What the Cavaliers did at the 2018 trade deadline qualifies as a revolutionary act. Contending teams—particularly those home to the best player in the league—do not turn over their rosters with just 29 games to play. They don’t typically rework their entire rotation on the fly, nor trade away veterans for the sake of getting younger with the playoffs in sight. Cleveland did. With the free agency of LeBron James looming over the entire franchise, the Cavs chose activity over inertia.
To the extent that those deals helped at all, they served to reset Cleveland to a more neutral space. The transactions made were less about adding George Hill than moving Isaiah Thomas and Derrick Rose. Rodney Hood made conceptual sense for the Cavs and—at the time, at least—had none of Jae Crowder’s discontent. Each of the four late additions would come to disappoint in their own way. The team that preceded them, however, likely would have torn itself apart before ever reaching the NBA Finals.
There is some small, complicated measure of succcess in that, though not any sort that would entice LeBron to stay. Cleveland was subject to two explicit and competing goals at the deadline: to make the 2017–18 roster the most viable it could possibly be; and to brace the team for life without LeBron. The latter concern was served largely by omission. Of all Cleveland’s deadline dealings, the most important choice made was to keep Brooklyn’s first-round pick (which would later yield Collin Sexton) rather than trade it for immediate help. We know now, definitively, that the Cavs were not a role player or a rental away from a title. There was little to be gained from losing to the Warriors by slightly less.
Cleveland’s unwillingness to leverage that pick might have irked LeBron, just as Miami’s reluctance to spend deep into the luxury tax once did. It seems a moot point. Any case of swaying James to stay in Cleveland features basketball as an almost ancillary point. What the Cavs offer is comfort, familiarity, and the relative ease of the Eastern Conference. What they can’t is the opportunity to join up with other stars—be it the the up-and-comers in Philly, the ready-made in Houston, or the to-be-named-later variety in L.A. The want for LeBron to stay couldn’t change the reality that the Cavs, no matter their moves, would be pitching LeBron from a place of considerable disadvantage.
What will remain of the Cavs is not promising, though not exactly unusual. Departing stars leave disaster zones in their wake. It’s part of the sting. Team employees and fans accustomed to deep playoff runs are forced to confront loss after loss, each a reminder of the long way back. At the very least, the Cavs may have saved themselves a step. Their likely rebuild begins with a 19-year-old lottery pick in hand, a few young players worthy of continued investment, and little in the way of lasting damage. Cleveland has its share of bothersome contracts, though their damage is mitigated by the team’s circumstances.
It simply matters less that George Hill will make $19 million next season when the team is better served by not spending. No franchise should want to pay Jordan Clarkson $25.9 million over the next two years, but his presence won’t cost the Cavs much beyond payroll. Cap space is only as good as it is practical. Given how Cleveland’s roster looks without LeBron around to elevate it, we can safely assume that immediate spending power wouldn’t be very practical at all.
The Cavs will have the freedom to re-sign Hood this summer and Larry Nance Jr. next summer, should they so choose. There will be opportunities to trade Kevin Love and Kyle Korver to teams who could actually put their talents to be use. The contracts of Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith are relics of another era, but even they run out relatively soon. Cleveland doesn’t have a single salary commitment beyond 2020, overlapping the final years of their worst contracts with seasons in which the Cavs are all but guaranteed to be terrible anyway.
Cleveland’s deadline gambles didn’t pay off. Hill and Nance were undercut by injury, Hood by disposition, and Clarkson by a lack of situational awareness. LeBron’s departure now seems likely, if not certain. Yet this next stage is where the calculation behind those risks pays off. The Cavs don’t have the means to reboot as an immediate playoff team, but they’ll be young enough—and bad enough—to turn the page. There should be no time lost to transitional states, and nothing at all to keep the Cavs from the freefall they’ll need to bounce back.