By Anthony L. Cuaycong
Released early last week, The Atlantic’s in-depth article on the dysfunction surrounding the Cavaliers is a compelling read. Because it relied on unnamed sources and because no on-record validation followed, however, the reader is left to speculate how much of it was truth, how much was based on facts, and how much was an embellishment of what the eye test already proved. That said, the assumption that circumstances were as bad as they sounded serves only to underscore the obstacles general manager Koby Altman faced heading into the trade deadline, and the masterful manner in which he took the National Basketball Association by storm in the aftermath.
Regardless of perspective, followers of the pro hoops scene could not have but been one in deeming the Cavaliers a sinking ship. They were losing twice as many games as they won, boasting of an offense that was mediocre at best and a defense that ranked dead last in the league. They exhibited rank disinterest during matches, no doubt demoralized by their utter lack of chemistry on the floor. Even top dog LeBron James, early on installed as a front runner for Most Valuable Player honors, played with uncharacteristic laziness, in the process dragging down, as opposed to lifting up, those who relied on him for leadership during a particularly trying time.
With The Athletic’s expose hanging over the Cavaliers’ heads and an embarrassing setback to the otherwise-underwhelming Magic highlighting their steady march to failure, Altman decided enough was enough. Prior to the homestand against the Timberwolves on the day before the trade deadline, he talked to James about the franchise’s plans and the need to make personnel changes. The immediate result: a rousing overtime triumph the future Hall of Famer — amped by the promise of impending changes — dominated from the start, and especially in the crunch.
Creditably, Altman delivered on his pledge, consummating three monumental deals just before the trade deadline. That they were announced one after the other in a span of half an hour speaks to the precision with which he approached them, as well as to the clarity of his purpose. Indeed, the battlesmoke cleared with the Cavaliers not just claiming addition by subtraction; they shed six players who didn’t fit their on-court requirements and gained four who did. Instantly, they got younger and more athletic, with their new additions slated to provide perimeter shooting, mobility, defense, and, hopefully, chemistry.
If there was any doubt in how happy James was with the development, it was erased by his subsequent performance against the Hawks; he put up a second straight triple-double featuring a career high in assists, even as his would-be teammates were still undergoing physical exams and could thus not suit up. For good measure, he reiterated his positive outlook in his post-mortem, noting that the remainder of the regular season “should be fun… I like the pieces that we have coming in.”
On paper, the Cavaliers appear to have the tools to rule the East anew. Still, there’s much to be done to translate potential to reality, and the little time that they have before the playoffs arrive doesn’t help things any. The good news is that James looks engaged once more, and, frankly, what’s what Altman aimed for. As he pointed out, “I think we’re going to get a rejuvenated LeBron James, and that’s the key. This guy is so good, he dictates outcomes… I wanted to see a renewed sense of joy in him, and being around him the last 24 hours has been great.”
In this regard, the Cavaliers have all the reason to be pumped. The future has always been theirs to carve, but they now appear to have the right tools to do it right. And who knows? They may yet find themselves just a wing and a prayer away from a second Larry O’Brien Trophy in three years.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is the Senior Vice-President and General Manager of Basic Energy Corp.