NBA Trade Deadline 2018 Preview: Will Cavaliers Deal First Round Picks to Save Season?

If the Cleveland Cavaliers front office wasn’t already convinced it had to make several significant moves at the trade deadline, Saturday night surely forced its hand.

The Cavaliers, bad defensively all season, were abject against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday night at Quicken Loans Arena. The offense wasn’t bad but it would have had to have been superhuman to overcome another terrible effort on the back end. The Thunder put up 148 points via every conceivable means. Carmelo Anthony hit mid-range jumpers all night for 29 points and added ten rebounds. Paul George sank three-pointers for fun on his way to 36 points. Russell Westbrook drove to the rim for 23 points and 20 assists. Steven Adams bullied the Cavaliers underneath the basket for 25 points and ten rebounds. The Thunder’s “Big Three” became the “Big Four” against a Cleveland team offering very little resistance.

If the box score sounds bad, the reality was even worse. The Thunder found favorable matchups all night against Isaiah Thomas, while the lack of a true rebounder showed up starkly against Adams. Dave McMenamin of ESPN called it, “One of the most inept defensive performances in Cavaliers history.” LeBron James was also blunt. "Playoffs? We can't even start thinking about that, not the way we're playing right now," James told ESPN postgame. "We could easily get bounced early in the playoffs if they started next weekend. Haven't even began thinking about the postseason." Thomas was most brutal of all. "In Boston we were a much better defensive team," Thomas said in quotes reported by Bleacher Report. "We tried harder. I don't think we trust each other right now."

The Cavaliers’ crisis of form and confidence, including seven losses from their last ten games, wouldn’t look so bad in the context of the Eastern Conference alone. Cleveland remains third, albeit just one game ahead of the surging Miami Heat. But there’s no way this team, in its current form, is beating the Golden State Warriors in seven games. Or the Houston Rockets. Or the Thunder. The Toronto Raptors would be favorites right now against the Cavaliers in the playoffs, even with James raising his game for the postseason as he always does.

The trade deadline of February 8 represents an opportunity to cure some of the Cavaliers’ problems, at least in the short term. The New York Times reports that Cleveland wants a “dramatic reshaping of their roster”. That would apparently involve moving for DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers center, Clippers guard Lou Williams and Sacramento Kings guard George Hill.

That doesn’t sound promising for the prospects of Thomas, who has looked intermittently bright on offense since returning from a hip injury but whose defensive weaknesses hurt the Cavaliers most where they are already weakest. Yahoo Sports suggested on Saturday that the Cavaliers might have to give up Thomas to acquire Hill.

That sounds a heavy price but it’s probably more palatable than giving up one of the two first-round draft picks Cleveland has this spring. That may be required in the package to lure Jordan and Williams from the Clippers, who are still in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race.

It’s an invidious position for the Cavaliers’ front office. Trying to keep James happy by making the team better in the short term will almost certainly make Cleveland’s fortunes worse in the longer term, especially if James does what seems likely and moves on in the summer. But without significant trades, it looks as though the Cavaliers are going nowhere in the playoffs.

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