Joel Blank: There is one man in Cleveland who might get the Cavs back to the Finals
If the Cleveland Cavaliers do what I predicted they would do at the start of the year and win the Eastern Conference, there is one man and one man only to credit. Of course, most of you will say that man is LeBron James and you would not be wrong, to a certain extent. However, this year, there is someone that has been more important to the team and franchise than even the King himself.
In his first full year on the job, Cavaliers general manager Koby Altman thought he had it made. He had the best player on the planet and a loaded roster of All-Stars and talented role players. Even after the departure of Kyrie Irving—in a trade that he was forced to facilitate at the request of owner Dan Gilbert—he had a talented team capable of being the best team in the conference and maybe the entire league. Regardless of how that trade would work out, he would have no pressure and no blame as it all happened and went down while he was still settling in to his new job and position. The owner pulled the trigger and all he had to do was orchestrate the pieces coming back. On paper it looked as if they got as good a deal as they possibly could have gotten and in doing so kept the team strong and capable of another trip to the NBA Finals.
Well, what a difference a few months can make? The Cavaliers were expected to struggle early in the season as they built chemistry and camaraderie getting used to their new pieces joining an already-established nucleus of playoff veterans. The struggle was real and in fact the reality check was, it never got better and in fact got considerably worse.With each passing day, it seemed as if LeBron was inching closer and closer to skipping out the door, while the rest of the team seemed to be bickering and in a power struggle of their own, trying to fight for enough playing time to get their individual numbers while completely disregarding any team goals or accomplishments.
On the day of the NBA trade deadline, with less than 24 hours on the clock, Altman was faced with the daunting and seemingly impossible task of transforming his entire roster. That, or face the very real possibility that his team would implode and his best player would exit stage left for greener pastures and the sunny skies of LA, Houston or another city. In professional sports, when teams and general managers know you are in desperation mode, their first thought is to try and rob you blind and steal your best players, while giving back nothing substantial in return. That was definitely the scenario for Altman in Cleveland and with that, it seemed even more impossible to believe he could pull off any substantial deals that would help turn the team around and give them a chance at another Finals appearance. Critics were waiting to pounce on the collapse of the Cavaliers, while the city of Cleveland and its entire fanbase braced for what looked to be the end of an era and the departure of their beloved native son.
It was make or break time for the young general manager, and to his credit he dug in and started swinging for the fences. By the time the dust had cleared and the deadline had passed, Altman was four for four with a couple of home runs and a few extra base hits. He was able to take six players who just did not fit the team and the culture and flip them for three young studs and one seasoned veteran point guard that has been through the wars of playoff basketball and knows how to facilitate for a team full of superstars. Gone were Jae Crowder, Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose, who never really fit the Cavs culture or system, along with holdovers Channing Frye and Iman Shumpert. Joining the Cavs were talented young players Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr from the Lakers, along with Rodney Hood from the Utah Jazz. Three very talented young kids, two of which had never sniffed the playoffs, let alone a chance to play for a ring. George Hill, who made appearances in the postseason with the Spurs and Pacers, also arrived in "The Land" shooting 45 percent from behind the arc.
If their first game together was any indication, the Cavaliers are going to be a force in the Eastern Conference once again and look to be as strong as ever. Sunday, the Cavs absolutely demolished the Boston Celtics and Kyrie Irving and in doing so sent a message to not only the rest of the conference but to the entire NBA that before all is said and done Cleveland will be heard from again, as they are once again having fun. Three of the four newcomers were in double figures and Nance Jr played 21 minutes scoring 5 Points, grabbing 5 rebounds and adding 3 assists. They played with passion, the bench was supportive and excited and LeBron seemed as happy and animated as he has been all season long. If that trend continues, the Cavs will have pulled off one of the most improbable and impossible mid-season transformations and turn arounds in league history. Trading six players at the deadline and getting better? Obviously a lot is still to be determined, but if it all plays out in Cleveland's favor, Koby Altman should be the one to get all the credit and he might want to consider a run for mayor. As KG once said, "Anything is possible!!!"