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Both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers took calculated risks at the February trade deadline when they swapped players and a pick. L.A. sent away Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and a first-round pick.
Four months later, the Lakers have gotten the best of the deal despite Cleveland’s run to the NBA Finals.
While Los Angeles gave up two key members of their young core in Nance Jr. and Clarkson, both steals at their respective draft positions (27th and 46th), the trade paved the way for what could be a momentous offseason.
The Cavaliers were hoping to revitalize their year, and they did. A fourth straight finals berth is impressive, but they now they stand in a 0-3 hole against the dominant Golden State Warriors.
Nance has been solid but inconsistent. Clarkson has struggled tremendously throughout the playoffs.
Rick Scuteri/Associated Press
But it’s the Game 1 late collapse, with George Hill missing a free throw, J.R. Smith losing track of the score and coach Tyronn Lue neglecting to call a timeout, that could be the final straw for LeBron James.
The All-Star forward can opt out of the final season of his contract (at $35.6 million) to find a new home.
Because of the midseason trade with the Cavaliers, the Lakers have enough spending power to not only sign James but pair him with an All-Star level sidekick like Paul George.
The Cavaliers had to take the risk to give James a reason to stay, dumping veterans like Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose and Iman Shumpert to repair their chemistry and add some young legs. They brought in George Hill, Rodney Hood, Nance and Clarkson, and the newcomers helped the Cavaliers advance past the rest of the Eastern Conference.
But through the run, Clarkson hasn’t shot the ball well. He’s made just 23.1 percent of his shots in the Finals and didn’t even get on the court in Game 3. It’s not just the Golden State Warriors’ defense, Clarkson is shooting 30.9 percent shooting from the field and 25.6 percent from three the rest of the playoffs.
As a playmaker, Clarkson has a single assist over his last eight games. His 1.6 assists per 36 minutes in the playoffs are far below his career average of 3.6.
The guard was originally a bargain for the Lakers as a draft-day acquisition in 2014 from the Washington Wizards for $1.8 million in cash.
Clarkson earned All-Rookie First Team honors in 2015, but he hasn’t matched that year’s 3.5 assists per game since.
“He’s a scoring guard, not a point,” said a Western Conference executive. “He’s best when there’s room to attack in the middle of the court. He’s just not getting the same space to work with that he had on the second unit with the Lakers.”
The Cavaliers would generally use Clarkson to spell Hill, but his deficiencies as a point guard were exposed.
There’s also quite a difference when playing the role of primary attacker off the bench for a non-playoff team like the Lakers to sharing the court with such a dominant figure as James.
That may not be an issue next season, should James depart.
While Clarkson played well during his tenure with L.A., his contract ($25.9 million over the next two seasons) became a problem as executives Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka turned the team’s focus to landing multiple stars in free agency. So getting Clarkson’s money off the books was huge for Los Angeles.
Before the trade, Kyle Kuzma’s emergence made Nance expendable to the Lakers. But Nance is on the ledger for just $2.3 million next year before hitting restricted free agency in 2019.
The Lakers landed the biggest name in the trade in Thomas, and while he was a positive force in the locker room and on the floor when healthy, it was actually his expiring contract that made him so alluring for Los Angeles.
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The key to the trade for the Lakers is the $60 million in spending power it helped open this summer. By waiving and stretching Luol Deng’s remaining $36.8 million over five years, Los Angeles can sign both James and George outright—provided the stars want to come.
Without knowing the Lakers upcoming bounty, it’s still too early to fully judge all their moves of the last year, including dumping young guard D’Angelo Russell last summer to get Timofey Mozgov off the books, which netted them an expiring Brook Lopez.
Breaking down a team is a lot easier than building one up. The Lakers’ success, both in wins and front-office decisions, will be determined by how well they use their cap space.
That pick from the Cavs in the midseason trade turned out to be the No. 25 selection, which is a bonus to the Lakers. The team should be able to add another solid prospect like guard Aaron Holiday (UCLA), Jalen Brunson (Villanova), Donte DiVincenzo (Villanova), Kevin Huerter (Maryland) or center Mitchell Robinson.
Within a month, that rookie could end up LeBron James’ teammate in Los Angeles.
Perhaps there’s a prayer that the Cavaliers will turn the series around, despite their three-game hole. But three games into the NBA Finals, the Lakers look like they’re in a tremendous position heading into free agency, while the Cavs are desperate for hope of any kind.
Email Eric Pincus at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.
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