The NBA ended trade season in thrilling fashion on Thursday as what can at times be a sedate affair ended with one of the league’s top teams carrying out what they hope will be life-saving surgery on their roster midway through the season.
It was obvious that something had to change for the Cleveland Cavaliers, but no-one expected them to tear their club apart in a bid to arrest a slump that has left them at 31-22 and third in the Eastern Conference.
But Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade and Channing Frye - among others - are gone, with a host of mostly younger, potentially more defensively reliable names in their place.
Whilst the Cavaliers were the only top side to do major business at the deadline they were not the only team in the market. Standard Sport breaks down the movers and shakers below.
Have Cleveland got significantly closer to being a team able to beat the Golden State Warriors in a seven-game Finals? Probably not. Was that a realistic aim? Probably not. There was no one player on the market who could be guaranteed to test the greatest team in two decades.
But as their own general manager Koby Altman admitted, this season was like “marching a slow death”. LeBron James always makes the Finals from the East but this year the Cavaliers, fresh from throwing away a 21-point lead to the Orlando Magic in an 18-point blowout, looked like they’d do well to win a first-round series.
What Cleveland have done, however, is perform a much-needed reset on a squad that just wasn’t working, all that without compromising the Brooklyn Nets draft pick that could give them a shot at a future star. Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance’s arrival from the Los Angeles Lakers gives the squad youth and vibrancy, with the latter in particular the dynamic big man on defence the Cavaliers desperately needed.
George Hill adds veteran leadership at the point and won’t be the defensive drain Isaiah Thomas proved to be, whilst Rodney Hood provides outside shooting and is a major upgrade on J.R. Smith.
In the medium to long-term the Cavaliers have serious questions to answer: Why did Jae Crowder decline from one of the league’s top three-and-D players to almost unusable? Why trade Kyrie Irving to your biggest rivals in the Eastern Conference? Do these moves convince James to stay?
But for now the Cavaliers at least look like they can compete with Boston and Toronto, and that makes Thursday a big win for them.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers’ objectives these season have been simple. Get off money, develop your youngsters and avoid finding yourself between two and five in the 2018 draft, forcing you to convey your pick to the Boston Celtics. Then in the summer go hell for leather at James and Paul George, assuming they’re free agents.
The final part of that plan may not work out, with James unlikely to spend his final years at the top shepherding Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram to their peak and George having hinted he will stay with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Still, moving on the $25.9m they owe Clarkson, a so-so guard, over the next two years without having to send any draft assets… and actually receiving one instead is a fine piece of business by the front office of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka. That it frees them up to chase James this summer only adds to the delicious irony.
Amid the horrendous scenes in Cleveland Wade was doing rather well with old team-mate James, proving himself to be an adept leader for the Cavaliers bench unit. But just as in Chicago something didn’t feel right.
Wade is the greatest player in Miami Heat history, a Hall of Fame lock who brought three rings to a franchise that had never won an NBA title before. It only seems right that when the 36-year-old eventually bows out of basketball he does so on South Beach.
Golden State Warriors
The Houston Rockets did nothing. The Oklahoma City Thunder did nothing - more on them later. Cleveland got better, but not by enough. Admittedly Golden State didn’t make any moves either, but the privilege of being the league’s best team can be standing pat. And should they need to make any moves they will have their pick of the buyout market, which is likely to be flooded with veterans chasing a ring.
Despite their laissez-faire attitude to the regular season you sense the Warriors need only turn on a switch to eviscerate all those ahead of them come playoff time.
This time a year ago Thomas was an MVP contender with the Boston Celtics. No-one could doubt the commitment of the little guy that could, the 5ft9in, last pick in the draft who could. He battled through agony in the playoffs, both physical (a hip injury) and mental (the death of his younger sister).
Then come the end of the season Boston traded their injured star to Cleveland for Kyrie Irving. Once Thomas finally regained his fitness he found himself with no time to regain his sharpness and simply couldn’t gel with a team that neither accentuated his strengths nor masked his weaknesses.
Fifteen games on he is a Laker but not their starting point - Johnson has already confirmed Lonzo Ball will take that role when fit. In the final 18 months of his bargain $6m contract he has gone from a max earner to a candidate for buyout… and it is hard to see what he has really done wrong.
Oklahoma City Thunder
In last week’s column I discussed the rare alchemy the Thunder had with Roberson, a shooting guard who can’t shoot but can defend better than almost anyone.
Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti may be able to find a replacement in the buyout market - the Chicago Bulls’ Tony Allen a potential candidate - but a rumoured deal for Avery Bradley could not be completed. Without him, or any other Roberson replacement, the Thunder look to be just too far behind Houston and Golden State in the West.
2018 free agents
What does a season of 23.3 points and 5.3 assists per game get you these days? A three year deal at less than the mid-level exception if you’re Los Angeles Clippers’ guard Lou Williams.
Though that’s the sort of money few would sniff at it points to a serious tightening of belts around a league that is paying the price for its extravagant spending when the salary cap spiked in 2016.
The Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers look set to be the only potential playoff teams with serious cap room in the summer. Bradley, Marcus Smart, Will Barton beware.
Elfrid Payton, the 10th pick in 2014, earned the Orlando Magic a second-round pick from the Phoenix Suns. Meanwhile the Denver Nuggets gave up the seventh pick from 2015, Emmanuel Mudiay, to the New York for a second-rounder and a 34-year-old Devin Harris.
Thursday, in short, was not a good day for young floor generals with plenty of upside, though both buying teams might convince themselves they’ve bought low on players with huge upside.