Last Thursday’s trade deadline was one of the most memorable in recent history, headlined by the Cleveland Cavaliers completely overhauling their roster and several other teams making important roster moves.
If you cut through all the noise—the Isaiah Thomas drama, Dwayne Wade going home to Miami and so on—these moves all boil down to one thing: A desperate attempt by the Cavaliers and their rookie general manager Koby Altman to prevent LeBron James from bolting to greener pastures.
We won’t know for sure whether things worked out until free agency opens up this July, but I’d predict that Cleveland’s management did enough last week to convince LeBron to stay. Come October, when the 2018 season officially kicks off, LeBron will yet again don his hometown wine and gold.
At this point in his career, LeBron cares about one thing and one thing only: winning championships and chasing Michael Jordan’s six rings. He long ago proved his physical dominance, his leadership skills and his ability to single-handedly carry a team to a title. Having already demonstrated that he’s the most skilled to ever play the game—perhaps the best to ever play—he now seeks to cement his status as the greatest of all time. Talent and greatness, though certainly linked, are two different things; LeBron knows this, and it’s why he cares most about team success and titles rather than his own individual performance.
With that in mind, LeBron wants the best team around him. And Thursday’s moves have given him a much better supporting cast than the one that he played with for the first half of the season. The Isaiah Thomas experiment wasn’t working out: he posted career-worst offensive numbers, was having one of the worst statistical seasons on the defensive end in NBA history and there were rumors that he wasn’t jelling well with LeBron or Kevin Love. Jae Crowder, despite his reputation as a solid three-and-D player and having one of the friendliest contracts in the league, just wasn’t playing well and wasn’t a good fit for head coach Tyronn Lue’s scheme. Dwyane Wade didn’t really belong and was only there because of his close friendship with LeBron.
In return, the Cavaliers picked up Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson, an adept scorer who’s far younger, cheaper and better defensively than Isaiah Thomas. They snagged Rodney Hood from Utah, an underrated player who can slide right into the lineup and start at the two-guard position. Larry Nance, another pickup from Los Angeles, will provide support inside and veteran George Hill fits the Crowder three-and-D mold, albeit at the guard, rather than at the forward position.
The Cavaliers are younger, faster and more equipped to win a title than they were a week ago. That matters, because to convince LeBron to stay, the team must demonstrate that it can realistically compete each season to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. LeBron isn’t an idiot; he knows moving to the West—as many people have said he will—means that he’ll have to butt heads with the loaded Warriors, Rockets, Timberwolves and Thunder year after year after year. Making it to the Finals is far tougher in the West than it is in the East, so Eastern Conference teams are already more appealing to him.
If LeBron is predisposed to remaining in the East, then all the Cavaliers must do is show that they surround him with enough talent to make it to the Finals. A week ago, it didn’t look like their roster was up to snuff; the Celtics seemed the superior team. But following the trade deadline and Sunday’s beatdown of Boston, Cleveland is in the driver’s seat in the East. That’s all LeBron can reasonably ask for.
The Cavaliers management gave LeBron exactly what he needs. Whether it leads to a title this season, their willingness to make radical changes should keep him around for the long haul.
Contact Andrew Ziperski at ajzip ‘at’ stanford.edu.