CLEVELAND — Once summer rolls around, LeBron James stars on a different stage.
All eyes in the NBA and across the sports world will focus on James during free agency.
There are already teams lining up for an audience with The King, should he opt out of his contract. On Thursday, the Cavaliers turned their roster upside down in hopes of convincing James he doesn’t have to go anywhere.
And just like that, another chapter was added to a chaotic season in Cleveland.
With an unexpected flurry of moves before the NBA trade deadline, the Cavs unloaded six players to change their identity and culture while moving back into title contention. They also showed James, who can be a free agent in July, they’re willing to do whatever’s necessary to help him win another championship.
“He’s the guy that is going to take us back to the promised land,” Cavs general manager Koby Altman said, “so you want to put the right pieces around him.”
All it took was a massive makeover.
Altman ended an experiment doomed to fail by infusing youth into what was the league’s oldest roster and holding onto a coveted first-round draft pick in case James decides to leave.
The Cavaliers have been in a freefall, losing 13 of 20 games since Christmas Day. But what had become obvious and more troublesome to Altman, and anyone that spent any time around the team, was that the Cavs were miserable, disconnected and on a path to self-destruction.
“We were really worried that what was going on on the floor and sort of our culture in the building that we were marching a slow death,” Altman said. “And we didn’t want to be a part of that.”
So Altman’s first move in the overhaul required the 35-year-old to swallow his pride and scuttle the blockbuster trade that brought guard Isaiah Thomas to Cleveland last July in the deal for Kyrie Irving.
A former All-Star, Thomas still hasn’t fully recovered from a serious hip injury and there were no signs he was going to improve enough to make a difference this season.
But beyond that, he had worn out his welcome with some biting comments toward teammates and coach Tyronn Lue.
The Cavs shipped Thomas, forward Channing Frye and one of their 2018 first-round picks to the Lakers for point guard Jordan Clarkson and forward Larry Nance Jr., two athletic 25-year-olds who can potentially be part of Cleveland’s core for years to come.
“You make a trade and you want it to succeed, like anything else,” Altman said in assessing the Thomas-for-Irving deal. “The level of value we got back in the Kyrie Irving trade was pretty good. Did it fit? Did it work? Probably not. So with those pieces, we decided to shuffle the deck and get younger and get some youthful talent with energy and enthusiasm, great cultural pieces that I want to be a part of.”
Cleveland also parted with Jae Crowder, who came over from the Celtics with Thomas and didn’t pan out, by sending the forward and former league MVP Derrick Rose to Utah for forward Rodney Hood. Iman Shumpert was dealt to Sacramento for guard George Hill, a veteran who can shoot and create.
And Altman completed the stunning midseason renovation by trading Dwyane Wade back to Miami, where he’ll finish his career with the franchise that drafted him and the one he put on the map by winning three titles.
Altman consulted with Wade and James about the move since their friendship is what led to them playing together in Cleveland this season.
While Altman’s main objective was to repair Cleveland’s culture, his efforts also were designed to appease James, who hasn’t been himself in recent weeks. However, with the deadline hours away, James put together a 37-point, 15-assist, 10-rebound game on Wednesday that he capped with a game-saving block in the final seconds and a buzzer-beating shot to edge Minnesota in overtime.
It was vintage James, who had been playing at an MVP level before his puzzling drop-off.
Altman feels the trades will rejuvenate James.
“This guy is so good he dictates outcomes,” he said. “That was the hardest part for me was seeing him . and I don’t want to say he didn’t believe in this group and want to be careful in saying that because he’s going to compete every night and try to get whatever teams he’s on to the Finals, but I wanted to see a renewed sense of joy in him and being around him the last 24 hours has been great.
“He’s excited and I can see a renewed sense of excitement and joy in him when he’s in the building and we will see that translate to some fun basketball because he’s the key.”
Just last week James expressed doubts about the Cavs’ commitment to fixing their roster. He had watched other All-Stars — including close friends Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony — get traded since the end of last season and he wondered if Cleveland was going to make any significant moves to improve.
He doesn’t have any doubts now.
James, who holds a $35.6 million option, said before the deadline that he would not waive his no-trade clause. He has not given the Cavs a long-term commitment in order to keep pressure on owner Dan Gilbert to continue to upgrade the roster.
The Cavs made their moves.
James gets the next one.
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