The Cleveland Cavaliers did make a big trade before the February 7th deadline, but it wasn’t made to improve the team. Much like the deal that sent George Hill to the Milwaukee Bucks, Cleveland’s agreement with the Houston Rockets sent out a solid contributor (Alec Burks) for a bad contract (Brandon Knight) and a first-round pick. The Cavs also received Marquese Chriss, but he was an afterthought who was all but guaranteed to be gone after the season.
After all, he hadn’t shown much with the Phoenix Suns, and wasn’t able to carve out a role with the Rockets. But four games into his stint with the Cavaliers, Chriss has looked like a major steal. Four games is far too small of a sample size to judge Chriss, but Cleveland has nothing to lose and much to gain by giving him a shot.
Chriss was drafted eighth overall in the 2016 NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings, who immediately shipped him off to Phoenix. During his rookie year, he averaged 9.2 points and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 45% from the field and 32% from beyond the arc. At just 19, Chriss was extremely raw, especially mentally, but his elite athleticism and 6’10” 240lbs frame made him an intriguing prospect.
During Chriss’s sophomore campaign, neither his role nor his performance improved much, although he did place 19th in the league in block percentage, which is “an estimate of the percentage of opponent two-point field goal attempts blocked by the player while he was on the floor.” according to Basketball Reference.
On August 31st of last year, Chriss was traded, along with Brandon Knight, to the Rockets for De’Anthony Melton and Ryan Anderson’s albatross of a contract. The move still doesn’t make all that much sense for Phoenix, as they essentially swapped bad contracts with Houston while giving away Chriss for free. The Rockets meanwhile had acquired a young big man with potential, and Chriss was billed as Clint Capela’s backup.
However, Chriss was unable to crack the rotation, and the backup center job went to
8636-year-old Nene. Chriss was active for only 16 games with Houston, and played just 6.5 minutes in each contest. His severe lack of playing time caused him to request a trade, and the Rockets obliged, sending him to the Cavaliers.
At the time of the trade, Chriss’s fit with the Cavs was unclear. At the 4 and 5, Cleveland already had Tristan Thompson, Ante Zizic, Larry Nance Jr., Kevin Love, and Channing Frye, with Deng Adel, Jaron Blossomgame, and Cedi Osman also getting time at power forward. Add in the currently-rehabbing John Henson, and there was no room for another big man. But Chriss has played more than 22 minutes in each of his four games with the Cavs thus far, and because of his performance, is likely to retain a large role even once Henson and Love are at full strength.
With the Cavaliers, Chriss is averaging 14.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, one assist, and one steal while shooting 54% from the field and an impressive 56% from three-point range. It’s highly unlikely that Chriss keeps up this level of play, but in his short time with the team, he’s displayed everything that made him a lottery pick in the first place. His athleticism and quickness is fantastic for his size, and he possesses good shooting range.
He is active on defense and has the potential to be a solid rim protector. Where Chriss struggles the most is the mental aspect of the game. He still doesn’t have a full grasp of the finer nuances of defensive positioning, and has a tendency to play too physical; he had to work with a sports psychologist while in college in order to prevent him from fouling out of games.
The Suns don’t have the greatest track record for developing young players, and Chriss wasn’t given the chance to develop while in Houston, so the Cavaliers are an excellent fit for him to further his career. Although, to be fair, the Cavs haven’t done a great job at developing young talent either.
Athletic big men who can shoot threes and protect the rim don’t grow on trees, and Cleveland has had one fall right into their lap. Chriss has loads of potential, and he’s still just 21 years old. If he continues to play at a level anywhere his first four games with the team, the Cavaliers will have no choice but to attempt to re-sign him after the season. The Cavs don’t have a ton of young talent, and have to take chances on any they can find. It cost Cleveland practically nothing to acquire Marquese Chriss, and now they may just have a diamond in the rough that needs polishing.