One of the strange things about trades is how fans like us have to turn our emotions around on a dime. If you had asked me nine months ago which NBA player I would most like to see exiled to a deserted island, Jae Crowder would have been in the top three. His defensive style, which I have previously described as dry humping his opponent, and his perpetually aggrieved demeanor, just annoyed the crap out of me. Then the Cavs got him, and I spent months telling myself that he was a big piece of the puzzle that would get us past Golden State. His athleticism and aggressiveness would allow him to guard multiple Warriors, and his shooting would work well with LeBron. Even as the season advanced and his play rendered all of those theories absurd, I was on the Jae Crowder bandwagon. Hell, I was driving the damn thing.
As of today, Jae Crowder is again on that deserted island, through no fault of his. To read the Cleveland media reports, one would think that Crowder and Isaiah Thomas were moles dispatched by Danny Ainge to sabotage an entire franchise and that Thursday’s trades rescued the team from their evil scheme. One would also think that George Hill is a borderline Hall of Fame candidate and that Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood will mesh seamlessly with LeBron James. This new group will unleash something phenomenal in Cleveland.
These are our guys now. Just by putting on the uniform, they become better players and better human beings, by degrees of magnitude in our minds. When we wake up tomorrow, though, JR Smith and Tristan Kardashian, two of the larger reasons for this season sliding off the rails, will be in the starting lineup against Atlanta. In Thompson’s case, that is a matter of necessity because of Kevin Love’s injury. We can hope that by the time Love returns, Larry Nance has shown himself to be a more effective option than Thompson, who currently sports a defensive RPM of −0.47. Remember, defense is the only reason Thompson plays. The Cavs are 12–19 when Thompson plays more than ten minutes, 19–3 when he plays less. And, yes, I do blame the Kardashians.
As for Smith, he may now be the sixth best guard on the roster, depending on which JR shows up on a given day. It’s entirely possible that Smith is just done. He’s 32, with a history that may not lend itself to aging gracefully. JR has become a one-dimensional player; when he’s hitting less than 36% of his threes, he’s really not contributing anything. He has had good flashes, but that’s how it goes at the end of a career. Some days you wake up and your legs are 25, other days your legs are 45. While sharing an agent with LeBron might immunize JR against any dire outcomes, there has to be some consideration to a buyout or a stretch buyout if he doesn’t perk up, especially with so many new guys who can replicate his skills.
Personally, I would start Kyle Korver at shooting guard. He is so much better when he plays with LeBron that it only makes sense to maximize their time together. Hood, Clarkson, and Nance can, between them, defend all five positions, which makes them a versatile bench contingent, along with Jeff Green. It’s also worth pointing out that the Cavs are 17–9 when Jose Calderon gets more than ten minutes of playing time.
So, is this team better today than it was yesterday? Well, the new guys haven’t been here long enough to piss anyone off yet, so the locker room should be a happier place for now. The George Hill that played for Utah last year would be an ideal point guard for LeBron: good on defense, doesn’t turn the ball over, and plays well without the ball when he needs to. Hill always gave Kyrie Irving fits when he played for Indiana, so that would be an added benefit in a potential playoff series. The flip side is that the Indiana George Hill and the Utah George Hill have been mostly absent this season. It’s possible that has just been a symptom of playing for the Kings, or he may have some injury issues.
Nance seems like an ideal addition. He has been described as a great athlete who never takes a possession off and who understands what he needs to do to help. He is also a tweener, too small for banging inside and not enough of a shooter to play stretch four or wing. Nance seems likely to figure out that defenses overcommitting to LeBron leave yawning chasms on the weak side, perfect for lobs for a guy in the right position. He also should help guard Kevin Durant, if that turns out to be necessary at some point.
Hood can defend three positions and score in a variety of ways. His stats don’t look as good as his game does, so it’s hard to say how big a role he can handle on a good team. Until Love comes back Hood might be the second-best creator on the roster and should probably play a lot when LeBron sits. Hood is a restricted free agent after this season, which gives him major motivation to show he can fit in.
Clarkson has been widely portrayed as a guy who sucks at everything since this trade got made. This may be the LA media changing their loyalty the same way we are. He shoots too much, doesn’t guard anyone, needs the ball to be effective — not a good thing when playing with LeBron — and probably is mean to children, too. Clarkson also has a lightning first step and enough court sense to be a decent backup point guard. That doesn’t make him worth $12 million per year, but he’s not worthless. It’s also worth noting that Clarkson has never played a meaningful game in his NBA career. Whether he will be swallowed up by the pressure of playing with LeBron or adapt his game to what the Cavs need is an open question. There’s enough depth on this team now that he won’t be guaranteed much playing time if he answers it poorly.
So, what’s the bottom line? That may depend more on Ty Lue than anyone else. Koby Altman has given him plenty of options, but not much time to figure out how they work together, especially with Love coming back in a month. Lue did not show much inclination to rock the boat when things were falling apart before these trades, even when it clearly needed to be rocked. There’s simply too much depth now to go with the status quo if things aren’t working. The right moves now will make this team the favorite to return to the Finals. The wrong moves will send LeBron packing. No pressure there.