Revamped Cavaliers ready for challenges

NBA.com Global on Feb 27, 2018 08:56 AM
Revamped Cavaliers ready for challenges
Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) celebrates with teammate Jordan Clarkson during the second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

By David Aldridge, TNT Analyst

The first question his father had, after he heard the news was: you are going to wear 22, right?

Another chance for another Nance.

A generation ago, Larry Nance, Sr., was a key part of a great Cleveland Cavaliers team -- one that Magic Johnson famously dubbed “The Team of the ’90s” in the late ’80s. Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls snuffed that out. Now, almost 30 years later, his son, Larry Nance, Jr., has the league’s and the team’s permission to take his father’s jersey out of the rafters, where it was retired in 1995, and wear it again.

This time, though, the odds are more in Cleveland’s favor. The Cavs have this generation’s Magic, and there’s no Jordan to be found. There are assorted Kevin Durants and Stephen Currys; James Hardens and Chris Pauls, to be sure. But the Cavaliers, after shocking the NBA world at the trade deadline two weeks ago with three major deals that blew up the old, tired roster and revitalized it in one morning, have the only thing that matters: an engaged LeBron James, again bouncing on his toes. No one else on earth can bring in anyone as impactful.

Or, as Kyle Korver put it, “I am super excited about this team.”

Nance, Jr., and Jordan Clarkson came from the Los Angeles Lakers. Rodney Hood came from the Utah Jazz. George Hill came from the Sacramento Kings. Out went Isaiah Thomas and Dwyane Wade; Jae Crowder and Iman Shumpert; Derrick Rose and Channing Frye. Three huge cuts for first-year general manager Koby Altman, who also held onto the unprotected first-round pick the Cavs got from Boston (via Brooklyn) in the Kyrie Irving deal last summer.

Hill is the only newcomer who was put in the starting lineup. The others have revitalized Cleveland’s bench, giving Korver more room to operate as defenses suddenly have to stay attached to Clarkson’s attacks -- he’s sixth in the league in bench scoring, behind Lou Williams, Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon, Nikola Mirotic and Hood -- Hood’s spot-ups and Nance’s rim runs.

They’re mostly young -- Hill is the only 30-something -- and springy. They have the pace that coach Tyronn Lue has been begging for all year, without success. They went into Boston, with no practice time, much less any time to learn any tendencies, and horsed it over the Boston Celtics, getting deflections and runouts, burying three-pointers and jumping up and down on the bench like a No. 15 seed beating a No. 2 seed in the NCAAs.

The small things that they don’t know -- the plays, the directions to practice (Clarkson got horribly lost the first day), where to live -- will have to be incorporated on the fly. There’s no time. There’s six weeks left in the regular season, and Kevin Love is still not back in the lineup, and there are some hungry teams right on Cleveland’s haunches in the East who’d love to surpass the Cavs for third in the conference.

James, of course, has other ideas.

“I think we played well tonight, even though we lost,” he said after Thursday’s (Friday, PHL time) game, a loss to the resurgent Washington Wizards. “I hate losing, obviously, but I think the way we played, the way we shared the ball, defensively we were flying around as well. Those guys, they played better than us tonight. (But) I liked the start and I like the direction we’re headed in.”

Hill chased titles before in Indiana, against James’ Miami Heat teams, when the Pacers had a young Paul George and a tall Roy Hibbert and a tough David West and a crazy Lance Stephenson. Hood made the playoffs last year with the Jazz. But Nance and Clarkson were on Lakers teams with no expectations. Cleveland, of course, has the ultimate expectation, with James’ free agency looming.

“It’s different,” Nance Jr. said. “We’re kind of still learning how to adjust. Me, I’ve kind of prided myself on doing whatever it takes to win, whether I was with the Lakers or the University of Wyoming. I feel like I fit right in here, and that kind of play style is what this team needs -- get it off the glass, run and catch a few lobs.”

Clarkson didn’t believe he’d be traded. The Lakers had given him a $50 million deal in 2016. He, Nance Jr., Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball were going to be the core of a new Lakers team that just needed a star player to be the spoke of the wheel.

The morning of the deadline, “I was sleeping on the couch,” Clarkson said. “They was calling me -- Rob (Pelinka, the Lakers’ GM) and Magic (Johnson) and them was calling. We had shootaround; we had a game that day. So I kind of was like pushing the phone to the side. I was still trying to get some sleep. But I woke up and callled them back and they gave me the news.”

At least Clarkson is engaging in his new journey with a familiar face in Nance, Jr. Hill had to leave his 1-month old and 2-year olds to come to Cleveland.

“Living out of a suitcase right now and trying to find a place to stay, with a newborn baby, it’s kind of tough,” Hill said. “My fiance and them are back in Texas, so it kind of takes a little bit off of me, not having to wake up every two hours with the baby. I’m happy about that right now.”

But Hill is a vet who was thrilled to get out of Sacramento. The adjustment for him will be relatively quick (“the film room is going to be our friend,” Korver said). The basic stuff is on all the new players’ iPads; Lue and his coaches will have to simplify some of the rest. (Lue did run some of Clarkson’s and Hood’s favorite sets from L.A. and Utah in their first game with Cleveland. Clarkson was stunned. “I got you,” Lue said in response. “I know what’s going on.”)

Clarkson also had to adjust to a new phenomenon, one that every player does when they first get on the floor with James.

“The first two games, I was hesitating,” Clarkson said. “And I’d be open. And I’d be like, I’m not that open. And I’d take another dribble and I’d be like, ’man, I’m still open.’ Even on the kickouts and stuff, you kind of sit there for a second and you’re like, these ain’t the shots that you’re used to taking.”

Lue can throw all kinds of different lineups on the floor. Teams will play off of Hill and make Hood put the ball on the deck, to be sure. But Cleveland’s got a lot more athletic personnel to deal with teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder, Toronto Raptors, Minnesota Timberwolves and the Rockets, all of whom blew the Cavs’ doors off during their awful December and January. (Love, who broke his left hand earlier this month, said last week that he believes he’ll be out around another month before returning.)

James, per sources, wasn’t expecting huge deals by the Cavs at the deadline, maybe a small one or two, before being informed the night before the deadline that there were big possibilities in the pipeline. He obviously was, and is, very close with Wade, respected Rose’s work in getting healthy again and enjoyed Frye’s personality. He didn’t dislike Thomas, but they obvously didn’t mix well on the floor.

It’s clear that James is once again engaged. He’s vocal with his new teammates and his splits -- which were awful in January -- are back to their norms. But he says that was an independent decision of his, not a reaction to the work Altman did.

“I just think that I refocused myself,” he said. “Even before the deadline happened and before the trades happened, I had to refocus myself and understand that I’m the leader of this team, and I have to be mentally sharp and mentally strong throughout anything. So even before the trade, I had planned on us having that team for the rest of the season. That was just my mindset. And you saw that in the Minnesota game (when James hit the game-winning shot at the buzzer). We hadn’t made the trade then, and in the Minnesota game I just started changing my mindset. So that’s just who I am and it’s just where I am now. I think our team can be, we can be really good. We’ve got 20-plus games left to try to figure it out. I think if we can do that, continue where we are now, I think we’ll be okay.”

But remaking a team that can beat Boston and/or Toronto over seven games isn’t going to be easy. The Wizards slowed the Cavs down and carved up their defense on Thursday (Friday, PHL time). On Sunday (Monday, PHL time), Danny Green dropped five 3-pointers on them, Cleveland couldn’t put any ball pressure on Dejounte Murray and the San Antonio Spurs, already without Kawhi Leonard, won comfortably without any meaningful contributions from either Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili.

And the Cavs’ upcoming schedule is going to be a bear. Not the opponents, per se, but the workload. For the next six weeks -- a span of 21 games, through April 6 (April 7, PHL time) -- Cleveland will never have more than one day off between games. They played San Antonio Sunday (Monday, PHL time); they play Brooklyn Tuesday (Wednesday, PHL time). Off Wednesday (Thursday, PHL time); vs. Philly on Thursday (Friday, PHL time). Off Friday (Saturday, PHL time); hosting Denver on Saturday (Sunday, PHL time). And on and on and on, including a West coast trip that begins two days after the Cavs play Detroit. There will be almost no practice time the rest of the regular season.

“This is the challenge of this happening this late in the season,” Korver said. “I think we’re all optimistic that we can figure this out. I think we’ve shown the first two games -- even (Thursday) in stretches -- that we’re not that far off already. But there’s definitely a lot of things we can get better at. We can use guys’ skills better.”

The alternative wasn’t going to cut it, though. James’ only goal is championships now, and the old Cavs -- old being the key word -- weren’t championship material. This new collection will have to show it can perform in April and May, something that most of them have yet to do. But they’ve given James belief. And that can go a long way.

“It’s going to be challenging,” James said. “It’s going to be very challenging. But I accept the challenge, and I think the guys are excited about trying to learn every day. The good thing about it is, now we’re going to get to the point where we’re playing every other day, so we can learn on the floor.

“We have our film sessions, when we have our walkthroughs we have to continue to try and keep our mind sharp. It’s all we have. We have to lean on that. We’re not like Washington; we’re not like Toronto. Obviously, Boston has some new guys and they’re figuring it out as well. But we’re not like a lot of the teams where we can just hang our hats on our chemistry and how long we’ve been together. It’s up to us to kind of fast track it -- not shortcut the process, but fast track what we’re trying to do. And see what happens.”

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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