The first half of the 2017-18 NBA season has gone pretty much according to plan, at least when it comes to the league’s elite. The Golden State Warriors have brushed off their championship hangover and are back in their familiar perch atop the NBA at 35-9. Most nights, their opponent does not have a chance. That is, unless, the Dubs mail it in – which they are prone to doing every now and then – but even so, Golden State is usually still able to hang around and win anyways with a five minute stretch of good basketball.
To quote former Arizona Cardinals Head Coach Dennis Green, the Houston Rockets are who we thought they were. Chris Paul has transitioned seamlessly into his new surroundings, and has struck a nice balance with James Harden as the two ball-dominant players on the team. Paul and Harden being surrounded by a plethora of lethal outside shooters and young center Clint Capela makes Houston tough to beat.
But the Rockets have also shown signs in recent weeks of the same problems that have always plagued them: an inability to maintain their focus and commitment on the defensive end. That was prevalent in the Rockets 26-point collapse against the Boston Celtics, which also featured a Harden meltdown in the final seconds with Marcus Smart baiting him into a pair of crucial offensive fouls. Until that mentality changes, which starts with their two superstars, Houston is always going to be a run-and-gun team hoping to make more shots than their opponents do. And when stacked up against the Warriors, more often than not they will not.
Speaking of the Celtics, Brad Stevens continues to be one of the best coaches in the NBA, guiding an inexperienced, undermanned C’s team to the East’s first seed. Kyrie Irving has contributed numerous key buckets in crunch time, accompanied by Boston’s stout team defense rated number one in the NBA in defensive efficiency. Gordon Hayward would certainly make them better, but his absence has allowed for the emergence of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who have both exceeded expectations and mitigated Hayward’s absence.
The San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors round out the league’s top five teams record wise. Gregg Popovich has resurrected LaMarcus Aldridge after he requested a trade in the summer, which has allowed San Antonio to remain in that elite tier despite being without Kawhi Leonard for all but nine games this season. The Raptors story, meanwhile, is one that we have seen many times before. Until Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan prove they can be at their best in the playoffs, there is no reason to believe they will not bow out in the second or third round once again. For now, however, the Raptors can continue feasting on the weak Eastern Conference and add to their reign of regular season dominance, with the fifth most wins in the NBA since 2013-14.
That brings us to the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have lost seven of 10 including a 133-99 clobbering at the hands of the Raptors and currently sit behind all five of the teams above at 26-16 entering play Monday. In fact, the Cavs actually sit in seventh in the league after the Minnesota Timberwolves (28-16), who have played two more games. But with all due respect to the young T-Wolves, they have not quite reached the same level as the rest of the NBA’s top six – at least not yet.
Clearly, the Cavaliers are in the midst of their annual January slump. But although this year’s lull has been worse than the past few January’s, there is still no reason to believe the Eastern Conference’s representative in the NBA Finals will be anyone else. Yes, the Celtics and Raptors have looked good, but it seems pretty far-fetched to imagine either of them taking more than two games in a playoff series against LeBron James’ Cavaliers, let alone four out of seven. Barring a major injury, trade or some other drastic change of events between now and the end of the regular season, the Cavaliers once again appear to be a safe bet to come out of the East.
But although Cleveland should be a clear step above the rest of their Eastern Conference foes, they have yet to show any signs to suggest they will be any better equipped to compete with the Warriors than they were last season. It was a Finals series that from the opening tip in game one was never in doubt.
Pursuit of DeAndre Jordan Trade Essential for Cleveland Cavaliers
From the Cavaliers point of view, the string of poor results is most definitely a concern. But for a veteran team with James at the helm, the Cavs regular season record and seeding is not all that important. What matters much more is the type of basketball they are playing down the stretch, and most notably how Isaiah Thomas meshes with the rest of the group.
There is a chance Thomas could regain his elite scoring ability from last season and effectively fill the same role Irving held for the past several years. That would take a significant amount of the offensive burden off of James, which helps the Cavs in a multitude of ways. Not only would James be able to reduce the mental strain attached to carrying the Cavs attack, it would also also allow for James to expend more energy at the defensive end as opposed to being forced to use the time on ‘D’ to re-energize himself for the next trip down the floor.
The 2016-17 version of Thomas riding shotgun with James – who is statistically playing the best he ever has in his 15-year career – would be a scary combination if they can both settle into a rhythm. But even if Thomas is at his best, James maintains this historically great level of play and the rest of the Cavs roster plays to their full potential, that may still not be enough to take down Golden State. That leaves one alternative for Cavaliers GM Koby Altman to explore, which is to add another impact piece before the trade deadline.
DeAndre Jordan the Perfect Fit
The Cavs do not just need an impact player, they need the right impact player. With James, Thomas, Kevin Love and Dwyane Wade as their primary offensive playmakers surrounded by a strong supporting cast of spot-up shooters on the wing, Cleveland is more less set at each of the perimeter spots. Where the Cavs could really improve is in the paint, and with the rumored availability of DeAndre Jordan, the 6’ 11” Texas A&M product would be the perfect fit.
Two years ago, Tristan Thompson was a major reason the Cavs came back from 3-1 down to stun the Dubs and end Cleveland’s championship drought. Thompson was a monster on the glass, helping the Cavs control the boards and take advantage of the undersized nature of the Warriors. But Thompson’s play has inexplicably diminished over the past two seasons, and he has struggled to make the same positive impact with the energy he brings on the interior.
Jordan would in essence give the Cavaliers a better version of Thompson – one that can provide all of the same attributes Thompson did in 2016 and then some. That includes protecting the rim and controlling the glass at an elite level defensively, and crashing the offensive boards while throwing down the odd lob in pick-and-roll sets at the other end of the floor. The key is that Jordan does not need the ball in his hands to be effective, which is what makes him an ideal fit. The Cavs have more than enough go-to offensive creators, but Jordan’s contribution in those other areas would add a different dimension to this Cavs team and make them far more difficult to play against.
Cavs Have Assets to Get a Deal Done
Most teams who have repeatedly been buyers during the past several trade deadlines do not have much in the way of assets. Thanks to the Irving trade last summer, the Cavs are fortunate to be in a position where they can realistically fetch themselves a marquee name on the trade market. Altman did well to squeeze a premium return out of Danny Ainge and the Celtics, netting the Cavaliers a close replacement to Irving at the point guard spot in Thomas, a versatile defender in Jae Crowder, and most important of all, the Brooklyn Nets first round pick in the upcoming NBA Draft.
It remains to be seen what the Los Angeles Clippers would demand back in return, but pairing the Nets pick with Thompson would be a good start. The Cavs would also likely need to offload another contract to make space for Jordan, so Iman Shumpert or Channing Frye could also be included in the deal. But regardless of the specifics of the package, that first round pick is without question the key to making the swap happen. The question is whether the Cavaliers front office is willing to send it the Clippers way.
The Dilemma Surrounding the Nets Pick
With the uncertainty of James hitting Free Agency this summer, it is understandable for the Cavaliers brass to want to hold onto that pick as a safety net if James were to depart. That way, they would at least have one lottery ticket in the bank with which to begin rebuilding the franchise. But if Cleveland wants to have a chance to legitimately compete with Golden State in the Finals this year, Altman has no other option but to cash that pick in. Therein lies the Cavaliers front office dilemma.
If they trade the pick, still lose to Golden State in the Finals and then James leaves, the Cavaliers are faced with being in the same spot that they were when James left them the first time: complete and utter shambles. But while the risk attached to that scenario is undeniably high for the franchise, the alternative outcome is equally dangerous.
If the Cavs were to hold onto the pick as a contingency plan, another decisive Finals loss would only be inevitable, which would surely cause James to strongly consider moving elsewhere. In the event the Cavs deal the pick away for a player such as Jordan, their odds of winning the title astronomically increase, as does the likelihood of James re-signing. At nothing else, trading the pick to bolster the Cavs chances would at the least serve as a message to the 33-year-old James of the front office’s commitment to doing everything they can to help him win.
The Cavaliers find themselves in an extraordinarily rare position – and one that countless other franchises across the four major North American pro sports would kill to be in – possessing one of the best basketball players to ever live on their roster. And yet, it is abundantly clear this Cavs team is simply not good enough to play with Golden State as presently assembled. James already delivered on his promise by bringing home a championship in 2016, and has every right to leave Cleveland in the summer if a better opportunity for him to cement his legacy presents itself. The ball is in Altman’s court to convince ‘The King’ to stay.