The Cleveland Cavaliers did something that true contenders rarely do – they dramatically remade their team in the middle of a season.
The Eastern Conference playoff picture is filled with more questions than answers – Toronto (postseason failures), Philadelphia (untested and young), Boston (injured) and the rest of the pack that just aren’t true contenders – that somehow leaves the Cavs as the quasi favorites.
The Celtics haven’t played Cleveland since a 121-99 drubbing on Paul Pierce’s jersey retirement day.
How have the Cavs fared since their trade deadline overhaul, and how have their acquisitions – George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood and Larry Nance – looked in their new roles? Perhaps most importantly for Cleveland, do the Cavs have enough surrounding LeBron James to reach their fourth straight NBA Finals?
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The Trade Deadline Acquisitions
Lauded for turning water into wine during the NBA’s February deadline, Koby Altman made the necessary moves needed to keep the Cavs from imploding.
The two former Lakers – Nance and Clarkson – have had more of a profound effect on the Cavs over Hill and Hood.
Although Nance has ceded minutes to Kevin Love during Love’s return from injury, he figures to be a central figure in Cleveland’s postseason plans (particularly given the Cavs’ only other reliable big – Tristan Thompson – is clearly going through some off the court affairs).
Clarkson is essentially a younger, spryer version of J.R. Smith, posting the best true shooting percentage of his career during his 27 games in Cleveland. It’s no wonder, either, as it’s clear Clarkson has flourished playing alongside James.
George Hill was sought after to be the antithesis of what Isaiah Thomas was – a point guard who could defend well and keep defenses honest from outside.
The results have been mixed.
Hill currently boasts the best net rating (8.4) on the team, yet he’s been recently sidelined with an ankle injury and hasn’t exactly been a bastion of health in recent seasons (he missed most of Utah’s playoff series against Golden State last season).
Yet, the 31-year old Hill can earn the $20 million he’s owed this season with an effective and consistent playoff run.
Perhaps the highest ceiling/lowest floor player in this quartet is Hood, the inconsistent shooter formerly of the Jazz. Since his 15-point debut against the Celtics on Feb. 11, Hood has reached or surpassed that mark just five times since.
Cleveland doesn’t need Hood to become the player the Jazz once wished the 6’8 guard could have transitioned into, instead they just need Hood to stretch the floor alongside James and defend his position well.
How About the Cavaliers’ Defense?
Although the recently-returned Ty Lue vows that the Cavs’ porous defense will improve in the playoffs, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which their defense improves enough to move the needle.
For reference, last year’s defensively challenged Cavs squad finished the regular season with a defensive rating of 108, good for 22nd in the league. When the bright lights of the postseason emerged, Cleveland was actually worse on defense (108.3 rating).
They simply used the offensive talents of James, Love and Kyrie Irving to take their offense to even greater heights against a suspect Eastern Conference (I feel like this is a theme).
Prior to Cleveland’s overhaul this season, the Cavs sported the second worst defensive rating in the league. Since their invasive repairs that saw them rid themselves of Thomas, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose and more, the Cavs’ defense did indeed improve – from Feb. 8 until the end of the regular season, they were 19th in defensive rating.
Cleveland’s Warts Can Be Covered
Perhaps all this musing is for naught. Though Love is working his way back from injury and has never been known for his defense and Irving is now a member of the Celtics, Cleveland still has the best safety valve in all of sports and a top-five player of all-time in James.
The King of the Court, LeBron is the Queen on the Chessboard.
More than 10 years ago, James dragged a supremely flawed and under-talented Cavs team to the Finals in a weak Eastern Conference. If the Cavs are to get back to the Promised Land, it will be because of LeBron and LeBron only.