3:30 PM EST, ABC – Line: Celtics -5, Over/Under: 212.5
With the seismic changes being felt across the league following the NBA’s annual Trade Deadline, the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers look to turn their troubled season around as they showcase their dramatically renovated roster against the Boston Celtics, from TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. If you’re hard-pressed to recognize the Cavaliers (32-22, 3rd in Eastern Conference) after their flurry of trades on Thursday, then you’re in good company, for the three-time reigning East Champions were by far and away the most active team at the aforementioned Deadline, brining in a number of new faces, while saying goodbye to a few that were hardly in Northern Ohio long enough to make an impression. Before we get into the comings and goings, it cannot be overstated that this was a team in desperate need of a change, for since December 19th they were a dismal 9-14, with a number of factors plaguing their play on the court, from borderline pathetic efforts on the defensive end, to internal chaos in the lockerroom. Just look at the numbers, folks; between January and February alone, Tyronn Lue’s charges had gone just 8-10, while permitting opponents to shoot a blistering 49.5% from the field, including 38.3% from beyond the arc, along with a staggering 27.1 Assists per Game. So again, changes clearly needed to be made, though we had no idea just how sweeping said changes would be. In three separate deals, Cleveland General Manager Kolby Altman did his best Kevin Costner impersonation from Draft Day, sending the much-maligned Isaiah Thomas (14.7 PTS, 36.1% FG, 25.3% 3FG, 2.1 REB, 4.5 AST, 12.4 PER), along with Backup Forward Channing Frye (4.8 PTS, 49.7% FG, 33.3% 3FG, 2.5 REB, 13.8 PER) and the team’s own 2018 First Round Pick (I.E. Not the Nets’ Pick) to the Los Angeles Lakers for Combo Guard Jordan Clarkson (14.5 PTS, 44.8% FG, 32.4% 3FG, 3.0 REB, 3.3 AST, 17.1 PER) and uber-athletic Forward Larry Nance Jr. (8.6 PTS, 60.1% FG, 6.8 REB, 1.4 AST, 1.4 STL, 19.6 PER). Shortly after that transaction was made public, the announcement of a Three-Team Deal including the Utah Jazz and Sacramento Kings was announced, which allowed the Cavs to poach Swingman Rodney Hood (16.8 PTS, 42.4% FG, 38.9% 3FG, 2.8 REB, 1.7 AST, 0.8 STL, 15.5 PER) from the former, and veteran Point Guard George Hill (10.3 PTS, 46.9% FG, 45.3% 3FG, 2.7 REB, 2.8 AST, 0.9 STL, 14.1 PER) from the latter, while simultaneously parting ways with the troubled Derrick Rose (9.8 PTS, 43.9% FG, 25.0% 3FG, 1.8 REB, 1.6 AST, 11.6 PER) in one fell swoop. And if that wasn’t enough, they sent former Finals MVP Dwyane Wade (11.2 PTS, 45.5% FG, 32.9% 3FG, 3.9 REB, 3.5 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.7 BLK, 16.0 PER) back to the Miami Heat as a gesture of good faith for a protected Second Round Pick (I.E. Cash Considerations). So while you take a moment to process all of that information, keep in mind that this team was (and still is) under tremendous pressure to turn things around, given the injury to All-Star Forward Kevin Love (17.9 PTS, 46.3% FG, 40.4% 3FG, 9.4 REB, 1.6 AST, 0.7 STL, 22.9 PER), and of course the impending Free Agency of LeBron James (26.4 PTS, 54.4% FG, 35.9% 3FG, 8.1 REB, 8.9 AST, 1.6 STL, 1.0 BLK, 27.6 PER), which has once again become the biggest Soap Opera in the World of Sports. So with that in mind, the question remains: are the Cavaliers actually better after this series of changes? On the surface, they’ve gotten much younger, particularly when you consider that Cleveland was arguably the oldest team in the NBA prior to the Deadline. Clarkson and Nance should provide a wealth of energy coming off the Bench, with their activity being a welcome sight when Lue decides to employ smaller Lineups. They’ve also improved their spacing with marksmen such as Hood and Hill, who are both enjoying career-years shooting the Three, with the tandem of players set to benefit from all the wide-open, spot-up opportunities afforded from playing alongside James. But how are they any better defensively? All four players have the potential to be a major improvement over those who they’re replacing, particularly in the case of the aforementioned Nance, whose athleticism should provide the Cavs with a sorely-needed rim-protector, while Hill has proven in previous stops with the Spurs, Pacers, and Jazz to be a more than competent perimeter defender. With all that said, time is NOT this team’s friend at the moment, for it will be up to Lue and his Staff to incorporate so many new faces in such a short period of time in an attempt to develop the requisite chemistry to succeed in the coming Playoffs. The benefit of next week’s All-Star Break should give them some extra time to gel, but it remains to be seen just how much better this Cleveland Cavaliers squad will be than the one that preceded it just days ago. Not to mention if it will be enough to close the gap between them and the Celtics in the Eastern Conference, and ultimately convince James to remain in his hometown.
Meanwhile, it’s awfully ironic that in many ways, it was the Celtics (40-17, 2nd in Eastern Conference) who precipitated the aforementioned sweeping changes in Cleveland, with the Offseason Trade for former Cavaliers’ All-Star Point Guard Kyrie Irving (24.7 PTS, 48.5% FG, 39.6% 3FG, 3.6 REB, 5.0 AST, 1.1 STL, 24.5 PER) serving as the inciting incident for their opponent’s current state. Of course, in acquiring Irving last July, Boston notably sent the injured Isaiah Thomas, who had been rehabbing from Hip Surgery, along with Swingman Jae Crowder to their Northern Ohio Rivals, with both players going on to have an extremely rough time fitting in with their new teammates. In fact, their presence alone, particularly that of Thomas once he returned from injury, has been viewed as the source of much of the widely-publicized strife in the Cavs’ lockerroom, only proving to be yet another feather in the cap of Boston General Manager Danny Ainge. And if it hasn’t become clear at this point, the balance of power have swung in the Eastern Conference, with Brad Stevens’ charges sitting atop of the conference for much of the season, which is really quite remarkable when you consider the addition of Irving, alongside the absence of Gordon Hayward, the All-Star Swingman whom they signed in Free Agency, only to see him literally dislocate his foot in the Season Opener against none other than (drum roll please)….. the Cavaliers. Needless to say, Stevens and his Staff deserve a lot of credit for being able to keep this team playing at such a high level in the face of such change. Hayward was expected to fill quite the need on the offensive end of the court, with the 27-Year Old fresh off of a career campaign with the Jazz, in which he averaged 21.9 Points on 47.1% shooting from the field, including 39.8% from downtown, along with 5.4 Rebounds, 3.5 Assists, and 1.0 Steal per Game. His absence has clearly kept the Celtics from reaching their potential offensively, as they’ve routinely struggled in this regard, averaging 102.9 Points (13th Overall) on 44.7% shooting from the field (24th Overall), including just 49.2% from inside the arc (23rd Overall), while proving average or worse in the following key offensive categories, Effective Field Goal Percentage (51.6%, 17th Overall), Turnover Percentage (13.0%, 12th Overall), Offensive Rebounding Percentage (20.8%, 23rd Overall), and Free-Throw/Field Goal Attempt Rate (18.4%, 22nd Overall). So often their possessions become a case of “Save us, Kyrie” or bust, which has really begun to effect them of late; after starting the season on a 22-4 run, which included a 16-Game Winning Streak, Boston has cooled considerably, going 18-13 since that point, winning just six out of their last thirteen contests. Friday’s 97-91 loss at home to the Indiana Pacers served as a showcase for their limitations offensively, as the hosts managed to shoot a miserable 38.2% from the field, including 7-of-27 from beyond the arc (25.9%), while amassing sixteen Assists in comparison to Ten Turnovers. Irving led the way with Twenty-Points on 8-of-18 shooting (44.4%), including 2-of-7 from three (28.6%), in an odd affair that saw the home side trail 59-38 at Halftime, only to get back into the game on the strength of a 34-17 Third Quarter, but ultimately run out of gas in the final frame. With Ainge and the Front Office refraining brining in any reinforcements at the Trade Deadline (though look out for that Buyout Market, in which they already landed Greg Monroe), it appears that Stevens and his troops will have to rely upon their defensive prowess moving forward; the Celtics continue to be one of the better defensive teams in the league, allowing 98.7 points (7th Overall) on 43.1% shooting from the field (1st Overall), including 33.8% from downtown (2nd Overall), while forcing 14.3 Turnovers per Game (11th Overall). Furthermore, if we refer to those previous four key factors and apply them to Defense, then these guys are doing quite well for themselves, ranking tops in the league in Effective Field Goal Percentage (48.4%), despite middling showings in Turnover Percentage (13.2%, 17th Overall), Defensive Rebounding Percentage (78.0%, 11th Overall), and Free-Throw/Field Goal Attempt Ratio (19.9%, 19th Overall).