On January 5, the Cleveland Cavaliers were a ho-hum 19-16. They were on pace to start the playoffs on the road, and LeBron James was taking a two-week break to rest his injured knees and back.
Over the course of the next 48 hours, the Cavs took a gamble in shaking up what was supposed to be a championship-level roster with two significant trades. James returned to the team a week later ,and they have been on fire ever since.
The first deal came when Cleveland was able to trade away Dion Waiters, a player who just wasn’t fitting in with the Cavs, along with a second-round pick in a three-team deal for Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, and a first-round draft pick. The next trade came two days later when the Cavs sent two first-round picks to the Denver Nuggets for Timofey Mozgov.
In retrospect, the trades look like no-brainers, but the Cavs were taking a huge gamble at the time.
1. In order to make the first trade, the Cavs had to take on Smith. No only does Smith have a history of on- and off-the-court issues, he was also playing the worst basketball of his career with the Knicks where his player efficiency rating (PER) had dropped to 11.6 after averaging 15.8 his first three seasons in New York. On top of that, Smith is still owed $US6.4 million next season.
2. The general feeling is that two first-round picks was two much for Mozgov and many looked at it as a sign the Cavs were getting desperate.
3. But maybe the biggest gamble was that the Cavs had to give up two of their best trade assets, a first-round pick and a young player with a big upside (Waiters). Those pieces could have been used down the road on a better trade with less risk.
If we break down the season into the games before and after the trades and omit the eight straight games LeBron missed, we see just how much the trades have paid off and how much the Cavs have improved since they made the deals.
Of the three players acquired by the Cavs in the trades, two were brought in to help with defence. Mozgov is a rim protecting big man and Shumpert is a good defender on the perimeter.
Not only has Cleveland’s offence taken off since James took his hiatus, but the defence has improved, allowed 2.3 fewer points per game. In addition, their defensive rating has improved from 108.6 (22nd in the NBA) to a more respectable 104.9 (14th).
Overall, the improved offence combined with the better defence now has the Cavs outscoring opponents in dominating fashion.
Shumpert is also a decent three-point shooter and gives the Cavs another outside threat the defence must respect and since the trades and LeBron’s return no team is making more 3-pointers per game.
The only area that hasn’t improved since the trade is bench scoring. Ideally, Smith would have improved what was the 27th-ranked bench (25.2 points per game). Instead, he was inserted into the starting lineup, replacing Shawn Marion. The result is that the Cavs’ bench scoring has actually dropped to 22.3 points per game, last in the NBA over the last 45 games.
Even so, the bench is now deeper with the addition Shumpert and Marion, and that can only help the Cavs in the postseason.
Not many teams would taken a roster that some thought before the season was a championship contender that might just need some time to gel and completely shake-up it just 35 games into the season.
The Cavs did and now they look like the juggernaut we were all waiting for.
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