The Cleveland Cavaliers have strung some wins together, victorious in 4 of their last 5. The schedule has softened and the young talent is becoming more assertive on the floor. A need to free up minutes for Kevin Porter while also netting a return on a soon-to-be free agent allowed the Cavs to make a deal with Utah last week.
The Cavs traded Jordan Clarkson to the Utah Jazz for Dante Exum and two second round picks. A logical trade for each team, the acquired players better align with the timelines of their new teams. Clarkson provides the Jazz with much-needed scoring from their second unit. The Jazz rank 29th in the league, getting 26.7 points off the bench (NBA.com). A team with realistic title hopes entering the season, Utah has underperformed. Mike Conley has struggled with his new team, Rudy Gobert’s defense is ticking downward, and Donovan Mitchell’s ascendancy has plateaued. The Jazz have shown themselves to be a second half team under Quin Snyder, however, providing hope they’ll still be a force in April and May. Clarkson should help, and his expiring contract adds flexibility for the front office next summer.
The acquisition of Exum for the Cavs was the proper decision for multiple reasons. On the floor, Exum adds length and a defensive presence to a small backcourt. Friday in Boston, Cleveland’s lack of size was obvious. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward took advantage of Darius Garland and Collin Sexton, shooting over the smaller guards and bullying them in the post. Exum showed upon checking in the effect he’ll have on his new team. A lineup of Nance/Exum/Porter/Henson/Dellavedova showed promise as a unit John Beilein can go to for defensive stops. An athletic five, the length of that lineup shuts off passing lanes and provides rim protection. The scoring, however, is suspect. For that five to get buckets, Kevin Porter will need to provide offense, and he’s still erratic. It’ll be an interesting lineup to watch.
Exum will help Garland and Sexton too. Splitting their minutes by placing either alongside Exum relieves pressure on the defensive end. He’ll guard the more dangerous offensive threat and should provide resistance to opposing offenses, something that’s nonexistent now. John Henson’s return from injury has caused a dramatic change in the Cavs’ defense when he’s been on the floor; Exum should provide the same.
Off the court, Dante Exum’s acquisition helps the books. The difference in the money of his contract compared to Clarkson’s (9.1 million vs. 12.5 million) gives the Cavs an extra 3.4 million cushion to play with in future trades. Just 1.7 million under the luxury tax level before the trade, the swap gives them extra cash to play with. Cleveland won’t go over the taxpayer level for a 25 win team. They need to avoid the tax line, or they’ll be subject to repeater penalties, costing Dan Gilbert even more money. This trade gives Koby Altman a touch more breathing room when discussing Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, or anyone else on the roster with other GMs.
The second round picks acquired give Altman another tool in his chest to grease the wheels on trades. He used 4 second rounders to trade back into the 1st round to draft Porter. Another interesting element is the years the picks fall, 2022 and 2023. Most expect the NBA to revoke the age limit for players eligible for the draft in either 2022 or 2023. There will be a college freshman class eligible and the first high school senior class available for drafting, doubling the talent of the pool. The value of picks in those drafts should only appreciate.
These are the trades and returns to expect from the Cavs in the coming weeks. While they’ll hunt for young players and 1st rounders, the pieces Cleveland can trade likely will bring back 2nd rounders and draft busts or oft injured players teams have lost patience with. Other than Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson, the Cavs have no one of help to a contender. They don’t seem to be in a rush to trade those veterans, and shouldn’t be. Unless a team is willing to meet their high demands, keep both and allow them to continue molding the young talent.
What’s What Around the League
1.The L.A. battle on Christmas Day only re-emphasized the fact the Clippers are the Lakers’ biggest threat to the title. While the James-Davis duo is devastating and capable of carrying the team themselves, Doc Rivers’ squad matches up well against their arena mates. Patrick Beverley proved his determination on the defensive end again, blocking LeBron James’ final shot attempt despite giving 8 inches and 65 pounds to him. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George’s defensive reputations are beyond reproach, Mo Harkless is 14th in the league in Defensive Box Plus/Minus (3.5), and Montrezl Harrell has improved each year on that end of the floor. The fifth best scoring team in the league can lock anyone down and has the reigning Finals’ MVP in tow.
2. The 76ers also won on Christmas, but their future is murkier. Joel Embiid was fantastic, yet the team’s offense is too reliant on the whims of their 3 point happy center. Embiid hoists 4 threes a game, makes 33% of them, and has shot 2 less 2’s per game this year over last. Teams running an offense through a traditional center are clunky, yet it’s Philly’s best option. Embiid needs to work as hard each night as he did on Christmas. The Sixers are a unit that has never made an Eastern Conference Finals, yet flows in and out of games. They’re too inconsistent. Milwaukee failed to show on Wednesday, and Embiid defended Giannis superbly. In a seven-game series, however, I doubt those results hold.
3. Nikola Jokic made himself an easy target by coming into the season out of shape, but the Serb’s game is picking up. His vision and covert ball handling skills are exquisite.
4. Another byproduct of the NBA’s new challenge system is the annoying habit of players spinning their finger in the air after a questionable call, pleading with their head coach for a challenge. Coaches feel obliged when star players are making the request, and Nick Nurse succumbed to Kyle Lowry on Saturday night on a meaningless play in the first quarter. Toronto led by 7, and though the Raptors won the challenge, saving Lowry a foul, this isn’t the best use of the system for coaches. They need to implement a “no challenge until the fourth quarter” rule to keep the players off their backs. Since they’re permitted only one challenge per game, using it in the 1st quarter is a waste. Save them for crunch time.
5. While we’re on pet peeves: how come when a defender brushes a shooter’s elbow during a jump shot, referees have a quick whistle, yet if a player is on the ground with the basketball, defenders may jump on, grab, shove, and fight to procure a jump ball call? Once there’s a chance of a loose ball, anarchy ensues. The court turns into a football scrum after a fumble. Jumping unto a player already on the floor should result in a foul call, not a reward.
6. The Oklahoma City Thunder used an unprecedented amount of leverage against the Clippers in the Paul George trade, bleeding them dry of 1st round picks for the next half decade. The best asset acquired in the heist, however, was Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. A long guard capable of causing havoc on defense (1.2 steals per game), Gilgeous-Alexander has found his scoring touch. He shoots 36% from three and has raised his scoring average this year from 10.8 as a rookie to 19.8. He’s averaging 27 over his last 5, and he and Chris Paul have the Thunder comfortably in the Western Conference playoff bracket, sitting 7th with a 3.5 game lead on the 8th seed. SGA (that name sucks to type out over and over) is a franchise changer and, paired with Paul, has made the Thunder rethink the tank. While they’ll trade Paul to any taker (he’s due 123 mil over the next 3 years), the knowledge SGA is siphoning off Paul is invaluable. With the picks and Gilgeous-Alexander, the Thunder’s 5-10 year future is brighter than anyone else’s in the league.
7. Derrick Jones Jr., murderer of Defensive Players of the Year.
8. The Heat aren’t fading. Winners of 5 in a row, Miami is the second best team in the East. With a go to crunch time superstar in Jimmy Butler, a championship winning coach in Erik Spoelstra, and a do everything center in Bam Adebayo, the Heat match up with any other team in the league. They do almost everything well. Second in three point percentage (38.5%), seventh in defensive rebounding, eight in scoring, second in free throw attempts, eight in assists, fifth in field goal percentage, 10th in field goal percentage defense, and 12th in scoring defense, the Heat’s roster has few holes. They play hard each night and never get out-toughed. Other than against Milwaukee, it would be difficult to pick against them in a seven-game series in the East.
9. If you don’t already love Giannis and the Bucks, your tune will change after viewing their pre-game routine.
10. Trae Young’s offensive game is jaw dropping; a marvel to watch. Atlanta has 6 wins, however, worst in the league. If Young can’t at least try on defense, his wizardry with the ball will be for naught. 440th in the league in defensive rating (115.6), the only players lower are fellow Hawks’ teammates, injured guys, and a boatload of Wizards unaware that there are two ends to the court. Young should make the All-Star team for his offensive exploits, but will he ever pilot a playoff team? His size will never allow him to be a great defender, but his effort level and awareness have to improve or he’ll never be more than a fun sideshow.
All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com.