Cavs remain best in the East

Marla Ridenour - Guest Columnist

Bringing back Kyle Korver and signing Jeff Green, Jose Calderon and Cedi Osman was not the kind of free-agency splash expected during a pivotal offseason for the Cavaliers.

General Manager David Griffin and owner Dan Gilbert parted ways and to this point the architect of a team that has gone to three consecutive NBA Finals and won one championship has not been officially replaced. ESPN analyst Chauncey Billups turned down an opportunity to become head of basketball operations.

Their top two trade targets, the Indiana Pacers’ Paul George and the Chicago Bulls’ Jimmy Butler, landed in Oklahoma City and Minnesota, respectively, with a potential three-team deal for George fizzling on draft day. They tried to send Iman Shumpert to the Houston Rockets, but Rockets GM Daryl Morey elected to sign defensive-minded P.J. Tucker instead. Now Morey has his sights set on New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony, reportedly open to waiving his no-trade clause to join Chris Paul.

But there are rays of hope to which Cavs fans can cling. The rebuilding Bulls, although acknowledging they don’t intend to give Dwyane Wade a buyout of his $23.8 million salary before the start of the season, might revisit that at the trade deadline. That could open the door for a LeBron James-Wade reunion.

And, more importantly, the Cavs are still the class of the East. While the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder are pummeling each other in the 2018 postseason, the Cavs, if healthy, still have enough to beat the Boston Celtics.

It looks as if there is no well thought-out plan to convince James to remain in Cleveland next summer short of hoping the more powerful Western Conference cannibalizes itself during the playoffs and leaves its Finals representative bruised and weakened.

With Gilbert’s luxury tax bill now skyrocketing to a league-high $70.7 million, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks, Gilbert might see that as his best strategy. While he’s being questioned around the country — “What the heck is Dan Gilbert doing?” a radio talk show host from Seattle asked me Tuesday — it might be the most logical approach for his cap-strapped team.

The Cavs should have a much easier route to the Finals, although a bit more effort during the regular season will be required to win another championship. Flipping the switch on offense is one thing, but on defense those habits must be built during the journey, no matter how monotonous it seems to the usually bored Cavs.

It doesn’t appear the Cavs achieved their free agency goals — at least the goals of those outside the organization.

Green and Osman might help the Cavs improve defensively, but Osman could be a long-term project. The bench was not significantly strengthened, with both Green and Calderon coming off the worst statistical seasons of their careers, although Cavs coach Tyronn Lue believes his history with Green from Boston can help change that. They got only marginally younger, with Green 30 and Osman 22. They replaced backup point guard Deron Williams, 33, with Calderon, 35, although after Williams’ Finals performance it was clear the Cavs needed an upgrade.

More troubling is the fact they didn’t gain ground on the defending champion Warriors. Barring a blockbuster move before the regular season ends, those gains will have to be made from within with better defense, better ball movement and more consistent effort.

There has seemingly been nothing but disappointment since Griffin walked away on June 19.

The Cavs didn’t get George, likely because the Pacers were determined not to deal him to an East foe. They didn’t get Butler, who might have been a better fit. Billups rejected Gilbert’s reported lowball offer, leaving assistant general manager Koby Altman second in command behind the owner. They elected to use part of their taxpayer mid-level exception of $5.2 million on Osman instead of giving it all to guard Jamal Crawford, 37, who has averaged in double figures in scoring in each of the past 15 seasons. The biggest plus was the return of Korver, although Osman’s Euroleague highlight videos from Anadolu Efes in Turkey might excite fans.

But on the Eastern Conference landscape, the Cavs remain kings of the hill.

The conference-finalist Celtics landed their prize free agent Gordon Hayward, but they had to trade their best defender, Avery Bradley, to afford Hayward. Without Bradley, who will guard Kyrie Irving? In the conference finals when they had Bradley, the Celtics did a poor job of that as Irving averaged 25.8 points in five games and shot 62 percent from the field.

The Celtics added Marcus Morris in the deal that sent Bradley to the Pistons. They drafted forward Jayson Tatum third overall. Forward Jaylen Brown showed promise as a rookie last season. But I’m not convinced the Celtics have enough to threaten the Cavs’ three-year reign as conference champions unless the Cavs are hampered by significant injuries.

Two other 2017 playoff teams are decidedly weaker. Determined to get something for George — although less than they could have received in a three-team deal that included the Cavs — the Pacers took a step backward. In trading Butler, the Bulls are in full-blown rebuilding mode despite the presence of Wade.

I love the young Milwaukee Bucks, but they need time to reach elite status. The Cavs seem to feel they own the Toronto Raptors. The Washington Wizards might provide a playoff challenge, especially with their speed against a Cavs team stocked with old veterans.

But for all the hand-wringing and “What is Dan Gilbert doing?” angst, there is no reason to panic.

The Cavs still have the Big Three. They still have the best team in the East. With George and Butler playing in the West, they have a clearer pathway to the Finals, which might end up being the deciding factor that keeps James in Cleveland.

Perhaps it was naïve to believe the Pacers and/or Bulls were going to make a trade that dramatically improved the conference-rival Cavs, as hard as it was not to get sucked into that frenzy.

An important Cavs’ offseason when it came to determining James’ future next summer didn’t turn out as Northeast Ohioans hoped. But the talent that headed to the already dominant West and the fact that George ended up in Oklahoma City instead of Boston was a win-win.

Being the beast of the East is no small consolation prize.

Marla Ridenour

Guest Columnist