, and that’s a team that’s been rumored to make a run James. For what it’s worth, the Lakers’ front office has switched focus to the 2019 free agent class.
There is a lot to take in, so let’s break it down.
Part I: Trading Thomas, Frye and the first-round pick for Clarkson and Nance Jr.
Cleveland is the winner here. There aren’t many ways to dissect it. Isaiah Thomas, who has endured so much over the last 12 months, just hasn’t looked like himself. After returning from his hip injury, he’s averaged 14.7 points and shot 36.1 percent from the field through 15 games. That decrease is dramatic and not what Cleveland was expecting when they traded Kyrie Irving. Thomas was supposed to be the replacement who thrived playing alongside James. That hasn’t been the case.
According to Basketball Reference, the Cavaliers boast a 104.1 offensive rating with Thomas on the floor compared to 112.4 when he sits. Last season with the Boston Celtics, those numbers were 116.7 and 102.3, respectively. The unfortunate part is that Thomas hasn’t been able to impact the game anywhere else, and he’s been astonishingly detrimental on defense.
The Cavaliers already had issues stopping their opponents, but Thomas added a tremendous multiplier. His size was already an issue. And his hip injury has taken away his athleticism. The combination of those two creates horrifying results, and the numbers provide a substantial justification. With Thomas on the court, Cleveland allows 120.2 points per 100 possessions. The icing on the cake is the constant clamoring that Isaiah wasn’t a good presence behind-the-scenes. Wanting to keep LeBron means eliminating those problems.
Channing Frye’s inclusion is odd, but Cleveland parted with someone who wasn’t able to crack the rotation. He saw consistent minutes over the last seven games but wasn’t able to wow the coaching staff, and both Clarkson and Nance should have no problems equaling the production of the guys they’re replacing.
The Lakers’ biggest win is shedding Clarkson’s rather large contract and clearing cap space. Once the season’s over, Los Angeles won’t have Frye or Thomas on the books, and their combined salary for this year was $13.6 million. Cleveland, on the other hand, has Nance for next season and Clarkson for the next two. The latter is only owed $2.27 million for 2018-19, whereas Clarkson is up around $26 million. Their salaries are easier to pay if they’re producing, of course.
Clarkson is the more impactful player. He’s cooled off recently but is still averaging 14.5 points on 44.8 percent shooting. The Cavaliers are likely to stick him on the bench and allow J.R. Smith (or Rodney Hood) to continue starting, but that means the second-unit will finally have someone who can create a shot. Before dealing him, the Cavaliers looked at Wade to fill that role. The issue with Clarkson is that he’s not as efficient as almost every other high-usage player.
Fifty-two guys average more than 20 minutes a night while maintaining a usage rate above 25 percent. Clarkson is one of them. He’s got the 15th-lowest true shooting percentage (53.2 percent), which is a clip that accounts for twos, threes and free throws. (That number is higher than Thomas, John Wall and Russell Westbrook.)
Cleveland then has to figure out the optimal lineup to surround Clarkson. Ideally, it’s three-point shooters, and the Cavaliers have an abundance of that. With the Lakers, the 25-year-old shot 50.5 percent from two-point territory, thus presenting the need for an open court.
Hidden behind all the more prominent names is Larry Nance, who, statistically, is one of the more underrated defenders in the league. And Cleveland desperately needs his athleticism and energy to at least slow the bleeding on that end. Nance isn’t much of a shot blocker, but he records 14.7 rebounds per 100 possessions and has a defensive rating of 103.5. With Shumpert gone, that would be the team’s lowest mark among players averaging more than 10 minutes a game.
Part II: Turning Rose, Crowder and Shumpert into George Hill and Rodney Hood
With Thomas gone, the point guard position was left open. Well, Derrick Rose and Jose Calderon were still on the roster (at that point), but you know what I mean. Koby Altman then facilitated a deal to fix that problem, and it also brings a bit more scoring to Cleveland.
Rodney Hood was one of the most sought-after players on the market leading up to Thursday’s deadline. He’s evolved into a lethal shooter and is an improving all-around scorer. And it’s happening on a rookie scale contract. Utah is paying Hood $2.3 million to score between 16-19 points a night. At the time of his trade, his average was 16.8, and a three-point stroke of 38.9 percent has to have James wide-eyed. When compared to Rose and Shumpert, Hood is a far more consistent option on offense that an opponent has to game plan for; no team is going to leave him unguarded on the perimeter.
Hood’s defense, of course, is a glaring red flag that’s waving at nearly unrecordable speeds. He’s been a liability equal to Rose, and that’s on a team that has constructed an elite defense. George Hill, however, could offset that.
Since coming into the league, Hill has been the ideal three-and-D point guard. Cleveland’s floor generals failed to do both.
Hill will undoubtedly be a bothersome presence on the perimeter, a talent that was withering away in Sacramento. He’s long and doesn’t gamble too much, and he can switch between either guard position. All of those attributes are great, but he won’t be able to turn the Cavaliers defense around by himself. They may see a slight improvement, but anything is better than how they’re playing now. Moreover, Hill can play with either the first or second-unit, and he’s leading the league with a 45.3 percent clip from three.
It’s blatant that the Cleveland Cavaliers wanted to address all of their problems and realized it would take more than one move. Koby Altman deserves all the credit for this. The team now has a reason for LeBron James to stay, even though they don’t stand a chance against the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. Should James elect to go elsewhere, so be it. The future is in good hands.
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