After a demoralizing 118-108 loss to the Golden State Warriors on Monday, the Cleveland Cavaliers sit at 26-17, riding a four game losing streak and barely breaking even so far in the new year. It’s clear that as the team is currently constructed, they won’t be able to topple the Warriors in the Finals. At this point, the Boston Celtics may be able to beat them in a seven game series.
Something has to be done. The Cavs have to add a serious amount of talent before the trade deadline if they hope to compete in the Finals. Trade rumors surrounding the team have repeatedly included two names: the Grizzlies’ Marc Gasol and the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan. The Kevin Love at center experiment has brought mixed results, and Tristan Thompson has fallen off a cliff, so on paper, adding an elite center to the Cavs would be a net positive.
Jordan is a good rim protector, something the Cavs haven’t had in years. His interior defense and rebounding would be a welcome addition. His free throw shooting would not. Jordan shoots at a 60% rate, marginally better than Tristan Thompson. This weakness would make it difficult to play him at the end of games, as teams need good free throw shooters on the court in the event of a foul.
Gasol is not the defender that Jordan is, so if the Cavs were to trade for him in hopes of solving their defensive woes, they would be quite disappointed. Contrary to Jordan, Gasol is a versatile offensive player, as evidenced by his 84% free throw rate and 33% three point rate. Gasol’s rebounding numbers are also up from last year, something the Cavs could use. Gasol’s passing ability really sets him apart from other centers offensively, and if he were able to be worked into the Cavs’ offense well enough, could do some serious damage not only scoring, but facilitating for others.
While Jordan and Gasol are two very good players, they both have an inherent weakness of their position; they are large and slow. The Warriors are adept at running centers off the floor through constant pick and rolls, as most centers are not athletic enough to guard players such as Steph Curry on the perimeter. Tristan Thompson is often praised for his ability to do this, but having the ability to do something and doing that thing well are two very different situations, and Thompson is not a good perimeter defender when matched up against smaller players.
The Warriors have such an incredible advantage over every other NBA team because of two players: Draymond Green and Kevin Durant. Despite being just 6’7”, Green centers and power forwards quite well, and his athleticism allows him to dominate against bigger players offensively. Durant stands over seven feet tall, and is a good defender, so when the Warriors run their small lineup, they still have a player with the size of a center on the court. This presents opposing teams with a dilemma; because of the Warriors’ plethora of three-point shooters, it’s difficult to leave a center on the court, even if it gives you an offensive advantage. Durant cannot hold up physically for long periods of time with a player like Jordan or Gasol, but having a center like that on the court allows Golden State to play pick and roll non-stop, opening up driving lanes and leaving their snipers open behind the three-point line.
Adding a center would also move Kevin Love back to his more natural power forward spot. Love has had great and forgettable games against top centers throughout the league. His shooting ability allows him to draw rim protectors out to the three-point line, opening up driving lanes for teammates. But Love also isn’t physical player, and doesn’t do well with contact, so expecting him to hold up well at center for a whole season and playoffs is unrealistic. You would think he would be effective at center against Golden State, but as we’ve seen, that’s just not the case.
One positive that would result from adding a center is that Jae Crowder would be moved to the bench. Currently starting at the 4, Crowder has been a disappointment thus far, as his field goal percentage is six points lower than last season. His three-point percentage has dropped ten points, and his defense hasn’t been great either, as his 6’6” frame makes it difficult to defend player such as LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin.
The Cavs should know the dangers of relying on a traditional center against Golden State; after a stellar regular season with the team, Timofey Mozgov’s minutes plummeted during the 2015 Finals, and hardly played at all in the 2016 series. If Cleveland trades for a center now, the same thing could happen, and the Cavs would be out of a high lottery pick.
The only way to beat the Warriors is to fight fire with fire. The Pelicans’ Anthony Davis would possibly turn the tables in Cleveland’s favor, but New Orleans may decline to swap him for LeBron James. The Cavs don’t have the necessary pieces to trade for him. Paul George was linked to the Cavs around the draft, but the Pacers decided to ship him to Oklahoma City, who reportedly will not make him available at the deadline. It’s disappointing because George would have been the best counter possible to the Warriors’ addition of Kevin Durant, something the Cavaliers haven’t been able to overcome.
It’s evident that Cleveland has to do something before the February 8th deadline to compete with Golden State, but they’d be better off keeping the Brooklyn pick rather than shipping it away for a center that will be rendered useless against the Warriors.