Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford made NBA history this season, becoming the first three-time winner of the league’s Sixth Man of the Year award. Crawford, who averaged 14.2 points in the regular season and 17.3 points in the playoffs, was an important contributor for the 53-win Clippers and will soon have the opportunity to cash in on his successful season.
In July, Crawford will be an unrestricted free agent. He could have a long list of interested suitors since the ability to create shots, lead a second unit and spread the floor with three-point shooting are highly valued skills in today’s NBA. With the league’s salary cap rising to an unprecedented $92 million due to a new national television deal, the 36-year-old will get a significant raise from the $5,675,000 he made this season in L.A.
Even though Crawford didn’t start most contests for the Clippers, he often finished them and came up big in late-game situations. In fact, Crawford led the team in fourth-quarter scoring with 341 points.
Without question, Crawford is one of the league’s best one-on-one scorers. He finished the season ranked seventh in the NBA in total isolation points and isolation points per game, trailing only James Harden, Carmelo Anthony, Damian Lillard, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and DeMar DeRozan.
He’s so effective because he can score in a variety of ways. His pull-up is deadly and he used the move to score 8.3 points per game, which was 11th-most among all NBA players. Crawford has great range too, as only 13 NBA players hit more threes than Crawford’s 117 this season. He’s also terrific at drawing contact (there’s a reason he has the most four-point plays in NBA history), and shot 90.4 percent from the charity stripe this season – the second– highest percentage in the league behind only Stephen Curry’s 90.8 percent.
Fellow NBA players have a lot of respect for Crawford and his game. With his handles, shot-creating ability and quickness, he’s incredibly difficult to contain. In March, Basketball Insiders talked to a number of players about what it’s like to defend Crawford.
“Jamal is one of the toughest covers in the league,” Portland Trail Blazers shooting guard C.J. McCollum said. “His ability to shoot off the dribble and manipulate ball screens makes him a unique guard. [He] also gives the Clippers a secondary ball handler. Jamal could potentially win [the Sixth Man award] every year.”
“He’s one of the best players to have ever come off a bench,” Indiana Pacers point guard Ty Lawson said. “You never know what he’s going to do. He might come down and just pull up for a three. Or he might give you a hesitation move, which he normally does right before he pulls up for a three, or he might just blow by you. It’s so hard to guard him. Even in the lane, he knows how to throw up floaters and he always seems to make them.”
“He’s so important to that team because he’s instant offense off of the bench,” Orlando Magic point guard Elfrid Payton said. “He’s somebody who can come in and bring energy and get the crowd into the game. Also, when it comes to closing games, he’s someone who can create his own shot, so he’s very important to the Clippers. He’s tough to guard because he is so good at making tough shots. No shot is a bad shot for him. I remember watching him when I was younger – four-point play after four-point play.”
“He’s a game-changer for them,” Blazers point guard Damian Lillard said. “They could be having a bad night and he can take over. He makes big shots, tough shots, and draws fouls if you’re too physical.”
Crawford’s teammates praise his game too, while also raving about his off-court contributions. After the Clippers were eliminated by the Blazers in Game 7 of their first-round series, Austin Rivers got choked up when discussing how much Crawford’s support and friendship meant to him.
“He’s the best teammate I’ve ever had, man,” Rivers said, holding back tears. “A lot of people doubted me when I came to L.A. a year ago. People thought I was just getting a chance because of my father. Jamal believed in me, man.”
Basketball Insiders recently caught up with Crawford to discuss his upcoming free agency, the Clippers’ future, the rising salary cap, his willingness to recruit star players and much more. Check out the exclusive Q&A:
Are you excited for free agency? Some players dread it, but others look forward to it. How do you feel about it?
Jamal Crawford: “Yeah, I’m really looking forward to it. I think with the way the league is now and the way things are going, this is a great time to be a free agent – for sure.”
With the salary cap going up, there will be some crazy contracts handed out. As a player, how much do you follow the cap information and how do you think the increase will impact things this summer?
Crawford: “I’m very aware of it. I have been for a while now, just being such a student of the game – and not just the game itself, but also things that are happening around the game and the way that the league is growing. I’m very aware of what’s going on. I think with the way that the popularity of basketball and the business of basketball are trending up, the game is in great shape.”
Most people don’t know what it’s like to be a free agent or how it feels to approach this process. There aren’t many jobs where there’s a public list that shows who you’re competing against, how productive they’ve been and what they’re earning. As you approach free agency, do you look at the other guards you’ll be in the market with and all of the teams with cap space and consider all of the scenarios?
Crawford: “Yes and no. Yes, because you have to be aware of which players are out there and what teams can do so that you know what people are looking for and what options exist. But I also say no because I feel like at the end of the day, I just need to do what I do on the court and I’m very comfortable in my own skin. I can feel good about what I’ve done and be confident entering the summer. I’m definitely aware of who else is out there, but I’m not too concerned about it.”
This is your first time entering free agency coming off of a Sixth Man of the Year season. How much do you think that helps you?
Crawford: “I think it helps, just because one of the knocks on me could be age, but I think age is only an issue if it shows. If you just watch me play and don’t know, I feel like you might think, ‘Oh, he’s 25 or 26.’ I’m better than a lot of guys who are 10 years younger than me. And, if you look, my numbers per-36-minutes are better now than they were 10 years ago when I was with the New York Knicks. I understand the rule that ‘Father Time is undefeated’ and all that, but for whatever reason – my faith in God, my style of play and my clean living – age hasn’t had any effect on me whatsoever.”
What’s your approach to fending off Father Time and staying effective for so long? Whatever it is, it has worked really well. Jared Dudley told me that you’re “the Benjamin Button of the NBA.” What’s the secret?
Crawford: “I think clean living and taking care of myself are really important. I’m always doing preventive stuff. I don’t wait until any injuries happen – knock on wood – to take care of my body. I’m always doing stuff like foam rolling, stretching, going in the cold tub, drinking a lot of fluids and staying in great shape. I’m always in great shape. I’ve never been a guy who gets out of shape and then needs to get back in shape. I feel like that’s like taking a job and leaving your house for nine months, and then when you come back, you try to turn on your lights and they’re popping and you try to start your car and you have issues. I think some injuries happen when you take a lot of time off and then try to get back into shape and back into playing. I don’t take that time off. I rest my body and recover, but I don’t take that kind of time off where I get out of shape because I think that’s when bad things happen.”
How do you feel after games or the morning after games? Do you feel more aches and pains than when you were younger?
Crawford: “No, I honestly feel fine. Because of the stuff I do after games like foam rolling, I don’t really allow the aches and pains to come. I’m always in prevention mode, especially with the Clippers’ trainers, who approach things the same way. They are always on top of things and they’ve taught all of us that prevention is key to be able to withstand a long season and avoid those aches and pains. Because I do all of those things and am very diligent about taking care of myself – foam rolling, stretching, working out – I feel fine. That’s why I play every single day in the summer. I don’t take time off because I feel great.”
What’s your hope this summer? I’m sure you’ll weigh your options since there are so many teams that have significant cap space, but are you hoping to re-sign with the Clippers?
Crawford: “My preference is to re-sign with the Clippers. But I understand that, at the end of the day, I’m a free agent so I have to look at everything. I have to take every call and consider every offer that comes to me and my agent. I have to, that’s just part of being a free agent. Like I said, my preference is to re-sign with the Clippers. But we have to take every single call that comes in. That’s the way it is.”
Has Doc Rivers (president of basketball operations and head coach of the Clippers) talked to you at all about free agency during your exit meeting or since your season ended?
Crawford: “We discussed it a little bit. He just said, ‘We want to bring you back and that’s part of the plan, for sure.’ I think I’m one of the priorities and he said that they want to bring me back to L.A. I thought the exit meeting went really well and he definitely made it clear that he wants me to re-sign.”
With the Clippers, this team has been together for quite some time and that kind of continuity is somewhat rare is today’s NBA. Since being eliminated, there have been some trade rumors and speculation that the team may be split up. Do you think the best approach is to bring the whole team back or do you think some changes need to be made?
Crawford: “I think chemistry is underrated. If you look at the really, really great teams, most of them have been together for years – and not just in this era either, even going back and looking at the great teams in NBA history. With us, if you look at the last two champions – the Spurs and the Warriors – we knocked both of those teams out recently [eliminating San Antonio in 2015 and eliminating Golden State in 2014]. I think we’re right there in terms of contending. We’re not far away whatsoever. Sometimes you have to keep knocking on that door until you break it down. It may take time and it may not be the easiest process, but that’s the way I kind of look at it.”
I feel like I ask you every summer, but how many more years do you want to keep playing? Every summer, you say five more years.
Crawford: “I know (laughs). It’s still the same! I’ll still say five years. I’m still in love with the game, I’m still playing at a high level and I still feel like I’m getting better as a player, which is crazy. This year, I thought my defense was better and I thought my all-around game was better. Initially, to start the season, I thought I took a step backward so that some of the new guys that we brought in could take a step forward. But then I switched, transitioning to being more aggressive in the second half of the year. I’ll still say that I want to play four or five more years. And if you ask me in four or five years, I may say four or five years again. As long as I’m playing at a high level and things are going well and I’m still in love with the game, why wouldn’t I keep playing?”
In today’s NBA, creating your own shot, spacing and shooting are extremely important. Do you think that the way the game is evolving benefits you and your style of play?
Crawford: “No question. No question. I think, obviously, spacing on the court is so important. If you’re a shooter, even if you are missing shots in a particular game, the other team still has to respect your shot based on what you’ve done and what you can do at any time if you can get hot. And I’m talking about any shooter, not just me. Teams have to respect that, which opens up the court. Shot creation is huge too, in the playoffs especially. When plays break down, you still have to manufacture a shot. When you have a guy who can get any shot he wants at any time or bail his team out on a bad possession to give you a chance at some points, that’s a very, very valuable weapon. When a play breaks down, it becomes, ‘Okay, we just have to get a great shot up. Who can us that shot?’ I think having that guy is very valuable. You see that from Kyrie Irving a lot. And, honestly, there are times for isolation. Sometimes that may be the best offense on particular possessions.”
Your teammates speak very highly of you and your presence in the locker room. How much do you think being a veteran leader helps your value?
Crawford: “I think that helps. What’s weird is that usually the guys who become a positive locker room presence and a veteran leader in the locker room aren’t contributing on the court as much because they’re in the last year or two of their career. I’m doing it at a time when I’m still playing at a high level, because that’s just who I am. That’s how I’ve always been. Hearing what Austin said… When he has tears in his eyes and he’s saying that I’m the best teammate he’s ever had, that means everything to me. That means the world to me. I obviously didn’t do that because I wanted that acclaim or attention. I did that because I wanted to be a great friend and a great teammate. You can ask any one of my teammates and they’ll say I do the same things to support them. I always try to remain positive and encourage guys. I can get on you if I need to, but it’s always a positive thing. It’s a long season, so you have to let guys know that you’re in this together and that you have their back. You can ask anyone, whether they’re a star or were on a 10-day, I’m the same way with anyone.”
You have so many friends around the NBA. You’re obviously close with all of the Seattle guys, but you have close relationships with so many random players that fans wouldn’t expect too. When I did that article about how your peers felt you deserved the Sixth Man of the Year award, players from all around the league campaigned for you. And you’ve had everyone from Kevin Durant to John Wall to Kyrie Irving to LaMarcus Aldridge to James Harden to DeMar DeRozan come through Seattle to play in your pro-am.
I bring all of this up because I’m curious: Are you open to recruiting during free agency this summer? Whether it’s for the Clippers or a new team, are you going to recruit other players?
Crawford: “No doubt about it. I’m glad you’re bringing it up, and I think you’re the first to do so. That’s an aspect of my free agency that a lot of people may not have thought about, but I certainly have. I feel like I’m cool with almost every player in the NBA. I think that respect comes because of, first off, what you do on the court and also who you are off the court. You’re as good as your peers think you are – no disrespect to the media or anyone else. We, as players, know who is a good pro and a great person and there’s a certain respect that comes with that. There isn’t a single player who I can’t get on the phone or talk to about a situation. When I sign with a team, I’m definitely willing to recruit and I’m almost positive I can land somebody too.”
What’s your response to the criticism of your defense? Does it bother you?
Crawford: “No, it doesn’t bother me at all. At first, I think they may have actually had a point. They had a right to say what they said. It’s obviously an opinion, but I’d agree that it had some validity at one point. But now, I think my defense has improved. I’m not saying that I’m Tony Allen or Kawhi Leonard or Garrett Temple by any means, but my defense is definitely respectable. And the way the league is now, it’s mostly built around team defense. You can’t touch a player or get physical, especially on the perimeter, so you really rely on team defense. I think the best defenses in the league are team defenses. I’m always going to give great effort and follow the scheme, whatever the game plan may be. At first, I think those critics had a reason to gripe about my defense. But now, I think I’ve improved. You can go back and look at my defense in the playoffs and see that it was pretty solid.”
Three Sixth Man of the Year trophies already gives you the record. Is a fourth coming before your career is said and done?
Crawford: “No question about it. Without a doubt. I can say that wholeheartedly. Alex, man, I wouldn’t lie to you or the people about this: I feel great and I can stay at this level for four or five more years, barring a major injury. With the way that the game is played and with my skill set, there’s no doubt I can do it. Think about it: When I was 32 years old and had just signed with the Clippers, people then were probably like, ‘Man, well, he’s older and may not be as effective.’ Well, I was the third-leading scorer and won two of four Sixth Man of the Year awards. I’ve heard critics say, ‘Well, he’s older now…’ for a while. If my age isn’t showing, it doesn’t matter.”
Does market matter to you? Last summer, a lot was made about the smaller-market teams landing free agents while teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks missed out on some players. Do you care about market size?
Crawford: “No. The market doesn’t matter to me at all. Like I said, my preference is to stay with the Clippers, but my door is open for anyone who wants to do business and has interest in me. I will seriously look at every single team that has an interest in me, regardless of the market.”
NBA Daily: Surging HEAT Must Overcome Adversity
The Miami HEAT have been hit with a number of injuries at shooting guard. Can they stay hot?
The Miami HEAT have surged to fourth in the Eastern Conference on the back of a 14-5 stretch since Dec. 9, including a seven-game win streak that ended with Monday’s 119-111 loss to the Bulls in Chicago. In the loss, shooting guard Tyler Johnson got his legs tangled with Robin Lopez and appeared to suffer a serious injury.
“I was scared,” said HEAT small forward Josh Richardson, who joined his teammates in racing down the court to check on Johnson. “You never want to see a guy, whether it’s on your team or the other team, down like that. I talked to him when he was in here [the locker room] and he said he didn’t know what was up.”
Coach Erik Spoelstra told pool reporters after the game that X-rays were negative. It was initially feared to be a knee injury, but Spoelstra said the knee is okay and the ankle is the area of concern. Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel tweeted that an MRI was not deemed necessary and Johnson will be listed as doubtful for Wednesday’s game in Milwaukee.
Tyler Johnson will be listed as doubtful for Wednesday's game against the Bucks, still with no plans for an MRI on his sprained left ankle sustained Monday in Chicago. He remains with the team, which did not practice Tuesday.
— Ira Winderman (@IraHeatBeat) January 16, 2018
Meanwhile, the HEAT is facing a serious shortage at shooting guard, having lost Dion Waiters to season-ending knee surgery, Rodney McGruder to a left tibia stress fracture that will likely keep him out until February, and now Johnson. Miami has applied for a $5.5 million disabled player exception after losing Waiters, according to the Sun-Sentinel. HEAT power forward James Johnson said the team will be looking for other players to step up.
“I think it’s the next guy’s gonna step up like we always do,” said Johnson. “As we have guys going down we also have guys getting back and getting back in their groove [like] Justise Winslow. Hopefully, it’s going to give another guy a chance to emerge on this team or in this league.”
Johnson added that the loss to Chicago came against a hot team and the HEAT didn’t have the right mental approach or defensive communication to slow them down.
“Our communication was lacking tonight,” said Johnson. “I think our brains rested tonight and that’s not like us. Tilt your hat to Chicago. They’re shooting the hell out the ball. They didn’t let us come back.”
Richardson echoed the theme of communication and the inability to counter a hot-shooting team.
“We weren’t communicating very well and we were not giving them enough static on the three-point line,” said Richardson. “They’ve been the number one three-point shooting team in the league for like 20 games now. They ran some good actions that we were not reacting right to.”
Spoelstra referred to a turnover-riddled close to the first half as “disgusting” basketball and agreed that the defense let his team down.
“I don’t know what our record is in HEAT franchise history when we give up 120-plus,” said Spoelstra. “I would guess that it’s probably not pretty good.”
The good news for Miami is that it can try a combination of Richardson and Winslow at the wings, while Wayne Ellington has been shooting the leather off the ball from three this season (40.5 percent on over seven attempts per game). The HEAT is the latest team to attempt to defy history by making a serious run without a superstar player. To make that a reality and remain in the upper half of the East’s playoff bracket, Miami will have to personify the “next man up” credo.
NBA Daily: Is It Time To Cash Out On Kemba Walker?
Should the Hornets get serious about trading Kemba Walker or risk losing him in 2019 for next to nothing?
Is It Time To Sell?
Every professional sports team at some point has to decide when its time to cash out, especially if they have a star player heading towards free agency. The Charlotte Hornets are a team teetering on this decision with star guard Kemba Walker.
Now, let’s be honest for a moment. The Hornets are getting nothing of meaningful value in a trade for Walker if they decided to put him on the trade market—that’s something that will drive part of the decision.
The other part of the decision is evaluating the marketplace. This is where Charlotte may have an advantage that’s easy to overlook, which is the ability to massively overpay.
Looking ahead to the cap situations for the NBA in the summer of 2019, there doesn’t appear to be a lot worth getting excited over. While it’s possible someone unexpected goes into cap clearing mode to get space, the teams that project to have space in 2019 also project to have space in 2018, meaning some of that 2019 money could get spent in July and change the landscape even more.
But for the sake of discussion, let’s assume most of the 2019 cap space teams swing and miss on anything meaningful this summer and have flexibility the following summer. Not only will Walker be a name to watch, but guys like Boston’s Kyrie Irving, Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler, Golden State’s Klay Thompson, Dallas’ Harrison Barnes, Detroit’s Tobias Harris, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Cleveland’s Kevin Love can all hit unrestricted free agency.
That’s a pretty respectable free agent class.
While most of those names will likely stay where they are, especially if their teams shower them with full max contracts as most would expect, there are a few names that might make the market interesting.
The wrinkle in all of it is the teams projected to have space. Based on what’s guaranteed today, the top of the 2019 cap space board starts with the LA Clippers.
The Clippers currently have just Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari under contract going into 2019. They will have qualifying offers on Milos Teodosic and Sam Dekker, but that’s about it. If the Clippers play their cards right, they could be looking at what could be close to $48 million in usable cap space, making them the biggest threat to poach a player because of the LA marketplace. It should be noted, though, that DeAndre Jordan’s situation will have an impact here.
The Chicago Bulls come in second on the 2019 cap space list with just $35.77 million in cap commitments. The problem for the Bulls is they are going to have to start paying their young guys, most notably Zach LaVine. That’s won’t stop the Bulls from getting to cap space, it’s simply a variable the Bulls have to address this summer that could get expensive.
The Philadelphia 76ers could come in third on the 2019 cap space list, although it seems the 76ers may go all in this summer on re-signing guard J.J. Redick and a swing at a big fish or two. If the 76ers miss, they still have an extension for Ben Simmons to consider, but that shouldn’t impact the ability to get to meaningful space.
For the Hornets, those three situations have to be a little scary, as all of themff something Charlotte can’t offer – big markets and rosters (save maybe the Clippers) with potentially higher upside.
The next group of cap space markets might get to real salary cap room, but its more likely they spend this summer like say the Houston Rockets or are equal to less desirable situations like Sacramento (similar), Dallas (has Dennis Smith Jr), Atlanta (similar) or Phoenix (likely drafts a point guard).
That brings us back to the Hornets decision making process.
If the Hornets put Walker on the market, historically, teams get pennies on the dollar for high-level players headed to free agency. If traded, its more likely than not that Walker hits free agency and goes shopping. That’s the scary part of trading for an expiring contract unless you get the player early enough for him to grow attached to the situation, most players explore options. That tends to drive down the potential return.
The Hornets can also start extension discussions with Walker and his camp this summer and it seems more likely than not the Hornets will pay Walker the full max allowed under the collective bargaining agreement, which could be a deal north of $150 million and he could ink that in July.
It’s possible that someone offers the Hornets the moon for Walker. That has happened in the past. The Celtics gave the Cavaliers a pretty solid return for Irving, a player the Cavaliers had to trade. So it’s not out of the question real offers come in, especially with the NBA trade deadline approaching, but what’s far more likely is the Hornets wait out this season and try to extend Walker this summer.
League sources at the G-League Showcase last week, doubted that any traction could be had on Walker while admitting he’s a name to watch, despite however unlikely a trade seemed today.
The challenge for the Hornets isn’t as simple as cashing out of Walker, not just because the return will be low, but also because where would the franchise go from here?
It’s easy to say re-build through the draft, but glance around the NBA today – how many of those rebuild through the draft situations are yielding competitive teams? How many of them have been rebuilding for five years or more?
Rebuilding through the draft is a painfully slow and frustrating process that usually costs you a coach or two and typically a new front office. Rebuilding through the draft is time consuming and usually very expensive.
It’s easier to rebuild around a star already in place and the fact that Walker himself laughs off the notion of him being anywhere but Charlotte is at least a good sign and the Hornets have some time before they have to really make a decision.
At some point, Charlotte has to decide when to cash out. For the Hornets, the time to make that decision on Walker might be the February 8 trade deadline. It might also be July 1, when they’ll know whether Walker would sign a max contract extension.
If he won’t commit then, the Hornets have their answer and can use the summer to try an extract a package similar to what the Cavaliers got for Irving.
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Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal
Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.
Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.
So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.
You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.
With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.
He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.
But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.
Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.
Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.
These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.
Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.
The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.
Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.
The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.