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The new-look Cleveland Cavaliers

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In early February, sitting at a 30-22 record, the 2017-18 Cleveland Cavaliers season appeared to be a dud: Despite LeBron James, the best basketball player in the world, leading the way, Cleveland was stuck fighting for the third spot in the notoriously weak Eastern Conference. It appeared that the team that had made it all the way to the NBA finals last year was gone, replaced by a squad of ancient stars without any chemistry. Yet, with the trade deadline’s passing on Feb. 8, that all looks to have changed. Cavaliers General Manager Koby Altman pulled the trigger on a series of trades that will reshape this NBA season, and perhaps save the Cavaliers from an extended tanking period in the future.

Altman shipped out Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Jae Crowder, Iman Shumpert, Channing Frye, Derrick Rose, and the Cavaliers’ 2018 first round pick. Prior to the trade, each player had been fairly ineffective during the season: It soon became clear that the Boston Celtics ecosystem that made Thomas and Crowder into stars could not be replicated in Cleveland. Similarly, Shumpert and Frye saw their respective performances regress from last year, and both were relegated to bench roles. Wade, at 36 years old, is a dinosaur who can occasionally turn back the clock—but he didn’t do so nearly enough to help the Cavs. Finally, after a sordid injury history, Rose was a shell of his former self. All in all, these players had nothing to offer Cleveland and its playoff ambitions, and Altman made the right call in trading them for players who have the potential to make a difference.

In return, the Cavaliers received Utah Jazz guard Rodney Hood, Sacramento Kings guard George Hill, Los Angeles Lakers forward Larry Nance Jr., and Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson—all young talents or reliable veterans. After playing in Gordon Hayward’s shadow in one of the NBA’s smallest markets, Hood is one of the league’s most underrated players. This season, he has posted career-high marks in points per game and three-point shooting. Similarly, Hill—also with a career-high three-point percentage this season—provides the behind-the-arc shooting and defence at point guard that the Cavaliers badly need. Meanwhile, Nance and Clarkson are both energetic young players who can come off the bench without letting up on offence and defence. If James leaves town this summer as a free agent, they will turn into some of the Cavs’ next franchise cornerstones.

These players address fundamental issues within the Cavs roster. In the modern NBA, any team that hopes to win the championship needs players who can shoot from distance. Cleveland originally tried to solve this issue by bringing in J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver. While both players are good shooters, Smith shoots way too often and Korver not often enough. Furthermore, both are fairly one-dimensional, and Korver is a defensive liability. By adding Hood and Hill, however, the Cavaliers bring firepower to their squad without sacrificing defence or play-making.

Without Kyrie Irving, the Cavs have trotted out weak point guards for the entire season, as Rose remained on the bench, and Thomas was simply ineffective since returning from injury in January to relieve the 36-year-old Jose Calderón. By adding Hill and Clarkson, Cleveland fills that hole, taking pressure off of James and allowing him to be more of a wing player—a position where he flourishes.

Additionally, the Cavaliers struggled at defence. Though Kevin Love has received a lion’s share of the blame for years, others were not pulling their weight either. Tristan Thompson posted stats close to his career lows in most defensive categories, while their guards only added to the bleeding. Nance, however, is a defensive weapon who alters shots and racks up 1.4 steals and 0.5 blocks per game—which could finally shore up a weak defensive front court.

On paper, all of Altman’s transactions make sense, and their effects have shown up on the court: The Cavaliers are undefeated since the trade deadline, including a huge 22-point win over the Eastern-favourite Celtics. Clearly, the new guys are here to play. With their help, LeBron and the Cavaliers are, once again, real contenders in an increasingly interesting East. The basketball world is still reeling from the trades, but the new-look Cavs mean serious business.

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