As harsh of a winter as it's been in Northeast Ohio, perhaps no place has been as cold as Quicken Loans Arena.
Buried under a blanket of snow and ice were the Cleveland Cavaliers' postseason chances. A team that entered the year with such promise suddenly looked lottery-bound again, after just an 11-23 start to the season.
In less than three months, the Cavs endured nine losses by 15 points or more, a heated players-only meeting, trade rumors involving their second-leading scorer, and the suspension of their starting center.
Times were bleak in Cleveland.
While it would appear so many distractions might have them focusing on June's draft rather than April's playoffs, a recent shakeup in the roster may have changed everything.
In the early morning hours on January 7, the Cavaliers acquired two-time All-Star Luol Deng from the Chicago Bulls.
While Deng brings a variety of skills and experiences to the table, the most valuable trait he provides is hope.
The Cavs, Pre-Deng
Cleveland needed a trade like this for so many reasons.
I compare it to the scene in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers when Aragorn and company are facing all they can handle while at Helm's Deep. Things look hopeless, the end is near, and they need someone or something to help them, quick.
Yes, Luol Deng represents the Cavaliers' version of Gandalf.
A poor start to the season had killed the optimism surrounding the club this summer, and for good reason.
When a team wins, so many questions about players and coaches are swept under the rug.
When a team loses, everything is second-guessed and good people lose their jobs.
With an 11-23 start, many in the Cavs organization were starting to feel the heat. Owner Dan Gilbert has been patient with the rebuilding plan for three years now, but made it known he expects this to be a playoff team this season.
The questions regarding the slow start to the season started in the front office and trickled all the way down to the players. General manager Chris Grant seemed safe the past few years, but the recent drafting of Anthony Bennett and failed Andrew Bynum experiment may have had him updating his resume.
Mike Brown was handed $20 million by Gilbert in the offseason to come in and fix the team's defense, although it ranks just 17th in points allowed (100.6 per game).
Kyrie Irving was supposed to take the next step in his path to superstardom, but he's currently putting up career lows in field-goal, free-throw and three-point percentage.
The Cavs needed a boost, someone who could come in and tie up all the loose ends, all while helping Cleveland win games.
The Missing Piece?
The Cavaliers needed a capable small forward as much as the Browns need a head coach, if not more so.
The current group of small forwards in Cleveland just wasn't getting the job done. Earl Clark was signed this offseason to come in and claim the job but has only been slightly better than awful. He, Alonzo Gee and Anthony Bennett rank 51st, 59th and 60th in PER out of 60 qualified small forwards, according to ESPN.
Add in the fact Clark stepped out of bounds on a potential game-tying play against the Indiana Pacers, and it's safe to say the Cavaliers were looking for an upgrade.
According to hoopsstats.com, the Cavs get 15.5 points on 38.2 percent shooting from their collective small forwards per game, numbers that rank 26th and 30th, respectively.
Luol Deng was putting up 19.0 points on 45.2 percent shooting by himself for the Bulls prior to the trade. His PER of 17.5 is higher than that of Clark, Gee and Bennett's combined (16.55).
The Cavaliers have essentially turned their biggest weakness into a strength.
Already Making an Impact
In two games since trading for Deng, the Cavs are already looking like a much-improved team.
This is especially impressive, considering Deng didn't make to Cleveland in time to play in the first.
The Cavaliers put back-to-back wins together over the Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz by a combined 29 points. What was previously a near-unwatchable offense suddenly came to life, with smooth ball movement and hot outside shooting.
It's as if the mere presence of an All-Star like Deng was enough to wake up a previously dormant team.
In his first game as a Cavalier, Deng started at small forward and collected 10 points in 21 minutes. He scored on jumpers, cuts to the basket and by posting up his man. This may not seem like a big deal to the common basketball fan, but to those who have watched the Cavs' small forwards this season, it was nothing short of magical.
Winning those first two post-Deng-trade games has put them at 13-23, now just one-and-a-half games out of the playoff picture.
Whether or not he stays in Cleveland past this year is yet to be determined. Deng's impact this season, however, is already being felt.
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