The Cavs have acquired Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith after a disappointing 19-16 start. How much better do you believe these moves make Cleveland in the immediate?
Jason Patt: I'd say these moves clearly make the Cavs better. They desperately needed another big, and that was even when Varejao was healthy. Mozgov may not be some big stud or anything, but he's a pretty good player and a definite upgrade.
Shumpert should theoretically provide help on the wing when he gets healthy, although he has been super inconsistent, even on D. Perhaps that was just a function of being a part of the cluster fuck that's the Knicks, but there's no guarantee he somehow turns into a big contributor. But he's a young talent and that's something, because dudes like Mike Miller and James Jones are bums at this point.
JR is JR and who the hell knows what happens there. He has been effective as a gunner alongside Melo in the past, and maybe he can find some of that magic. He's basically the older version of Waiters, although probably better.
While these moves do make the Cavs better, I don't see them saving them in terms of being a title team. There are just too many problems that these guys can't fix, or at least can't fix enough. Maybe everything clicks and LeBron/Love/Irving go scorched earth and make me look foolish, but I don't see it.
Kevin Ferrigan: To echo what Jay said, I think these moves have done a pretty solid job of filling the Cavs' three biggest holes. They needed a backup creator off the bench, a credible wing defender, and most important, a rim protector to stop their defensive bleeding in the paint. JR Smith, Iman Shumpert, and Timofey Mozgov all fit those bills roughly speaking.
As an added bonus, they dumped Dion Waiters who was a terrible chemistry fit with the guys they had. He didn't get along with Kyrie and LeBron seemed to hate him, so getting rid of him and getting a pick back was great, especially since it helped them land Mozgov. Giving up two first round picks for a player of Mozgov's quality is kind of insane, but the Cavs are firmly ensconced in win-right-now-please-God-don't-let-LeBron-leave-again mode, so they kind of had to do it.
But there are still problems with this team. Mozgov isn't going to singlehandedly buoy their defense. He's not that sort of player. This isn't Omer Asik or Tyson Chandler. He's an above average, but not great rim protector. That'll help, but will it get the Cavs to even league average defense? I'm pretty dubious. JR Smith could go any number of directions. Iman Shumpert has to prove he can stay healthy and on the court if he's going to make any sort of impact on Cleveland's title chances.
As a Bulls loyalist, these moves make me a little nervous because the Cavs biggest problems seemed to be poor roster construction, mostly necessitated by the big moves they made in making Love and LeBron Cavaliers, and chemistry, which was probably somewhat a function of the just mentioned poorly fitting roster. It's also possible that LeBron hasn't been at "Clear Best Player in the World" status this year because he was playing through injury. Once he returns from his time off resting his strained knee and back, it's possible world destroying Bron is back and that's frightening, especially with a better fitting and better overall roster around him. The East just got a little tougher to win, which sucks, but I still feel good about the Bulls chances, especially if Derrick Rose can get himself figured out by April and Joakim Noah can round into his usual presence as a postseason ninja warrior.
Ricky O'Donnell: It's pretty rare for a team with title aspirations to go out and acquire two new starters in January, but that's the way the season has gone for Cleveland. They had very obvious deficiencies on the defensive side of the ball even before Anderson Varejao's injury, and when he went down it basically became a formality they would be making a move.
I definitely think the Cavs got better. I believe in Shumpert even if the defensive numbers don't support the fact that he's a potential wing stopper. He's still a big, young, athletic wing. Remember, Rajon Rondo wasn't defending in a losing situation in Boston, either. I'm guessing Shumpert will be good there if he can return from this shoulder injury and stay healthy.
Mozgov is a solid addition, but they will have to just keep him on his man or at the rim instead of chasing around pick-and-roll ball handlers. Like Kevin said, I don't think he's a one-man wrecking crew defensively. I actually think J.R. will help too if only because on the night Cleveland traded Waiters, it started Matthew Dellavedova and Joe Harris in the backcourt. J.R. Smith is better than those dudes.
The pressure will be on Shumpert and LeBron to really start carrying the defense. LeBron definitely does not look like the same defender we saw in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, but there's probably a reason it looks like he's coasting right now. Dude has a lot of miles on him and knows what part of the season counts for real. I'm guessing LeBron still has plenty left in the tank, though, even if he's not capable of being the world wrecking defender we saw a few years back.
So here's my question: did the Cavs even improve enough to safely make it out of the first round? Do you guys think they will climb out of the No. 5 spot? If we assume the Bulls won't be the four seed, which of Toronto, Atlanta and Washington do you think would give Cleveland the toughest matchup in the first round?
Jason: I certainly think the Cavs COULD climb out of the No. 5 spot. There's still over half a season left and there's still a ton of talent on this roster when they get healthy. I'm still not sure their defense is good enough to sustain huge winning streaks, but maybe the offense can get to that dominant level we were expecting.
But could I say with full confidence that they will move to the top four? Absolutely not. As shitty as the East is, those top four teams are really damn good, and barring injury, I don't see any of them falling too hard. If anybody, maybe the Raptors because their D is leaky as well and the offense could regress a bit. Getting DeRozan back will certainly help though.
As for toughest matchup for them, I'd say that's a toss-up between Wizards and Hawks, although I'm leaning toward Hawks. Atlanta is just so balanced and that ball movement would be a nightmare for Cleveland to guard. The Hawks have the bigs to punish the Cavs, and they have a good point guard and shooters to do damage on the perimeter. Very impressed by them. I still don't think the Cavs are "safely" out of the first round with these moves, but I could change my mind later in the year because I'm allowed to damn it
Kevin: I don't think it's totally safe to assume that the Cavs make it out of the first round now, but it's a lot more likely than it would have been if not for these moves. Like Jason, I think the Hawks are the Cavs toughest matchup because they have my COY favorite, Mike Budenholzer, running things and tons of talent all the way through the whole roster. People say they don't have a superstar, but Kyle Korver has superstar level impact on an offense with his gravitational pull opening up lanes for his teammates to drive and Al Horford and Paul Millsap are as good a front court as you'll find. Horford especially can go head to head with Kevin Love and easily win the matchup.
I think the most likely 4 seed is Washington because, frankly, Washington has won above its head right now. By Basketball Reference's Simple Rating System, which adjusts for strength of schedule and margin of victory, the Wizards are just a pretty good, not great team. Looking at their roster, for all of John Wall's two-way brilliance, that rings true to me. For the same reason, I think Washington is the easiest option for the Cavs to go through to win in round 1. Cleveland will still have to worry about getting beat up inside because, as the Bulls found out last spring, Nene and Marcin Gortat are a tough, physical duo upfront. I'm not sure the Cavs are tough enough up front to beat those guys, but I think if Mozgov can be who they hope he is and that allows Kevin Love to get back to his Minnesota form, the Cavs probably still win the series. Cleveland might also be able to beat the Raptors if their defense continues to crater as it has in the last month or so. I just think Toronto's offense is too good to lose to this Cavs team, unless Cleveland gets a lot better.
As far as the Cavs catching anyone and getting home court advantage in round 1 back, I find that unlikely, especially after they just lost again at home last night to the Rockets, but not impossible. They're 6.5 games back of Washington right now. There's a lot of season left, and the Wizards, as I mentioned, have won more than their metrics suggest they should have thus far. If their winning percentage comes back to their true talent level and Cleveland goes on a run, it could happen.
Ricky: I really do think Toronto, Washington and Atlanta are all legit. I agree that it seems like Washington will be the No. 4 seed, but the Raps have lost three straight now, too. They're getting DeRozan back but he's shooting under 40 percent on the season. Is it crazy to think the Raps could be better without him?
Basically, I think these moves put a lot more pressure on LeBron, Love and Kyrie. Like, it was a fundamentally broken team with Waiters and no interior defenders, but now they've added some defense. It's on LeBron to get back to being LeBron and on Kyrie and Love to play some defense. Because in the playoffs, you can't hide two guys at the same time if Blatt plays them together.
I'm a huge LeBron fan, but there's no denying he hasn't looked himself this year. He's admitted injuries and is now out with back and knee issues, which never happens to him. I think part of the reason 'Bron went to Cleveland was that he knew he couldn't keep carrying such a big load, so in his head he figure he'd let Kyrie and Love handle the scoring and he could wait back and pick his spots. One thing he didn't realize, it seems, is that defense is still half of the game and Kyrie and Love really are poor defenders. Remember the Cavs benching Love and then taking off against the Magic for a fourth quarter rally a few weeks ago? That's not a coincidence.
In the playoffs against the Wizards, who is guard John Wall? It's going to have to be Shump, but then you've got Kyrie on Bradley Beal. We saw what Beal did to the Bulls in the playoffs last year. Up front, Nene isn't super mobile anymore and you'd prefer to play him closer to the rim, so it's not an ideal matchup against Cleveland. Nene does have a big size advantage on Love, though, and that should help. Gortat is a better player than Mozgov, too.
LeBron has burned the Bulls so many times in the playoffs over the last several seasons that I can't write off Cleveland ever, especially not after they finally traded for some defenders. In the playoffs, though, LeBron won't be able to coast on either end and Love and Kyrie won't be able to hide. Mozgov and Shump aren't going to be able to defend all five guys on the floor by themselves. If they can handle the man in front of them, Cleveland should be happy.