Former Cavaliers swingman Sasha Pavlovic famously said, “my offense is my defense.” As Cleveland fans that lived through that era needed any reminder, the NBA just doesn’t work that way.
Let’s get this out of the way: The Cavaliers have to make a trade.
Their defense is terrible. Sasha Pavlovic-level terrible. While a team starting Isaiah Thomas at point guard and Kevin Love at center are never going to defend at a high level, the lack of impact from erstwhile defenders like J.R. Smith, Jae Crowder, and Tristan Thompson on that end has created a major problem.
Crowder should get better. Thompson is rounding into shape. And J.R.? Well, he’s too lovable to provide an honest critique.
But the Cavaliers still need to add something, preferably a wing who can shoot to fill in for Smith. Even a wing with sub-par defense could help, as making shots would get the offense moving and keep opponents out of transition. A big man who can protect the rim would be great as well, but head coach Ty Lue has seemed reluctant to move Kevin Love from the center position. Maybe the right guy would change his mind? It’s odd to avoid a center, as Timo Mozgov saved their season their first year together, and the Thompson-Love duo was always one of the Cavaliers’ best lineups. Love has also put together his best season as a Cavalier on the offensive end, so there is more to think about.
With the NBA trade deadline being moved up from mid-to-late-February to February 8 this season, there are fewer teams looking to sell. The bottom of the playoff bracket in both conferences are close enough that quite a few teams are dreaming of that sweet, sweet playoff revenue.
So who could provide a match for what the Cavaliers need?
The Mavericks have a few interesting pieces. The most obvious is Wes Matthews. Matthews hasn’t been the same player since his Achilles injury just prior to joining the Mavericks, but he still provides value to the Cavaliers. A career 38 percent three-point shooter, Matthews can provide spacing needed at the position and is used to the role that would be asked1 Matthews ranked well in ESPN’s RPM defensive metric the last few years, but has a longer history of positive defensive play than Smith.
The other obvious name is Nerlens Noel. Noel is hyper-athletic and when engaged is disruptive on the defensive end. He provides zero spacing and lives in a somewhat similar space as Tristan Thompson, but adding positive defensive players would be a good development, even if they are a bit redundant. He is represented by Klutch which gives him a tie to LeBron James, but has fallen out of favor with two franchises. If Rick Carlisle is going to watch his team toil at the bottom of the standings and still keep Noel glued to the bench (prior to his injury) that says a lot. Still, he wouldn’t be the first player that found their groove playing next to LeBron, and the Cavaliers absolutely need more youth. Adding Noel, even in the last year of his deal, could provide some future hope.
The last name is Harrison Barnes. Barnes is a player I mocked for YEARS. For YEARS I trashed his game. But he might make some sense on this team. He can play power forward, hit open shots, and has been in a winning culture before. His contract is massive and Dallas wouldn’t be looking to simply cast him off, but he’s certainly a player who could help the Cavaliers if the right deal popped up.
Wayne Ellington would be a great fit. He’s in the last year of his contract so even with the history between the Cavs and Heat, a deal could likely be made. Ellington is a career 38 percent shooter from three-point range and hitting 41 percent on the season. He’s shooting a hilarious 85 percent of his field goals from three, meaning he isn’t someone who would force shots or take bad ones2. He’s only 6-4 and hasn’t graded out well defensively this year, but provides someone that fits a profile of what the Cavs need from the position offensively.
Another name to consider is James Johnson. He provides boundless energy and defense, but would present an issue with his spacing. If Kevin Love is playing center, you may be able to get by with Johnson playing power forward as he would be the only non-shooter on the floor. The downside to Johnson is he is expensive, making more than $45 million over the next three seasons after this one.
The other two names of interest would be Justice Winslow and Josh Richardson. Winslow is an elite defender who has never developed an offensive game. He can spend time at center and switch multiple positions, making him valuable against today’s smaller lineups. He’s only 21, meaning there is still a lot of upside left. Richardson is a budding two-way player who can defend and create a bit of offense. His shooting has come and gone, but seems to be an ascending player. Neither of these players would be available as an asset dump, and would require the Cavaliers give up something of substance.
The Jazz have a roster full of intriguing players, the best fit being Joe Ingles. Ingles has size and a history as both a positive defender and an elite three-point shooter. He is signed long term at descending totals averaging just under $12 million. The Jazz would not want to give him away, but at 29, likely doesn’t match their timeline of building around Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell.
Derrick Favors is a rental who could be a positive player for this season. Somehow he’s been in the league for 100 years and is only 26 years old. He has size and score, and isn’t a huge contract. The Cavaliers need defense from the center position, and he would instantly come in and help provide some rim protection, even if he isn’t great defensively overall. He doesn’t help against Golden State, but there are likely no answers for that matchup. Favors gets you there, and we’re nearing the point where that’s a concern.
Rodney Hood and Dante Exum are younger names on the Jazz who have struggled with injuries and performance. Much like with the Heat above, they would not be salary dumps, but if the Cavs are offering the Brooklyn pick or Kevin Love these are players who could look to add and sweeten a deal.
Vince Carter is the rare superstar who learns how to become an elite role player as he aged. He went from scoring 25 points a night and using more than 30 percent of his team’s possessions to providing a positive impact on only four points and 14 percent of his team’s possessions. He’s a savvy veteran who isn’t shooting well this season but has in the past. Sacramento has already declared their season over and will be resting their veterans most nights, so he could be available for very little.
George Hill surprised everyone by signing in Sacramento last offseason. After leading good teams in Indiana and Utah the veteran took a large deal to sign with a bad Kings team. Hill is a Swiss Army knife who has played most of his career at point guard but could likely play shooting guard due to his length. He can shoot and defend and run an offense. He would provide a nice balance to Isaiah Thomas when the Cavs need more size and defense from the point guard position and also for insurance if IT is unable to shake off his rust or suffers an injury. He would also provide a backup plan at point guard for next season should the Cavaliers be unable to sign Isaiah Thomas. His unique contract is also an asset. Hill makes $20 million this year, $19 million next year, and $18 million in 2019-2020. What is unique is that only $1 million of the final year is guaranteed. This would be a major trade asset to teams looking to shed salary and if LeBron leaves the Cavaliers may be able to parlay this into a nice pick or player. Hill is one of the best options for this reason: He makes sense now and with or without LeBron next season.
Kosta Koufos is a name that is always tied to the Cavaliers. He would provide some size and rim protection. He’s a player who isn’t going to help you beat Golden State, but again: We may be nearing a time where the Cavs just need to get to Golden State. He would come cheap, as he has makes more than $8 million with a player option for next season.
Kent Bazemore and Dwayne Dedmon are the most likely targets for the Cavaliers. They both play positions of need, are in their primes, and should not be expensive to acquire. Dedmon is an athletic big man with a nice contract who could help settle the defense. Bazemore is an athletic wing who can shoot but has is owed a lot of money over the next three seasons. Atlanta may be looking to get out from under the Bazemore contract as they put a lock on the worst record in the league.
Few of these players would be major additions to the Cavaliers, but the Cavaliers shouldn’t need major additions. It’s pretty clear there is something just off with the talent already on the roster, and the hope would be a small change could unlock the potential. It’s likely that as the Cavaliers recover from two long road trips and Isaiah Thomas rounds into form, they don’t need a trade at all.
As we’ve seen in the past, LeBron James always demands a move is made, and we’re in the midst of his midseason meltdown now. With the deadline moved up and less teams likely to sell off parts, these are the most likely names we’ll be hearing over the next three weeks.