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Cleveland Cavaliers trade deadline preview: They’re not done yet

Cleveland figures to be highly active.

NBA: Playoffs-Indiana Pacers at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The unofficial opening to trade season comes this weekend, when the majority of teams’ offseason signings are allowed to be moved, joining the hundreds of other players who were already under contract. The Cleveland Cavaliers haven’t waited for the starting gun to fire on Dec. 15 – they’ve been plenty active and will remain that way through the Feb. 7 deadline. As is often the case when a team wants to be competitive but ends up in the doldrums of a rebuilding season, everything that’s not nailed down is for sale in Cleveland, as we’ve already seen with the pair of trades general manager Koby Altman has executed in the last few weeks.

Kyle Korver and George Hill, two veterans who fit much better in the LeBron James era than the Collin Sexton era, have already been shipped out to contenders. Korver was moved to Utah at the end of November for Alec Burks and a pair of second-round picks, while Hill was traded to Milwaukee in exchange for a pair of future-facing salaries plus a protected first-rounder and another pair of seconds. What’s clear to the world now is that Cleveland is in asset accumulation mode, a practice they had most eschewed in the James era, when they used their draft assets to acquire as much current-day talent as possible. Korver himself represents their lone remaining first-round obligation – the Cavaliers owe the Atlanta Hawks a pick stemming from his 2017 acquisition – though it’s become more of an open question as to whether they’ll actually convey that pick. If Cleveland remains this bad in the win-loss column through the end of the 2019-20 season, that pick converts to two second-round picks in 2020 and 2021, which at this point is the best possible outcome for a Cavaliers team that is multiple pieces away from contending once again at the top of the Eastern Conference.

All of which brings us to the natural question: what’s next? Surely Altman isn’t finished, and don’t call him Shirley. He still prefers Koby, to my knowledge.

There are plenty of veterans accumulated on the Cavaliers roster who are theoretically just as available as Korver and Hill were: Tristan Thompson is having a resurgent season and could help a contender looking for center help and will be back from his injury in plenty of time to show what he can do ahead of the deadline, J.R. Smith is already working out away from the team as both sides work toward a move for the mercurial shooter (perhaps to Houston), Jordan Clarkson can get buckets off the bench, ditto for the just-arrived Burks, ditto again for Rodney Hood (though Hood has a full no-trade clause, which complicates things). Moving forward with a starting core of Collin Sexton, Cedi Osman, the recently-extended Larry Nance Jr., and their ever-increasing pile of draft picks is the order of the day in Cleveland and any player who doesn’t fit the new ethos is firmly on the block.

Thompson’s recently-returned ability to crash the glass on both ends of the court and generally look like Tristan Thompson again has been a massive boon to his trade value. Should the Washington Wizards (with whom the Cavaliers just completed a trade) find themselves in contention in January and in need of a center to replace Thomas Bryant in the starting lineup, a move involving Ian Mahinmi’s contract could be very enticing for both sides. Mahinmi is already mostly out of the rotation for Scott Brooks and with Dwight Howard sidelined indefinitely as well, the Wizards are relying heavily on Bryant to man the middle. It would require them to turn their season around significantly, but if it happens, Washington could be an interesting destination for Thompson.

One name that hasn’t popped up in our discussion to this point is Kevin Love, who is fresh off his own extension that ostensibly will keep him in Cleveland until 2023, but there’s always going to be time for that to change. With more than $120 million owed to him over the four years after this one, where Love’s trade value lies is anybody’s guess. Even if the Cavaliers were open to moving on from the man whom they named face of the franchise in late July, what constitutes fair value in such a deal? A true title contender looking for the final piece to their puzzle might want him, but the teams at that level will have significant questions about his defensive shortcomings in the playoffs. Cleveland’s best bet would be a team in the next tier down who needs more shooting and stationary playmaking from a big man spot. There just aren’t very many of those around who also have the financial flexibility to send the right combination of salary, young players, and draft picks back to the Cavaliers.

Such a team is rare in any environment, but it’s possible that the Philadelphia 76ers would be interested in Love’s services. Love would join the four-man wrecking crew that Philadelphia already has in place in Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, and Joel Embiid, providing them another outside shooter and playmaker. Between Simmons, Butler, and Embiid, they could do enough to cover up for Love’s weaknesses defensively. A package centered around Markelle Fultz and Wilson Chandler gets it done from a salary perspective, netting the Cavaliers a young guard who was easily the best player in his draft class just two years ago, an expiring contract they could re-flip if the opportunity arose, and perhaps some draft compensation for their troubles.

Love’s targeted mid-January return lines up perfectly with his trade restriction lifting on Jan. 24 and if he comes back and looks like the Love we thought we were going to see this year, it may be enough for Philadelphia or someone else to convince themselves he’s the antidote to whatever ails them.

Keep your eyes peeled; there should be plenty of activity over the next two months as more players, both external and internal to the Cavaliers, become available to be traded and aggregated in trades with other salary. The roster at the end of the season is going to look very different than it did on opening night as the club fully accepts a rebuilding phase, led at the top by Sexton and whomever Altman and his staff selects at the top of the 2019 NBA Draft. Pretty much anything and everything else is on the table should the right offer come along and the Cavaliers have enough assets among the players on the table to work multiple deals between now and Feb. 7.