No elite NBA team has moved as boldly in the midseason as Cleveland did Thursday since … Cleveland in 2016.
Firing first-year coach David Blatt was more about disconnect than performance two years ago (the Cavaliers were 30-11) and it led to a championship. Even if Thursday’s trade trio does not net another title, it might prove to have more value — keeping LeBron James.
The Cavaliers were 24-9 at Christmas but went 7-13 from then until the trade deadline. They looked deplorable defensively and disengaged, losing this month to Houston by 32 and Orlando by 18.
Saying on a conference call that his team was “marching a slow death,” first-year Cleveland general manager Koby Altman made three deadline deals to send out Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Derrick Rose, Iman Shumpert, Channing Frye, Dwyane Wade and this year’s first-round draft pick to bring in three 25-year-old players in Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood and Larry Nance Jr. and a steadying, playoff-experienced influence at point guard in George Hill.
Cleveland might have helped the Lakers create salary cap space to pursue James, but the Cavaliers’ shot at keeping him was already dwindling with each loss and each day with Thomas, who returned from injury with divisive candor and terribly inefficient court play. Thomas shot 36% from the field in 15 Cleveland appearances, was a defensive liability and a locker room distraction while speaking his mind. Despite his talent, four NBA teams have let him go since 2014.
Cleveland’s moves might not be an obvious in-season home run — like Detroit grabbing Rasheed Wallace for its 2004 championship run — but the Cavaliers kept Brooklyn’s first-round pick and added players who can help them on offense and defense. The league’s previously oldest roster also became younger, more athletic and more joyful than it had been.
At the least, it made Cleveland’s first post-trades game fun when Atlanta fans chanted “LeBron will leave you” and “LeBron will trade you” during his teammates’ free throws.
Fultz injury mystifies
Markelle Fultz was ruled out indefinitely on Oct. 29 because of scapular muscle imbalance in his right shoulder after four appearances for Philadelphia.
He was cleared for basketball activity on Dec. 9. He was cleared for the “final stage of his return-to-play program” on Jan. 2.
On Friday, Philadelphia’s president of basketball operations and general manager, Bryan Colangelo, said there is a chance Fultz will not play this season. A trade deadline news conference turned into a rare Fultz update from someone other than coach Brett Brown.
Videos of Fultz’s shooting practices have shown that his form is far from game-ready.
“We don’t know if it was working on the shot that led to the soreness, or the soreness that led to the working on the shot,” Colangelo told reporters in Philadelphia.
Fultz is retraining his muscle movement patterns to relearn shooting form, a remarkable turn of events for a guard who was selected No. 1 in the 2017 draft in part because of his shooting ability. Colangelo said Friday that Fultz’s instinctive play on drives and pull-up jumpers looks strong but that his shooting range is currently limited to the paint.
Feeling like a billion dollars
Every NBA franchise is worth at least $1 billion for the first time, according to Forbes’ annual review of values.
New York might miss the playoffs for a fifth consecutive year now that Kristaps Porzingis suffered a season-ended knee injury but Forbes reported that the Knicks’ value increased 9% since last year to a league-high $3.6 billion.
New York is followed by the Lakers ($3.3 billion), Golden State ($3.1 billion), Chicago ($2.6 billion) and Boston ($2.5 billion). The Warriors were valued at $750 million in 2014. The Clippers ranked eighth at $2.15 billion. Philadelphia had the largest one-year increase at $1.18 billion, a 48% jump from 2017.
—Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, New Orleans’ DeMarcus Cousins and Denver’s Nikola Jokic each have recorded a first half of at least 20 points and 10 rebounds this season.
—James, Michael Jordan and Kevin Garnett are the only players in NBA history to be a franchise’s all-time leader in points, rebounds and assists.
Cleveland at Boston: Sunday at 12:30 p.m. PST. TV: ABC.
This was going to be Isaiah Thomas’ first game against his former team until the Cavs cleaned house on Thursday. At least Jae Crowder already made his Boston return last month before being dealt away. Now, full attention can be paid to Paul Pierce’s number retirement instead of a Thomas tribute video that Thomas had delayed when he did not play during a Jan. 4 visit. This is Cleveland’s first game with its new look. Boston stood pat at the trade deadline, although the Celtics did sign Greg Monroe after Phoenix bought out his contract. The center debuted in green for 20 minutes Thursday.