The N.B.A. playoffs, remember, commence in a mere 64 days. But the Cavaliers don’t care.
After miscalculating badly in August, when they surrendered a disgruntled Kyrie Irving in a controversial trade with Boston with the belief that Thomas could mostly replicate Irving’s dynamic offensive talents, Altman and the Cavaliers’ owner, Dan Gilbert, had the shared constitution to admit they were wrong and, better yet, act decisively to try to fix the mistake while there was still time.
The Cavaliers looked so creaky, so defensively deficient and so disconnected as a group during a 7-13 funk since Christmas Eve that Altman, as he admitted in a Thursday night conference call with reporters, was worried “that we were marching a slow death.”
“And we didn’t want to be a part of that,” Altman said.
So they shrugged at every potential risk and deterrent and mowed through the trades one-by-one at lunchtime on deadline day, even though they surely understand that none gave James a co-star anywhere near Irving’s level — and that the 29 remaining regular-season games don’t provide much time to get the new foursome integrated.
It’s uncharted territory for a team coming off three successive trips to the N.B.A. Finals — and still widely expected to hold off Boston and Toronto to get there again in June — to rip up the roster before the All-Star break. It’s also highly dangerous for the Cavaliers because their willingness to absorb the contracts of Clarkson and Nance virtually guarantees that the Los Angeles Lakers will have sufficient salary-cap space in July to court James, the face of Cleveland’s franchise, and the Oklahoma City superstar Paul George as a package deal in free agency.
The Cavs, though, are privately convinced that the Lakers would have found new homes for Clarkson and Nance eventually, meaning they’d be in position to make those pitches to James and George on July 1 regardless. So they tuned out all the potential benefits for the Lakers, as well as the fact that the four Cleveland newcomers have only 94 games of collective playoff experience — 83 belonging to Hill — for the opportunity to instantly become younger and more athletic.
Clarkson, Hood, especially Nance — whose father, Larry Nance, is a Cavaliers legend — all represent the sort of “live bodies,” to use Altman’s term, that Cleveland has been sorely missing. Cavaliers Coach Tyronn Lue suddenly has a fresh batch of options to mix and match around James while the All-Star forward Kevin Love recovers from a broken hand expected to sideline him into April.
“I think we’re going to see a rejuvenated LeBron James,” Altman said. “That’s the key.”
In that sense, these trades were reminiscent of the abrupt firing of David Blatt in January 2016, when the Cavaliers sported a gaudy record of 30-11. To have any shot at convincing James to stay with his home-state team beyond this season, given the condition of his ever-tenuous relationship with Gilbert, you suspect that Cleveland had to be this bold again. There was really no other way.
Thomas is clearly nowhere close to where he was physically for Boston last season, when he cracked the top five in most valuable player voting. But the unavoidable truth is that his presence, thanks to well-publicized clashes with both Love and Lue in recent weeks on top of his defensive shortcomings, put a cloud over the team that had to be forcefully addressed. Thomas’s outspoken nature, despite his being the new guy, is all anyone heard, no matter how many times he also said he yearned to make this work.
Changing “the air in the building” is how Altman put it, after winning some serious respect from his peers around the league for all the 11th-hour maneuvering. It came after he’d endured weeks of jibes about his lack of experience and authority under Gilbert.
Altman, 35, also clearly learned from the failed Thomas experiment, which generated a healthy share of initial praise when it happened, by trying to temper expectations about how good the new Cavs can be.
For starters, he’s simply hoping to see a team that, for the first time in weeks, can enjoy the workplace.
“We’re just going to be fun again,” Altman said. “Fun to watch and fun to be around.”
A more joyful approach alone won’t be enough to muster four wins against Golden State if the Cavaliers are fortunate enough to get back to the title round. It might not even be enough to outlast the Celtics and the Raptors in the East. All you can safely say is that the Cavaliers just became eminently watchable — for the right reasons as opposed to train-wreck reasons.
What happens when the three-time reigning Eastern Conference champions launch a desperation (and unprecedented) three-trade heave? No one knows the answer, but I can’t wait to find out.