Did the Cleveland Cavaliers' Trade Deadline Deals Make Them Better?
The Eastern Conference has been the playground of the Cleveland Cavaliers since the return of LeBron James in 2014. They have gone to three straight NBA Finals and were considered the favorites for a fourth this season, even after they traded All-Star Kyrie Irving to Boston. While the first few months may not have been pretty, going into Christmas Day, Cleveland owned a top-four record in the NBA, just two games out of the top.
Since then, disaster.
Losers of 13 of their last 20 games while posting a bottom-two defense and a dysfunctional, ill-fitting roster, the 2018 trade deadline found the Cavs no longer striking fear in their Eastern Conference rivals and desperately needing a jolt.
Something had to change. And change it did.
The Cavaliers have overhauled their roster in the last hour or so.
The potentially departing players represent:
- 29% of player games started (78)
- 31% of individual minutes played (3,950) pic.twitter.com/8PaZI0AK8U
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 8, 2018
Thursday was a transformative day for the franchise, present and future. In three separate deals, they traded away six players, completely reshaping their roster.
The first deal to go down was Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye, and their 2018 first-round pick to the Los Angeles Lakers for Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. Thomas has been a disappointment in his short Cleveland stint, averaging only 14.7 points per game, barely more than Clarkson (14.5) while also causing headaches in the locker room.
Next was the three-team swap with the Cavs receiving Rodney Hood and George Hill while sending Iman Shumpert and a 2020 second-round pick to the Sacramento Kings. That deal also saw Derrick Rose and Jae Crowder go to the Utah Jazz while the Kings got Joe Johnson. The acquisition of Hill -- a veteran guard with a 59.8% true shooting percentage the last two seasons -- stabilizes the point guard position. The addition of a secondary scorer like Hood -- who is averaging a career-high 16.8 points per game -- was much needed with IT gone and Kevin Loveout until late-March.
The final piece of the roster reshuffling was Dwyane Wade being sent back to South Beach in exchange for a second-round pick. While it must have been tough for Bron to part with one of his best friends, the move was necessary to open up space and shots for the trio of guards added on Thursday.
Change for change's sake is never a good thing, so did Thursday's shakeup make the Cavs better? To see how they fared, we first need to take a look at the changeover in terms of nERD, our in-house proprietary metric that measures the total contribution of a player, based on their efficiency.
Addition By Subtraction
|Players In||nERD||Players Out||nERD|
|Larry Nance Jr||3.5||Channing Frye||0.1|
|George Hill||-0.8||Iman Shumpert||-1.4|
|Jordan Clarkson||-0.9||Derrick Rose||-1.6|
|Rodney Hood||-1.4||Isaiah Thomas||-2.1|
Just based on nERD, the trades are an enormous win for Cleveland. The players they brought in essentially equal an average NBA player (0.0), but more importantly, they cleared out a ton of dead weight. The five players they shipped out with a negative nERD rating -- meaning they cost the Cavs wins -- rank 397th or worse in the metric out of the 499 players in the NBA this season.
All of the six players traded were having disastrous seasons in one way or another. Two had fallen out of the rotation (Shumpert and Frye), two had lost a step and are in the waning minutes of their NBA career (Rose and Wade), and the last two (Thomas, Crowder) were constant reminders of how bad Cleveland took it on the chin in the Irving trade. Especially IT.
While not expected to replace him, Thomas was supposed to offset some of the offense lost with Irving gone. Be the Kyrie-lite, if you will. Thomas has not even come close. We can blame the hip injury, but the fact is the guard has struggled with his shot -- 36.1% from the floor, 25.3% from three -- and his role as the number two in a LeBron-led offense. Not only has he not provided the needed scoring punch, Cleveland actually scored 8.3 more points per 100 possessions with IT off the floor than on it.
On the defensive side, it was much worse as the Cavs allowed 9.9 more points per 100 possessions with Thomas on the floor than off. He wasn't alone there, either, as Crowder and Rose joined him with a defensive rating of 113.0 or worse, the three highest marks on the team. Wade may have had a higher efficiency mark thanks to a lot of time defending second-units, but it became clear the 36-year-old was not going to expend too much energy on the defensive end of the floor.
While a big part of the trade was spent clearing out the poor fits, the toxic players, and the uninspired, the four pieces brought in will help the Cavs get back to and improve the basics: shooting and defense.
No one will be handing out defensive player of the year awards to any of the newcomers -- especially to Hood and Clarkson -- but Hill and Nance individually represent immediate upgrades for the Cavs. Hill is a proven defender capable of guarding either backcourt position and has posted a sub-103.0 defensive rating in 9 out of 10 seasons in his career. The second-best defender on the Lakers this year, Nance brings athleticism to the Cavs' frontcourt while being one of only eight non-guards this season to average at last 1.4 steals per game.
James will always be The King, and the Cavs' offense will revolve around him, rightfully so. The best way to maximize his abilities has been to surround him with shooters, mainly from deep.
While Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith, James, and Love have provided solid long-distance shooting, leaving the Cavs a respectable 12th in the NBA with a 36.4% three-point shooting percentage, the rest of the team and rotation was filled with sub-par shooters. Wade and Rose have never been even close to deadly from beyond the arc as sub-30% three-point shooters in their career. While Thomas and Crowder have shown past success from deep, they connected on only 84-of-276 (30.4%) three-point tries this season.
Bringing in Hill (league-leading 45.3% from three) and Hood (38.9%) immediately makes Cleveland one of the best three-point shooting teams in the league. They now have four players shooting 38.9% or better on 125 or more three-point tries, the most of any team in the NBA. Add in James and Smith hitting over 36% (league-average) of their threes, and the Cavs can now run and gun with anyone.
No one will confuse the defense for the Spurs' or Celtics', but by removing the team's worst defenders, Cleveland's D will give the team a fighting chance each night. The addition of successful long-range shooters will bring the punch back in the offense, as well.
For locker room and chemistry reasons. For on the court, offensive and defensive reasons. These trades immediately make the Cavs a team to be reckoned with as the focus is back on the most transcendent player of our generation in James. Because, if we are being honest, the only way the Cavs are going to make it back up to the top of the Eastern Conference is on the shoulders of The King.