December 18, 2018

1.) If this is LeBron James’ last stand in Cleveland, do the moves made give him enough to make a decent go of it?

Brian Sampson: If by a decent go of it you mean making it to the NBA Finals, then I completely agree. The Eastern Conference is wide open and these moves should revitalize James and give the Cavaliers as good as shot as any at making it to the Finals.

The Boston Celtics have had an impressive season so far and have one of the best coaches in the history of the NBA. However, outside of Kyrie Irving, they lack a true go-to scorer. They also don’t have the necessary defensive weapons to match-up and slow down James in a seven game series. That’s unfortunate because Gordon Hayward could answer at least one of those questions, but we will have to wait until next year to see how he impacts the East.

The other legitimate contender to make it to the Finals, the Toronto Raptors, have taken an unexpected step forward this season. After beating the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of last year’s playoffs, they promptly got swept by the Cavaliers in four games. Toronto will certainly be out for blood, but their rough playoff history makes me worried about how they will fare should they match up with Cleveland again.

As for winning it all, Cleveland never stood a chance at accomplishing that. No matter what moves they made, the Golden State Warriors were always going to be a few steps ahead of them. The best case scenario for James and his teammates is to steal a game or two from Golden State and this team gives him a better chance than 24 hours ago.

Bryan Toporek: Considering they dropped 13 of their past 20 games prior to their deadline-day wheeling and dealing, standing pat would have been a death knell for Cleveland. The Cavaliers had no chance of assembling an above-average defense with a hobbled Isaiah Thomas on the floor, and the toxic locker room chemistry had become apparent even from afar.

The Cavs’ deadline shakeup gives them a better chance of staying competitive against the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors and/or Golden State Warriors in a seven-game series, but it still may not be enough. They only have two months to develop chemistry with one another, which will be no easy task given how drastic a makeover Cleveland underwent Thursday. James proved during the Cavs’ 140-138 overtime victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday that he’s still capable of taking over a game single-handedly, but they can’t rely on him to bail them out of every jam they find themselves in.

Rodney Hood’s health will go a long way toward determining how far these new-look Cavs can go.

Torkil Bang: As I wrote before the trade deadline, the Cavs want to have their cake and eat it, too. My working title for that piece was “Cleveland needs a shake-up” but I wasn’t bold enough to go this far!

It looks like Cleveland played a game of dominoes: After the Isaiah Thomas trade, the others followed soon after. Which means we should look at it as a well executed plan. Good for Koby Altman!

Their primary goal seems to have been to get rid of dead weight while keeping most of the core from the 2016 championship intact.

It’s an obvious gamble to take a fresh start this late in the season, but in my opinion they’ve raised their chances to win a championship considerably simply because they were headed for an implosion. LeBron James will still have to carry the team, but the new young guns might provide the spark to get the engine going.

Getting younger obviously also means that they’ve started a foundation for a (very possible) future without James after this season.

2.) How do the pieces fit around LeBron James?

Brian Sampson: The pieces around him fit like a brand-new puzzle straight out of the box. When thinking of a point guard to supplement James’ and his ball-handling abilities, you want someone who can play comfortably off-ball and can knock down shots off the catch-and-shoot. And George Hill checks both of those boxes.

He’s one of the best outside shooters in the NBA and doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be successful and draw the defenses attention. By putting him on the floor, it immediately gives James more room to operate and a deadly spot-up shooter.

Jordan Clarkson is a bit of a different player who operates more on-ball than off. But that’s okay, because he will be able to help lead the second unit by sparking them off the bench. This is an important role for Cleveland as they can’t ask James to do everything. Clarkson, along with Kevin Love, when he returns, should be able to carry the second unit that has struggled for most of the season.

Rodney Hood is having a career-year and will be another great weapon beside The King. He’s big enough to guard multiple positions and can also spot-up and knock down threes. Larry Nance Jr. gives the Cavs a high-energy spark plug that can hopefully push Tristan Thompson to regain his mojo.

All in all, the talent isn’t as high as it was, but sometimes it’s more about having the right pieces, than the better ones.

Bryan Toporek: In some ways, they’re better fits than the castoffs. Whereas Thomas couldn’t play any position other than point guard, both George Hill and Jordan Clarkson can freely switch between backcourt spots. Much like Thomas, Jae Crowder had been a shell of his former self in Cleveland, whereas Rodney Hood should provide some legitimate scoring pop off the bench. Larry Nance Jr. can help plug holes in the frontcourt until Kevin Love returns from his hand injury, and he’ll be a much-needed boost of energy in the reserve unit afterward.

In other ways, it doesn’t matter how the new acquisitions fit with LeBron. It likely isn’t a coincidence that three of the four new players are no older than 25. If James leaves as a free agent in July, the Cavaliers can retool around Clarkson, Nance and Hood (if they re-sign him in restricted free agency) to go with Ante Zizic and the Brooklyn Nets’ unprotected 2018 first-round pick. Even if these moves backfire in the short term, they’ll accelerate Cleveland’s rebuild if James departs.

Torkil Bang: George Hill and Jordan Clarkson should both be good fits as guards who can play on and off ball with good size for defense. Hill is the obvious choice as a starter and if he plays up to his potential (which he hasn’t done this season), he could be the missing piece for Cleveland.

Rodney Hood is a bit of a wild card, but it doesn’t hurt the Cavs defense that he has length and then some for a shooting guard.

Larry Nance Jr. should definitely help the team defensively. He is all hustle, all the time. His raw numbers don’t look impressive, but his /36 minutes stats are solid (14.1 pts, 11.1 rebs, 2.3 steals). He doesn’t spread the floor with any kind of distance shooting, which means he’s a bad fit with Tristan Thompson, but the second unit could use that kind of player, too.

All in all, it’s not like this changes everything, but chemistry will get better, and the team might feel some needed urgency to make it work. Which could lead to them playing winning basketball again. There are too many ifs for my liking, but something had to be done.

3.) Given the frustrations of ball-dominant guards playing with LeBron at this point in his career, does a roster model of one true star and a group of two-way players work better for him?

Brian Sampson: I think that’s how it has always been with James. When you look back to his days with the Miami Heat, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh took a huge back seat, as they watched him constantly take over. Sure they each had their moments, but James was without question the lead facilitator.

It’s also difficult because James is a better ball-handler than 99 percent of the point guards he’s going to play with, and that includes Kyrie Irving. Point guards are used to having the ball in their hands and then here comes this forward who wants to take over their role. Naturally, they are going to become upset.

The key in all of this is finding a secondary playmaker or scorer who can take over when James is on the bench or needs a break on the court. As good as he is, even he can’t do it all. And in the combination of Clarkson, Hood, Hill and Love, I think the Cavs have enough secondary playmakers to fill in for James when needed.

Bryan Toporek: Who wouldn’t benefit from being surrounded by two-way players? That isn’t to say LeBron is incapable of playing alongside another ball-dominant guard, though. To best take advantage of James’ unique skill set, it’s most important to play him alongside floor-spacers with three-point range. Forcing teams to cover five players out to the three-point arc stretches defenses past the point of no return, opening up cutting lanes and easy dump-off opportunities.

Playing James along a guard with a broken jumper such as Ricky Rubio, Elfrid Payton or Emmanuel Mudiay would be a fool’s errand, but his partnership with Kyrie ended with one championship and two other trips to the NBA Finals. What team outside of the Warriors wouldn’t kill for that track record?

Torkil Bang: It depends on the ball-dominant guard. It worked pretty well with Dwyane Wade and Kyrie Irving, at least for some time. I see Irving’s frustration as a part of his natural development as a player, while the Thomas situation started in a bad place and just got worse and worse. The Cavs reported pursuit of Kemba Walker shows they weren’t too concerned about the ball-dominant part.

4.) The Lakers have cleared some cap space, gauge the threat of them signing him away this summer.

Brian Sampson: I don’t think the Lakers stand any chance at signing James this Summer. I mean, what else do they have outside of a historic franchise, bright lights and a big city? Basketball-wise they don’t have nearly enough assets to attract James at this point in his career. Or ever.

It’s all about winning for LeBron and he isn’t going to risk going to a Lakers team that won’t have many pieces to fit around him. Sure, they can bring in another superstar, but it takes more than two max-caliber players to compete in today’s NBA. They won’t have any of the other supplemental pieces to fit around him.

I mean, are Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma good enough to help carry James past the Warriors, Rockets, Spurs or even the Timberwolves. I really don’t think so.

Bryan Toporek: The Lakers still aren’t projected to have enough cap room to sign James and another player to max deals, according to Cole Zwicker of The Stepien, unless they’re able to trade or stretch Luol Deng. Outside of Deng, they’d only have Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart under contract for 2018-19 if they relinquish their rights on all of their free agents to free up more space. If they did somehow land both James and another max player—whether it’s Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins or someone else—they’d otherwise be limited to cap exceptions and minimum contracts to round out their roster.

That isn’t to say the Lakers won’t succeed in their grand plan to sign both James and George; it’s just pointing out that they still have work to do. And if James is intent on competing for championships immediately with whichever team he joins this summer, it’s difficult to see how the Lakers fit that vision.

Torkil Bang: I think the Lakers went from ”not really” to ”this could get interesting”. Getting out of the Clarkson deal was key to their free agency in 2018 and 2019.

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