The NBA trade deadline passed last Thursday and the biggest move of the day involved the Los Angeles Lakers. In a blockbuster trade, the Lakers sent Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance, Jr. to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye, and the Cavs’ 2018 first-round pick.
Lakers Outsiders spoke to noted Cavs fan and writer for Def Pen Hoops, Mike Anguilano, to discuss the ramification of the trade in the present and the future for both the Lakers and the Cavaliers.
Isaiah Thomas was a major disappointment in Cleveland after an MVP-caliber year in Boston. There are a lot of factors but what do you think ultimately led to that experiment being a failure and the Cavs moving on from Thomas?
Anguilano: While the lack of chemistry was incredibly troublesome, I will take a different approach and say that bad timing is the biggest reason he was dealt. The Cavs needed Thomas to be something he was physically unable to be given his long recovery from the hip injury. With the status of LeBron James in flux for next season, Cleveland could not afford to wait and see how Thomas recovers. They needed him to be really good right now, and that was simply not possible given the severity of the injury. While Thomas can still be a very productive player, he needed time to recover properly. The Cavs do not have time on their side and thus had to move on. I think the adjustment to not being the alpha dog like he was in Boston also played a part. It took Kevin Love two years to really feel comfortable in Cleveland and find his place. Thomas did not have that luxury.
Thomas has been pretty candid about that entire situation and recently said he’s probably something close to 75 percent healthy after his offseason hip injury. It’s clear that he doesn’t have the burst he used to – and we don’t know if he’ll ever get it back – and, like you mentioned, learning a completely new role on the fly for a team with extreme expectations did him no favors.
There was a lot of noise that Thomas’ biggest issue wasn’t actually his play on the court but drama off the court. We know that the Cavs’ locker room turned toxic and it manifested itself in the on-court product. How much do you think Thomas contributed to that and do you think he was the biggest culprit on the roster?
Anguilano: Toxic locker rooms, at least in my opinion, are not the result of one player. I do not think that was the case this time either with regards to Thomas. His poor play coupled with the horrific losses caused mounting pressure in the locker room but it was not all his fault. LeBron had plenty to do with the issues, failing to lead in the way he needed to. Letting fan and team-favorite Richard Jefferson go in favor of Dwyane Wade hurt the locker room. That being said, the reports of Thomas openly bashing his teammates and speaking “out of turn” are very troubling. But I think those issues were products of a team atmosphere, not Thomas himself. With Los Angeles, he can hopefully improve his health and recuperate his value as he hits the free agent market this summer.
IT’s start in LA almost started the same way with his agent clamoring for a starting job. But since talking to Luke Walton, he’s been mostly willing to take on this new role and give the Lakers what they need off the bench. IT’s a prideful dude and it’s clear that he was a cause of some issues in Cleveland. But that was probably blown way out of proportion; case in point: there are new reports that Wade was the one who questioned Kevin Love leaving the team because of an illness, not Thomas as was previously assumed.
Now let’s talk about what the Cavs got from this trade. Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance, Jr. had good careers in Los Angeles despite low expectations stemming from their draft spots. What do you think they’ll add to the Cavaliers? From the Lakers point of view, do you think they got back enough value for two talented, young pieces?
Anguilano: Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. are going to be fun. They are the youth movement that Cleveland desperately needed, particularly Nance. He has essentially been a much better version of Tristan Thompson. His ability to guard multiple positions will be invaluable and his non-stop motor off the bench will gel very well with new phenom Cedi Osman.
Before George Hill was traded here, Clarkson was the best point guard the Cavs have had all season and by a fair margin. He can provide a massive scoring burst off the bench and gets to the rim naturally. Some people think the Cavs overpaid by giving up their first-round draft pick in addition to Channing Frye and Thomas, but I think the deal is very fair. For the Lakers, it was not as much about getting value back as it was eliminating Clarkson’s contract, which they did. They also managed to get a first-round pick back in a presumably deep draft, so it works out. I am sad to see Channing Frye leave, he was one of the funniest players I have ever met and a really great teammate.
I think that hits the nail on the head. Clarkson and Nance can be contributors on a good team while giving the Cavs a safety net should the team be blown up this summer. For the Lakers, they were able to get cap space and an asset in the pick on top of a star player who is at the worst value of his career. It’s sad to see Clarkson and Nance off the team because they were fun parts of a young core that was growing together. But from the basketball standpoint, it was a great trade for both sides.
Of course, we can’t talk about this trade without mentioning LeBron James and how all of this affects his free agency. The Cavs made a lot of trades and took on a lot of long-term salary without getting a commitment from James that he would re-sign this summer. Does this change your mind on James’ future in Cleveland? How confident are you that he will re-sign?
Anguilano: The big question! Hopefully, Lakers fans do not get too angry for this. These trades do sway me slightly more in favor of LeBron staying in Cleveland. The Cavs got substantially younger, more athletic, and more expensive. That last one is important. By taking on more salary and continuing to inflate their tax bill, they are showing they are committed to winning championships for the foreseeable future – assuming James stays.
LeBron has been pretty adamant that he wants to play for a team that continues to strive for championships and stops at nothing to achieve them. I think Koby Altman proved himself in that he is determined to not only win rings but also keep LeBron in Cleveland. I would lean toward James staying with the Cavaliers, though I may or may not be biased.
LeBron has been linked to the Lakers more than any other outside team as he gets ready for free agency. The air around the team, at least to this point, has suggested that he could very well leave Cleveland for the second time. If he does leave, based on everything you know about him, would the Lakers be the favorites to sign him? What would they need to do from now until free agency to make themselves a more likely destination for James?
Anguilano: I think in the past the Lakers have been more infatuated with LeBron than the other way around, but the rumors certainly say he has interest this time. I still think Houston would be more preferable to James than Los Angeles but they will have to do some masterful contract maneuvering to make it work. From a financial and flexibility standpoint, the Lakers should be the favorite because they will likely have the available cap space to sign James plus one other max player.
As I mentioned before, James wants to be in a position to win championships. Right now, the Lakers are not very close to that position. In order to be the favorite for LeBron’s services, Los Angeles needs to gut the roster to make it “win-now”. Adding another star like Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins would certainly help, but I am still not sure that that team is top four in the Western Conference. Shedding their young core and draft picks for high-end and role players will almost assuredly need to happen to round out the roster. James will be 34 this December, so the Lakers will have to be willing to completely alter the roster and essentially mortgage the future. Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka will have some interesting decisions to make this offseason.
You can follow Mike and his work on Twitter at @anguilanom22