The Cleveland Cavaliers have completely rebounded from a rocky start to the season.
Early on, the Cavs’ big three didn’t seem to fit together, LeBron James looked past his prime, Kevin Love was unhappy, head coach David Blatt was on the hot seat, and the team limped to a 19-20 start.
After the rough start, the Cavaliers made two big trades to change the dynamic of their team, and they have been dominant ever since.
The Cavs sent Dion Waiters to the Thunder in a three-team trade, getting back J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert from the Knicks, and a first-round pick from the Thunder.
Weeks later, that pick was one of two first-rounders they sent to the Nuggets for center Timofey Mozgov.
When all was said and done, they traded a starting shooting guard (Waiters) and a 1st-round pick for a starting shooting guard (Smith), a wing defender (Shumpert), and a starting center (Mozgov).
Two months later, those trades have had an impact nobody saw coming. Since January 15, the Cavs are 21-5 and have moved into second place in the East.
Mozgov filled the Cavaliers’ desperate need for a center. His ability to roll to the rim sucks defenses in and helps the Cavs find spot-up shooters around the perimeter. Mozgov has the highest on-court offensive rating and the second highest on-court defensive rating on the Cavs.
Smith — thought to be a throw-in to the trade so the Cavs could get Shumpert — is playing major minutes and has become the spot-up shooter the Cavs needed.
Shumpert gives the Cavaliers a second ball-handler off the bench and a wing defender to put on opponents’ top scorers. Shumpert’s offensive production is minimal, but he’s a decent spot-up shooter, and when he’s on the court, the Cavs have a 97.7 defensive rating — second best in the NBA if it were sustained.
There are other reasons for the resurgence. Just as the Cavs’ season turned around, James had returned from a two-week vacation to rehab multiple injuries and has looked like his normal, MVP-level self since.
The Cavs’ starting lineup of Irving, Smith, James, Love, and Mozgov has been the best lineup in the NBA by a wide margin. Here’s a look at the most played lineups since the start of 2015. The Cavs are dominating teams:
This isn’t a small sample size. The Cavs’ starting five has the best net rating of any five-man group that’s played over 110 minutes since January 1.
As SI’s Ben Golliver pointed out, the Cavs have the biggest net rating differential of any of the top 10 teams since the start of 2015.
The Cavaliers went from a disappointment to a heavy favourite to win the East in a matter of two months. Not only are they deeper, they addressed weak positions with the trades while giving up almost nothing in return.
While James getting healthy and the big three adapting to one another has certainly helped, those two midseason trades may end up being what saved the Cavs’ season.
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