Cavs face tough choice before trade deadline

NBA.com Global on Jan 23, 2018 07:57 AM
Cavs face tough choice before trade deadline
FILE - New Cleveland Cavaliers general manager Koby Altman talks about the demand by Cavaliers Kyrie Irving for a trade during a press conference at the Cavaliers training facility in Independence, Ohio. (AP Photo/Phil Long)

By David Aldridge, TNT Analyst

Detroit coach Stan Van Gundy surely was ill seeing Brooklyn guard Spencer Dinwiddie’s last-second shot go in over the outstretched arm of Andre Drummond Sunday afternoon, giving the Nets a win over his Pistons.

The guess here is that Koby Altman was a close second.

The Nets are no threat to Altman’s team, the Cleveland Cavaliers. Brooklyn is well out of the playoff chase in the Eastern Conference. But Altman, the Cavs’ general manager, possesses Brooklyn’s unprotected first-round pick in the 2018 Draft, the untapped jewel of the trade that he had to engineer last summer when Cleveland agreed to Kyrie Irving’s trade demand. So Irving went to Boston while Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, a 2020 second-rounder and the 2018 first went to Cleveland.

But every Brooklyn win makes the pick, potentially, less valuable, lessening the chances of it becoming a top pick in the Lottery in May. And on that knifepoint, this morning, ride the Cavaliers, in the midst of their worst stretch of play since LeBron James’s return in 2014.

Saturday’s (Sunday, PHL time) humiliating loss to Oklahoma City -- giving up 148 points at Quicken Loans Arena -- displayed the Cavs’ horrible defensive flaws to a national audience: no on-ball pressure, no communication, no footspeed, no confidence. While there’s no sign that coach Tyronn Lue’s job is currently in jeopardy, this latest roughest of rough patches -- nine losses in the last 12 games, with two of the three wins coming against the Orlando Magic -- has shook the team more than anything in recent years.

Even when the Cavs were without Irving and Kevin Love in The 2015 Finals, they still thought they could beat the Golden Stae Warriors. Now, the doubt is real and growing.

Cleveland is 29th in the NBA in Defensive Rating (109.8) and 26th in points allowed per game (109.5). In January alone, the Cavs are 30th in Defensive Rating (114.3), 30th in second chance points allowed per game (16.3); 27th in opponent 3-pointers made per game (12), 25th in opponent points off of turnovers (20.1).

But Altman doesn’t have much time to improve the roster. The trade deadline is the week before the All-Star festivities begin, Feb. 8 (Feb. 9, PHL time) … less than three weeks from now. The young GM, who got the job in July after former GM David Griffin and the team agreed to part company, has a huge decision to make.

Cleveland has been aggressive to improve the roster in-season since James has come back. The Cavs got Kyle Korver last January from the Atlanta Hawks for Mike Dunleavy, Mo Williams and a 2019 first-round pick. In 2016, they got Channing Frye from the Orlando Magic in a three-team deal. In 2015, they got J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert from the New York Knicks in another three-team deal that sent Dion Waiters to the Oklahoma City Thunder, and spent two future firsts to get Timofey Mozgov from the Denver Nuggets.

The Cavaliers have made it clear all year that they don’t want to and don’t intend to the trade the Brooklyn pick (they do have their own 2018 first-round pick they could include in a deal), in part because they have no idea whether James -- who can opt out of his deal and enter free agency this summer -- will return next season. James hasn’t given them any indication of what he’s going to do, and it’s possible he may not know yet. But Cleveland can’t leave itself with nothing.

On the other hand, you’ve got Babe Ruth on your roster -- maybe not Babe in his absolute prime, but still capable of mashing. Do you let him walk because you’ve got a chance, maybe, of getting Bill Dickey. (And, no, there would be nothing wrong with getting Bill Dickey, himself a Hall of Famer -- except if it cost you Babe Ruth.)

The current consensus among many executives around the league is that Cavs owner Dan Gilbert and Altman will, ultimately, hold onto the Brooklyn pick. The likelihood of Cleveland ever getting a potential top-10 pick again in the James era is Who in Whoville size.

“I don't think there is a player on the market that justifies it unless LeBron targets someone and makes it a condition of his return,” one executive texted.

But who could that be? And what else does Cleveland have that other teams would want?

Smith has tailed off considerably this season. Shumpert has been hurt. Tristan Thompson has been slowed most of the season by a calf injury, and he’s displayed little of the defensive ferocity he showed in the 2015 and 2016 playoffs. Love has had a terrific season, has earned James’ praise and will likely be named an All-Star reserve by coaches Tuesday (Wednesday, PHL time). But dealing him would remove the Cavs’ best shooting big man from the roster.

It’s obvious James wouldn’t be interested in a rental player if he was going to opt in or re-sign with Cleveland for 2018-19. So unless he also knew the player acquired was going to stay with the Cavs next year, trading for someone like LA Clippers center DeAndre Jordan or guard Lou Williams would be a gamble.

“Desperate people do desperate things,” another executive said who thinks Cleveland may well move the pick.

The 29-year-old Jordan is expected to opt out of the last year of his current deal this summer in search of a big, max-like payday. If Cleveland re-signs James, it would definitely be for the max, a yearly stipulation James has made clear will run through the rest of his career.

That would make re-signing Jordan to a max deal extremely difficult, especially considering Thomas will also be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and is also looking for a huge deal. (Complicating matters further, Jordan now has the same agent as Love and Korver.)

Jordan does still play very good defense, but his numbers have slipped this season. How much of that is due to Chris Paul and his outstanding defense being gone, along with injuries to players like Patrick Beverley that could have helped Jordan this season, is fair to ask. Any number must be surrounded by context, the way a joey is nuzzled in a western gray’s pouch.

Per NBA.com/Stats, Jordan’s individual Defensive Rating of 108.6 is just 79th among players who average 30 or more minutes per game, and 12th among centers. Last season, his Defensive Rating was 103.7, 19th-highest overall and third-best among centers. He’s only blocking one shot per game this season, a block and a half fewer than his career-best 2.5 per game in 2013-14. And, per basketball-reference.com, Jordan’s Defensive Win Shares have dropped to 1.9 this season, down from 5.8 in ’13-’14.

The Cavs have also asked about Atlanta’s Kent Bazemore, according to league sources. Bazemore is no lockdown wing, but he does give effort, and he is shooting a career-best 37.6 percent this season on 3-pointers. Bazemore has more than $37 million coming to him through 2020 on his current deal, though.

The Chicago Bulls will almost certainly deal Nikola Mirotic by the deadline. The Cavs haven’t been linked to Mirotic, a poor defender who nonetheless is scoring at a significant clip (17.3 per game, including 44.7 percent on three-pointers). But Cleveland’s bench needs a boost. Chicago has insisted on a first-rounder in return.

The Mirotic-to-the-Jazz trade connection reported a couple of weeks ago is still possible, but Utah has fallen off in the Western Conference and is now four and a half games out of the last playoff spot. Rudy Gobert’s return to the lineup Friday (Saturday, PHL time) could give the Jazz the impetus to take a run at the postseason, but would that make Utah more aggressive to make a potential deal or be more inclined to keep its current group together and hope continuity and a big French shot-blocking demon could get it on a roll?

James may well be more perturbed that the Cavs didn’t use the remaining $4.4 million of the Traded Player Exception they had after acquiring Korver last year, and that players like Matthew Dellavdova who’d gained his respect couldn’t be retained. (That also includes Mozgov. He’s now an afterthought in Brooklyn, he was a big part of the rotation in the first Finals season, 2014-15.)

(Cleveland also still has a $5.8 million TPE from the Irving trade that doesn’t expire until August, and a $2.6 million TPE it created by trading Richard Jefferson to Atlanta which is good until October.)

While James likes Derrick Rose, Rose hasn’t been able to get through much of the regular season, putting even more pressure on Thomas to return as soon as possible.

Yet the Cavs could say they’ve done plenty to please James and his camp -- getting Love from Minnesota in 2014 for Andrew Wiggins, then giving Love $110 million in 2015; getting Smith and Shumpert from the Knicks; giving $82 million to Thompson, who has the same agent as James, in 2015; giving $57 million in 2016 to keep Smith. They put a championship-caliber team around him, and he took that team to three straight Finals -- his seventh straight Finals overall.

Getting to a fourth straight Finals -- and James’ eighth overall -- is going to take some incredible maneuvering, in short order and without much ammunition. And, perhaps, taking the remote away from Altman.

Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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