As the Cleveland Cavaliers prepare for their yet-to-be-named opponent in the Eastern Conference Finals, you can’t help but look back at how their season was going just four months ago.
It seems like so much time has passed since the Cavs were an unmitigated mess, hovering around .500 in late December and early January. Those talks of titles were being laughed at as Cleveland slopped their way through game after game, looking disjointed, unmotivated, lackluster, and plenty of other adjectives you don’t ever want associated with you.
And so it was, Cavs GM David Griffin hit the phones, knowing he had to make a significant change before a season of dreams turned into a nightmare. On January 5, the deal was made. Cleveland dealt away the mercurial Dion Waiters in a three-way trade, bringing in New York Knicks guards J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, along with a draft pick.
At first glance, it didn’t seem like a major deal. In Smith, it sure looked like Cleveland acquired an older Waiters: a notorious head-case who had a tendency to highjack the offense. Shumpert could provide much-needed wing defense, but needed to heal up from a dislocated shoulder. It would’ve been odd to, at that moment, look at this trade and think “this is going to change everything.”
As we wake up today, you can’t help but realize this deal indeed transformed the Cavs’ season.
First of all, Waiters had to go. His clashes with Kyrie Irving made the previous season a nightmare, and it didn’t look like much had changed this time around. That Cleveland was able to flip him for two players (three, if you count the draft pick acquired which the team used to get Timofey Mozgov) was nothing short of impressive. Again, though, you really had a tough time predicting the players who came back in return would make as much of an impact as they have.
Smith, seen as a bit of a wild card, came to Cleveland and immediately shed the tendencies which gave him a bad name in New York. He has yet to be a distraction, and has provided the offensive spark the Cavs were so desperate for earlier this year. Cleveland couldn’t convince Waiters to be the pick-and-pop shooter they needed, but since this style is Smith’s specialty, the transition was relatively seamless.
Shumpert’s true value hasn’t been more noticeable than during this past series against the Chicago Bulls. Slotted into the starting lineup, the flat-topped guard helped deliver necessary defense against Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler. Additionally, Shumpert gave the Cavs some much-needed offense, averaging almost 13 PPG for the series.
One of his biggest moments came last night in Game 6.
With the Cavs and Bulls going back and forth in a tight second quarter, Shumpert was clotheslined by Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic. This appeared to be one of those “don’t poke the bear” situations, as Shumpert ignited. Before this moment, Chicago was up 40-38. After a flurry of points from Shumpert, the Cavs grabbed a seven-point lead and never looked back.
Things not only seemed to change in the box score after Cleveland dealt for Smith and Shumpert, there also appeared to be a notable difference in team chemistry.
Players seemed to show much more appreciation for each other. A team which often looked glum and grumpy even during wins was now shown smiling on the bench, actually appearing as though they genuinely cared for each other. The insistence that the Cavs were brothers on the court became more and more frequent in post-game interviews. Chemistry is always crucial for a team’s success, and suddenly Cleveland looked like it had a ton of it.
There are more than a few reasons Cleveland is now eight games away from an NBA Championship, but one of the biggest involves two players who weren’t on the roster when the season opened. It wasn’t immediate, but with the acquisition of Smith and Shumpert, something changed with the Cavs. The swagger many expected to see right out of the gate finally arrived. The offense began clicking, the defense started locking down opponents. Cleveland began the dominant play which was expected of them, and it’s brought them this much closer to the finish line.
Was it all thanks to Smith and Shumpert? Not 100%. But, make no mistake, the trade which sent the two of them to Cleveland is clearly one of the most pivotal moments of the season.
Smith seemed to say it best in an Instagram post after last night’s Game 6 victory. In it was a picture of him and Shumpert on the Knicks bench, attached to a photo of the two of them in Cavs jerseys. The caption: “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
Truer words may have never been spoken.