The activity of the Cleveland Cavaliers on the trade deadline shocked the basketball world. While everybody expected moves, the magnitude of what they pulled off was hard to imagine. But while these moves help the Cavs this season and beyond, it also was an investment in establishing an identity as a franchise.
The return of LeBron James was a momentous event for the Cavaliers. It signaled a return to relevance for the team and forgave many of the mistakes made throughout their rebuild. Within months, the roster had been completely revamped and there was barely a reminder of the players the fan base had invested to in that point.
Only Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Matthew Dellavedova, and Anderson Varejao survived the first year under the new regime. Operating under an accelerated timeline, David Griffin did not hesitate to make bold moves, adding Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, and Timofey Mozgov to the starting lineup through trades.
There was no room for sentiment, and even less room for patience. The following season, despite a successful start, the organization let go of David Blatt due to his failure to connect with the roster. The move proved to be successful, as through the most narrow of margins, the team won it’s first championship in franchise history.
While these moves were almost all necessary, the expendability of the team’s parts made it tough to form an identity. Those that weren’t traded, were almost constantly involved in trade talks. The only two that seemed like the pillars of the franchise were James and Irving. And we know how that turned out.
The byproduct of this constant change was a feeling that this was never a team, rather, mercenaries for hire. If you a player struggles, no matter what they had given to the team in the past, the team was active in finding a replacement.
To be clear, that was certainly the case at this deadline. Both Thompson and Smith were shopped at the deadline, and the team was unable to find a fit that worked for them. But knowingly or not, by not flipping the remnants of their championship core, the team made an investment in their own history.
The Cavs surrounded their four holdovers with young players that fit alongside their core. These aren’t players that put the chips on their shoulder, and personal goals ahead of the good of the team.
Love, when he returns, doesn’t have to worry about if he is going to be frozen out of the offense. He stepped up this season, and is now rewarded with a marque role alongside James. For Smith and Thompson, they no longer have to be worried about being traded away. With a supporting cast that fits and makes sense, they can go back to playing within the roles that made them so successful in the past. They will need to be better, but they no longer are going to be asked to do more than they should, or play in new roles to accommodate the new part
The Cavs summer additions were an assortment of square pegs the team was attempting to jam into round holes. Or in Isaiah Thomas’ case, a toothpick that couldn’t fill any holes. In the team’s attempts to integrate these pieces, it took away from the existing pieces.
Smith was clearly upset with being put into a reserve role to start this season, and didn’t receive the same touches once he started. Thompson was forced into an awkward fit on the bench, all to try and make things easier for Jae Crowder. They are back in positions that make sense, and can be properly evaluated now moving forward.
Part of the problem with Thomas and Jae Crowder was that they didn’t want to leave Boston. Thomas was happy with being the lone offensive option, and Crowder had a simplified role with far less pressure.
Both players, even in their new situations, seem focused on getting back to the way things were. Thomas’ agent brought up how he could never play alongside LeBron, because he needs the ball. While Crowder, who was probably asked to do too much in Cleveland with an undefined role, gets to be a cog in a machine again.
The new additions for the Cavaliers aren’t going to try and reinvent the wheel. They aren’t trying to recapture past glory, or hold on to what they used to be. The team has multiple players with upside, that can grow alongside the established parts.
In the future, the team may see more shake-ups or changes to their core. It would be irresponsible for the front office to not explore opportunities to narrow the gap between them and the Golden State Warriors. But the team is giving it’s existing core another shot to make a run together.
The Cavs took a positive step back towards contention with their deadline moves. While some would argue that the team wasn’t even a true contender even with Irving, losing him was always going to have a devastating effect on the franchise.
They may have fallen backwards into the team they have now, but few organizations would be able to recover from losing their second best player as quickly as Cleveland has. Their veterans are in a position to succeed, their role players have upside, and they have a draft pick that can bring in more help via trade or in the draft itself.
There is an endearing quality in the Cavs ability to find success despite all their dysfunction. Nothing is ever easy with this team, but it certainly isn’t boring. Who would have thought that LeBron and Love would still be together in 2018.
In maintaining some continuity, the team can work towards developing some form of an identity. They aren’t starting from scratch, they are building off of established parts. It may be a detail that’s meaningless to some, but it’s hard to be fully invested in a team and it’s players when the parts are always changing.
There’s comfort in having a team you follow through the good times and the bad. Hopefully this deadline signals the end of the revolving door, and the establishment of a foundation for the future.