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CLEVELAND — Bookended by the Dec. 25 loss to the Golden State Warriors and Thursday night’s loss to the injury-depleted Toronto Raptors, the Cleveland Cavaliers have now dropped six of eight, four by double digits. The last two were by a combined 62 points.
“We have to demand more from everyone, players and coaches,” head coach Tyronn Lue said of the recent struggles. “We have to play better…if guys have agendas, we have to get rid of the agendas and play the right way.”
The Cavs are struggling to score. They’re being out-rebounded and bullied in the paint. Defensive effort is a concern. Forward LeBron James was seen on the sideline having an animated discussion with assistant coach Phil Handy and teammates, appearing to gesture about defensive assignments being blown.
While backcourt health has been Cleveland’s most publicized issue, the weaknesses in the frontcourt and all-around effort defensively are suddenly impossible to ignore.
As the Cavaliers look for a fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals and consider solutions to their biggest problems in a possible rematch with the Golden State Warriors, DeAndre Jordan has been a rumored target, according to Terry Pluto of the Plain Dealer.
The Clippers, despite injuries, are suddenly just a half-game out of the Western Conference playoff picture. But with the 29-year-old Jordan just five months from free agency, the playoffs might not be a strong enough factor for the Clippers.
Spacing issues between Jordan and Blake Griffin have been magnified with the move of point guard Chris Paul to Houston. Meanwhile, the Clippers could lock Lou Williams into a long-term deal upward of $42 million over four years, per ESPN’s Bobby Marks. L.A. already owes Griffin and Danilo Gallinari a combined $53 million, so moving Jordan’s expiring deal may become a larger priority than maximizing the return.
What Would It Take?
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Every trade that takes place in professional sports is analyzed through the prism of cost, both long- and short-term. While supply and demand play a substantial role, fit and finances drive the transaction bus more often than not. The portion of any deal for Jordan that would require the most navigation is financial, as the Clippers’ center is making $22.6 million this season.
The Cavaliers have a few first-round picks, a need for defense and the willingness to take on money. When Cavaliers general manager Koby Altman acquired Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder from Boston in exchange for Kyrie Irving, what he also acquired was both a highly coveted first-round pick (via the Brooklyn Nets) and the ability to trade their own first-round pick in a way to circumvent the Stepien Rule.
Yes, Jordan is a three-time All-NBA, two-time All-Defensive team talent, but he is also a player looking for a substantial payday while playing for a team currently on the outside of the Western Conference playoff picture. In turn, that Cleveland could acquire Jordan’s services without giving up a potential lottery pick, and instead use their own selection which will likely fall in the high-20s, becomes more and more accepted.
“DeAndre is a dominant two-trick guy in his shot-blocking and dunking, but his contract causes problems,” a league executive told B/R. “Given what’s left on his deal and the potential for him to opt out [next season], he’s not that much of an asset.”
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In addition to the draft compensation (the main ask for the Clippers), the Cavaliers have several players who have been mentioned in potential deals to make things work financially, including center Tristan Thompson and guards Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith.
Smith ($13.7 million) and Shumpert ($10.3 million) would get the deal done financially, but the Clippers have little reason to take such a package. Thompson is the most discussed subject, as his durability and size is a rare combination. He remains one of the league’s best big men at switching onto wings in pick-and-roll situations. Crowder could be contemplated in any discussions, but his $6.7 million deal is valuable.
Two other players who could be included are the veteran Frye ($7.4 million) or rookie swingman Cedi Osman ($2.6 million), giving the Cavaliers a handful of options but few which would make sense for Los Angeles.
According to a league executive, the Cavs could construct a trade that includes a third team in need of three-point shooting—the Timberwolves, for example, hit just eight three-pointers per game, with the Knicks being even worse—which would increase the allure of three-and-D wings such as Smith or Shumpert. But there is a reason why Thompson’s name is the first to be mentioned when Twitter general managers fire up the Trade Machine.
A big man like Frye who can stretch the floor is rare, but he has fallen out of the rotation each time the Cavaliers lock up with the Warriors in the Finals. Shumpert is a plus isolation defender who could provide a substantial boost to the team’s second unit upon his return, but he has been dealing with knee issues through much of the 2017-18 season. Smith has been ice-cold of late, shooting 32 percent in the month of January, and he has struggled to find his way with the Cavs since being initially benched for Dwyane Wade back in October.
This leaves Thompson as the player who, while being limited offensively, has been one of the team’s most important pieces each of the last three summers. While just 6’9″, his elite offensive rebounding and ability to guard every position on the floor is adored by general managers in an era where flexibility trumps tradition.
The Case Against
By many measures, Jordan is having one of his worst years since becoming a full-time piece in the Clippers’ puzzle. His per-game scoring average (11.8) is the lowest it’s been since the 2014-15 season. His effective field-goal percentage, which has traditionally been one of the best in the NBA, has plummeted more than 50 points compared to last season. The Clippers themselves, through their first 39 games, have been better with Jordan on the bench.
How has this happened?
In 2016, Jordan was named first-team All-NBA. He earned a gold medal in the Rio Olympics later that summer. And it was just a little over a year ago when the Clippers’ big man was representing the Western Conference in the All-Star Game while his superstar teammates—Paul and Griffin—were not invited.
A deeper dive into the numbers shows that Jordan’s struggles have largely been a function of a change in usage coupled with the loss of Paul. What Jordan provides is a healthy, shot-blocking, rim-running post player who has been lethal in transition while being one of the most dominant roll men in pick-and-roll situations over the last three seasons.
What we have seen this season, however, is a player who, despite said dominance, has seen a 20 percent drop in his roll rate.
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According to Synergy Sports, Jordan rolled to the rim 87.3 percent of the time in 2015-16, averaging 1.449 points per possession—good enough to be in the 94th percentile. Last season, Jordan’s roll rate increased to 88.9 percent. This was in tandem with a jump in Jordan’s points per possession in these types of scenarios; his 1.539 points per possession put him in the 97th percentile.
This season, however, while still providing elite-level production in transition (his remarkably efficient 1.548 points per possession puts him in the 99th percentile), Jordan’s roll numbers have dropped considerably. He is cutting to the rim just 68.9 percent of these occasions, a 20 percent drop compared to a season ago. In 2016-17, Jordan was the roll man 171 times through 81 games.
This season, at what marks the approximate halfway point, Jordan has rolled to the rim just 74 times, a 13.4 percent drop year over year. What once was known as “Lob City,” rife with a bevy of Vine-ready moments and Twitter retweets, the Clippers offense has been run predominantly through the backcourt as Lou Williams is averaging 19.1 field goals per game over the Clippers’ last 15. Austin Rivers has missed time with an ankle injury, but upon his return, he would also be expected to continue taking more than 15 shots per night.
To Jordan’s further detriment, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers has attempted to turn Griffin into a stretch 4. While this would help with the spacing issues, in theory, Griffin has taken a career-high 17.7 shots per game, 5.7 of which are three-pointers, while shooting at a career-worst 48.5 eFG%.
The most noticeable drop comes in high pick-and-rolls. In 2016-17, Jordan posted a dominant 1.505 points per possession (97th percentile) running alongside Paul in a more pick-and-roll-friendly offense. This season, with Paul in Houston and the Clippers being operated by a combination of Patrick Beverley, Milos Teodosic and Williams, Jordan’s high pick-and-roll efficiency has plummeted to 1.16 points per possession (63rd percentile).
The Case For
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If less utilization is the rock and poor teammate ball movement is the hard place, Jordan has been placed squarely between the two. But this is not a case of “what you see is what you get” with Jordan.
According to one league executive, putting him alongside a gifted passer like LeBron could take his game back to the heights that earned him his current contract, if not more as it pertains to adding value in opening up lanes for teammates.
“He would have that sucking effect,” the executive said of Jordan’s ability to draw in defenders. “LeBron’s passing becomes that much more important. He can see over the top of most defenders, and the computer he is would feast on that whether it’s to Jordan or to guys on the perimeter.”
One of those players on the perimeter would conceivably be Kevin Love, the Cavaliers’ All-Star power forward who has been playing center for much of the 2017-18 season. Where Jordan’s game falls off in post-up situations or when asked to play away from the rim, Love thrives. He has a strong post-up game and a spot-up attack that places him in the 94th percentile (1.253 points per possession).
According to the same league executive, the acquisition of Jordan would allow Love to slide back to the power forward position, allowing further exploitation of his elite spot-up game. It would also free Jordan to do the things he was doing prior to the shift in focus in Los Angeles.
“Kevin is plus defensive rebounder and a floor-spacing shooter who defenses are forced to flock to when the ball is kicked out to the perimeter,” the executive said. “You don’t respect Blake [Griffin] like that. You’re waiting for the pump fake and drive.”
Factor in that Jordan is currently the league leader in rebounding percentage and has long been a bellwether for the Clippers in team-wide eFG% on an on-/off-court basis, and all the talk of struggles may be overblown.
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Pick-and-roll scenarios and post-up efficiency is all well and good, but what Jordan represents is a gamble that factors in fit but also front-office dynamics and the future of both the Cavs and Clippers.
Depending upon when a deal would take place (assuming one were to take place), the acquiring team would be on the hook for a minimum of roughly $6.5 million. That would represent the prorated portion of Jordan’s $22.6 million salary for 2017-18.
Jordan could then pick up his $24 million player option or opt out. The latter could lead to a Griffin- or Paul Millsap-like annual salary ($29-30 million).
Specific to the Cavaliers, a team with a host of contracts ending this year (Wade and Thomas among them), there is also LeBron’s franchise-altering decision when he tests free agency after the season. The Cavaliers have the bird rights for James and Thomas, allowing them to pay more than any other organization. They would also acquire the rights for Jordan if a deal took place.
The looming question is what direction will the Cavaliers take their franchise in if James leaves this July? According to one league executive, coupling bird rights with an owner in Dan Gilbert who has been willing to pay league-high luxury-tax payments could provide considerable wiggle room.
“LeBron’s lack of commitment is certainly a big issue,” the executive told B/R. “Teams move bad money all the time, but the finances of this deal are most important.
“The deal makes the most sense if LeBron were to leave or if DeAndre were to opt in. If LeBron stays and you get DeAndre to pick up his option, you can just say ‘f–k it’ and write a big tax check. If LeBron leaves and you re-sign Isaiah, keep DeAndre and add in Kevin Love, it’s not that bad. It’s not a non-starter.”
The under-discussed aspect of any deal that involves Cleveland and Los Angeles is that current Clippers assistant general manager Trent Redden was a longtime assistant GM with the Cavaliers under David Griffin.
According to a source familiar with the situation, any player the Clippers would get back in return will have ties to Redden in some capacity, as he was in Cleveland during the initial acquisition.
The $22 million question, however, is: Is it worth it? Is a deal for Jordan—a player who may not be able to switch against the Golden State Warriors—worth the risk, both financially and for chemistry? Is Jordan anything more than a 6’11” Tristan Thompson? And even if such a deal were agreed upon, could the Cavaliers consider themselves set for the playoffs?
Until Thursday, no LeBron-led team had lost back-to-back games by 25 points. According to Elias Sports, no team in NBA history has ever gone on to win the title after losing back-to-back games by 25 points.
As the Cavaliers sit at the midway point of the season, having dropped six of their last eight games in large part to suspect defense, a lack of hustle and the sudden inability to score, the need to make a move may be that much more pressing.
“Trading Tristan Thompson doesn’t help you win a championship,” a league executive told B/R. “But if they don’t do something, they may not even get to the Finals.”
Statistics are current through games Thursday, Jan. 11. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.