With the NBA trade deadline in the rearview mirror, it’s time to analyze the biggest trade of the season: The Cavaliers sent Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and a late first-round pick to the Lakers in exchange for Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr.
It was clear that Thomas was not working for Cleveland, and the trade ended up helping both teams on their respective journeys — Cleveland is now firmly back in title contention, and Los Angeles is closer to completing their rebuilding process.
Remember just a few weeks ago, when Cleveland had lost six of its last seven games and the team seemed to be falling apart?
Well, general manager Koby Altman made some moves, and after winning four in a row — with the most recent two on the road against solid Boston and Oklahoma City teams — Cleveland looks poised for another run to the NBA Finals.
By trading Thomas, the Cavaliers got rid of a huge defensive liability. Among players that have appeared in at least 15 games and play at least 10 minutes a game, Thomas has the worst defensive rating (118.9) and fewest defensive win shares (-0.014).
It makes sense: At 5’9”, he does not have the size or length to keep up with other explosive point guards. And while hiding him on a weaker scorer may have worked in Boston with so many other defensive stalwarts in Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown, it did not work in Cleveland.
With subpar defenders in J.R. Smith and Kevin Love, the Cavs became the second-worst defensive team based on points per game and fourth-worst based on opponent’s field goal percentage.
Trading Thomas eliminated a weak link defensively, and acquiring Clarkson and Nance bolstered the defense off the bench.
At 6’5” with a 7’0” wingspan, Clarkson is a big combo guard who has the length to create problems for opposing guards. In his Cleveland debut against Boston, Clarkson had two steals, as he used his length to clog the passing lanes and create turnovers.
Nance is a bit undersized as a power forward, but he has the length and athleticism to make an impact on the defensive end. Especially as teams such as Golden State and Houston have lineups that can switch everything defensively, trading Thomas and adding long, agile players in Clarkson and Nance strengthens Cleveland’s perimeter defense and gives them the opportunity to switch seamlessly with certain lineups.
Offensively, Thomas simply did not provide the same spark he did in Boston, and it was clear that his ball-dominant approach did not fit in with the Cavaliers’ more free-flowing offensive system. The result of this dysfunction was an erratic offense that could not find a true identity with Thomas’ isolation-heavy style.
While Thomas and LeBron James were supposed to be a formidable scoring duo, the Cavaliers’ offensive rating dropped to 104 with the two on the court together.
Clarkson, however, is just the playmaker the Cavs needed. In Los Angeles, Clarkson was stuck playing only about half of his minutes at point guard, but he has functioned exclusively as a point guard so far in Cleveland. This has allowed him to exhibit his playmaking prowess, as he has shown off his midrange game, penetration ability and passing skills.
Additionally, playing with James in Cleveland has generated more open looks for Clarkson. With the Lakers, Clarkson was a part of a balanced attack that had seven players hitting the double-digit mark in points per game. With so many other ball-dominant players, Clarkson needed to force his offense, which hurt his efficiency.
Now, Clarkson is able to pick his spots, and his field goal percentage has risen from 45 percent with the Lakers to 62 percent with the Cavaliers. Despite the small sample size, his offense efficiency looks relatively sustainable, as he has taken a number of wide open 3-pointers off of passes from James and generated wide-open pull-up jumpers off of high ball screens.
This trade has strengthened Cleveland both offensively and defensively, and the new-look Cavaliers now appear to be the favorites in the East again after a demoralizing midseason slump.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers have been rebuilding for five years now, and acquiring Thomas was just the boost they needed to expedite the process. On offense, Thomas is an elite scorer, and having averaged 29 points per game last year, he fills a hole the Lakers desperately needed to fill.
Previously, the Lakers were led by Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Julius Randle, who all averaged 15 to 16 points per game. Los Angeles lacked a bona-fide No. 1 scoring option, and by adding Thomas, the Lakers now have a top-tier scorer that they can turn to in crunch time or whenever they need a basket.
The rebuilding process, though, is not only about winning now; the key is to develop players and make big acquisitions in free agency, and trading for Thomas helps with both aspects.
In the short run, Thomas brings a veteran presence to Los Angeles that will help facilitate the development of budding stars Ingram, Kuzma and Lonzo Ball.
In the long run, taking on Thomas’ expiring contract and shedding Clarkson’s deal gives the Lakers the flexibility to pursue any free agent this summer, as they now have just $39 million under contract for next season.
Previously, the expected date of signing a superstar was 2019, but now, the Lakers have the salary cap space to go after players such as Paul George and James after this year. This additional flexibility creates opportunities for the Lakers to complete their rebuild with the addition of a player of this caliber. With a superstar and another year of experience for their young core, the Lakers could instantly be in the playoff picture.
Adding Ball during the draft sent the Lakers in an upward trajectory, and the recent move to acquire Thomas sets up the team with instant offense, veteran leadership and myriad opportunities this summer.