The Thunder were quiet at the trade deadline. The Cavaliers, to put it lightly, were not. Six players were shipped out of The Land and four new players- George Hill, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance, Jr, and Jordan Clarkson- were brought in, in perhaps the most extreme revamp of a roster ever attempted mid-season by a team considered to be a contender.
Whether or not this will put the Cavs over the top in the NBA finals remains to be seen, but the reinforcements clearly have re-energized the team. The four new players combined for 49 points in an absolute drubbing of Boston on Sunday, a performance which immediately re-established the Cavs as the favorites to win the Eastern Conference.
The new players all provide something the Cavs lacked, in addition to simply bringing in fresh blood. Hill brings lock-down defense (when he cares, which he absolutely did not when he spent the first half of this season in the basketball Siberia that is Sacramento) and the ability to drain 3 pointers (46% on 3’s this season, an elite mark, but can he sustain it on a higher volume of attempts?). Clarkson can create his own shot and provides instant offense off the bench. Hood can shoot 3’s, defend passably, and create for himself and others off the bounce. Nance defends well at the big spots, rebounds, and can finish in close quarters (he’s shooting 76% at the rim, per Cleaning the Glass; it is an elite mark, on an admittedly low volume of attempts). None of them are All-Stars, but Hood and Hill especially are exactly the kind of players you want to slot around LeBron James. Better yet, Hood, Clarkson, and Nance are all only 25; if LeBron does leave this summer, the cupboards won’t be entirely bare for Cleveland. Masterful job by young GM Koby Altman.
When the Cavaliers and Thunder last played, LeBron James looked disengaged throughout. He finished with a pedestrian statline of 18 points, 7 assists and 3 rebounds, and was an astounding -33 in the blowout loss. This was around the time people began questioning if the Cavs were even going to return to the finals, if even LeBron could right this sinking ship.
For now, those questions have been put to rest. LeBron remains the best player in the world, and looks revitalized by his new running mates. He had a near triple double against Boston, dropping 24 points, 10 assists and 8 rebounds in only 28 minutes against the best defense in the NBA, finishing with a team best plus/minus of +23 (how fitting). The Thunder blasted a Cavs team that featured Lebron going through the motions last time out. They won’t be so lucky this time- to win tonight, they’ll actually need to beat the King.
Paul George is still not getting enough love. He’s being increasingly mentioned as a defensive player of the year candidate, and deservedly so, but he’s also having a career year at the offensive end. Since January 1st, he’s averaging 25.4 points per game on 48% shooting, including a ludicrous 42.6% from 3 point range. It’s beginning to feel automatic whenever George pulls up for 3. Off the dribble after breaking Kevin Durant’s ankles? Cash. In the triple threat position with a defender draped on him and the shot clock winding down? Cash. Stopping on a dime in transition after receiving a bullet pass from Russell Westbrook? Cash.
People have called Paul George the perfect Robin to Russ’s Batman. Wrong analogy. George is no sidekick; he’s a co-leader. He and Russ are Captain America & Iron Man; different skills, different styles, both capable of great things alone, but nearly unstoppable when paired together. With both on the court, the Thunder have outscored opponents by 7.4 points per 100 possessions. The offense starts with Russ, and is at it’s best when George plays off him, but George is putting up nearly as many points while anchoring the defense, especially in Andre Roberson’s absence.
Also: Steven Adams is obviously Thor in this analogy.
Cleveland has a defensive rating of 111.8 on the season (meaning they allowed 111.8 points every 100 possessions), 3rd from last in the league per Cleaning the Glass. Cleveland has always taken a lackadaisical approach to the regular season during the LeBron Era, saving themselves for the playoffs, where they can “flip the switch.” This year felt different; a defense so bad, there might no be a switch to flip. The team’s new look roster certainly looks more defensively capable on paper, and got off to a great start in Boston, posting a defensive rating of 96.2 against Boston. Whether the new look roster’s true defensive ability is closer to the elite mark they posted against Boston or the miserable one the old team averaged for the first 50+ games of the season remains to be seen.
Since Andre Roberson went down, one player in particular has stepped up to take his place- Jerami Grant. In addition to playing some excellent defense, Grant is shooting 57.9% from the field in the game since Roberson’s injury, providing 12 points per game to go along with 6 rebounds. He leads the Thunder in Plus/Minus during this stretch. His offensive development has been fun to watch; he’s gotten very crafty with his finishes at the rim. He’s not quite Kyrie Irving, but sometimes a soft touch and a 7’0 wingspan are all you need, especially when attacking a defense scrambling to recover from a manic Russell Westbrook drive.
Grant is exactly the kind of player you need complimenting your superstars to make a deep playoff run. If what he’s shown on both sides of the ball during this stretch is for real, the Thunder may just be able to recover from the loss of Roberson. Grant’s play for the rest of the regular season will go a long way in determining the Thunder’s ceiling in the playoffs.