Overreaction Theater: The zombie Cavs retake pole position in the East

Cleveland Cavaliers' Larry Nance Jr. (24) drives for the basket against Boston Celtics' Greg Monroe, behind left, and Jaylen Brown (7) during the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game in Boston, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

I am not an NBA general manager, unless you count myGM mode in “NBA 2K18.” In that case, however, I’m also the captain of the Normandy SR-2, an accomplished cyberterrorist and one of World War II’s finest riflemen.

Here’s why: I thought dumping Isaiah Thomas, who could theoretically provide 80 percent of what Kyrie Irving did when healthy, was a mistake. I thought sending out Dwyane Wade, who by all accounts is LeBron James’ best friend in the whole word, was a mistake. I thought picking up George Hill, who played in Sacramento as if he hated basketball, was a mistake.

That’s not even counting Jordan Clarkson (“a poor man’s Lou Williams,” you can find somewhere tucked in the recesses of my brain) and the other folks Cleveland Cavaliers general manager Koby Altman involved in a series of house-cleaning trades last Thursday at the NBA’s trade deadline.

I wasn’t a fan. James’ goal is to beat the Warriors, and a group of bench guys from a forgettable Western Conference team wouldn’t bring the necessary juice.

Well, here’s what happened when the newcomers hit the court Sunday in Boston for the first time as Cavaliers. Clarkson had 17, Rodney Hood had 15, Hill, had 12 and Larry Nance Jr. added five on a pair of huge dunks. James, of course, led the way with 24, 10 and eight, and Cleveland scored 121 points on the league’s best defense on Paul Pierce Night.

I love a good NBA overreaction and boy, do we have a good one today. The Cavaliers are back from the dead. They’re six games behind the No. 1 seed (Toronto) and five-and-a-half back of Boston from No. 2, but playoff seeding has never been one of James’ priorities. Get in there healthy and you’re ready to roll.

In one day on the trade market, Altman turned his roster from decrepit to spry. Scoring has been diversified. Perimeter defense, or at least effort, has returned.

The statistics coming out of Sunday’s game were encouraging for Cleveland fans, but watch the game and you can see the change goes deeper than the box score. Players were hungry for rebounds, supporting each other on the bench and working on both ends of the floor. Clarkson, in particular, brought a certain swagger that energized the team.

Most importantly, James looked engaged again, and that’s half the battle for any Eastern Conference team seeking an NBA Finals berth.

The four new faces have come from different situations, and not the type that would suggest they’re ready to jump in and immediately compete for a championship (Los Angeles, Sacramento, Utah), but they already appear to be locked in.

Clarkson and Nance Jr. were young guys who haven’t tasted winning, or even approached a playoff game. Both are hungry. Nance Jr. has extra motivation, as his father was one of the greatest players in Cavaliers history.

Hood is a motivated by winning, presumably, but also by the promise of a juicy offer sheet on the free agent market this offseason. He didn’t get the shine he deserved behind Donovan Mitchell in Salt Lake City, and showed his potential as a microwave scorer off the bench Sunday.

Hill has been here before; he went to the Eastern Conference Finals twice in Indiana, falling both times to James’ Miami Heat. After a stopgap year in Utah, he followed the cash to Sacramento, a situation that clearly did not pique his interest on the court. Back on a winning team, he’s again an incredibly useful role player.

The requirements for succeeding alongside LeBron James are not difficult. Hit your open threes, give effort on defense and you’re golden. These four have already shown that they’re capable of that, while also bringing new blood and a dash of scoring to the table.

So, give these guys a couple of weeks to learn the defensive schemes, which under Tyronn Lue can not possibly constitute rocket science, and we’ll have a fully functioning Cavaliers team rolling into the playoffs. Add Kevin Love, who’s out with a broken hand and adds another serious offensive punch, and Cleveland’s looking good.

It won’t be easy. Boston’s defense will be a tough out, and that’s without considering the potential return of Gordon Hayward, and the new-look Raptors can match the Cavs in scoring versatility.

Those two, however, have a combined total of zero LeBrons.


Tyler Keating is the sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at tyler.keating@uconn.edu. He tweets @tylerskeating.