So the Cleveland Cavaliers did not blow up their Big Three. They didn’t ship Kevin Love out of town, as had been widely speculated in the weeks leading up to Thursday’s trade deadline. No available deal made that worth their while.
But Cleveland did announce one move that will have an immediate impact: sending Anderson Varejao and Jared Cunningham away in a three-team swap with the Orlando Magic and Portland Trail Blazers, coming away with sharpshooting big man Channing Frye.
It was a deal made with June in mind.
On Thursday night, Cleveland opened the stretch run of the season with a 106-95 win over the short-handed Chicago Bulls, looking comfortable and in sync with each other, proving that stacking up regular-season wins against inferior teams will not be a problem between now and April.
Of course, that doesn’t mean much when it comes to the Golden State Warriors team the Cavs are supposed to be focused on beating. That’s why they made the move for Frye—to bolster their depth and diversify the lineups head coach Tyronn Lue will have at his disposal.
Frye is an intriguing fit with the rest of the Cavs’ bigs. A career 38.7 percent three-point shooter (39.7 percent this season), he provides spacing when Love is off the floor and, unlike Love, he can slide over to center for LeBron James to play power forward.
How does Frye, who's averaging 5.2 points in 17.1 minutes per game this season, envision his role in Cleveland? In his own words, courtesy of his post-trade interview on The Vertical:
...Giving guys space that they need to create and take it to the rack. And so I think for me, you have guys like Mozgov, you have Tristan Thompson, you have LeBron, you have Kevin Love. You have all these guys that want to get to the rack, that want to score in the paint, including LeBron. And so what I do is just space the floor and create opportunities for them in that situation.
As nice as all that will be, remember Love was the talk of the town approaching the deadline.
The 27-year-old is an imperfect fit with this group, but it would be tough to justify trading a player with his talent without getting another legitimate star in return. And that deal simply did not materialize.
All the Cavaliers could do was fill in around the edges with a secondary move or two to shore up the supporting cast around the three stars.
As far as secondary moves go, it would be hard to do better than general manager David Griffin did. Varejao wasn’t playing a lot and has a much dicier recent health history than Frye. As beloved as he is in Cleveland (he was the only holdover from James’ initial, pre-Miami Cavs tenure), he was the most logically expendable piece too.
In return, Griffin got Frye, who unquestionably makes them better.
But the question remains: Is the addition of Frye by itself—an acquisition with no downside for Cleveland given how little it gave up—enough to move the needle in a meaningful way on the Cavs’ eventual chances in an all-but-inevitable Finals rematch with Golden State?
That part is doubtful.
That’s why the trade deadline was so quiet around the NBA—teams shied away from deals involving big-name players who could swing their playoff chances because there’s an unavoidable sense that nothing any franchise does will be enough to contend with the Bay Area juggernaut.
The Cavs are one of the few teams with a real chance to compete with the Warriors, mainly by virtue of their conference. As it stands, they’re so far ahead of the rest of the East that a return to the Finals feels like a formality.
The trade deadline may have come and gone, but there are still more moves to be made between now and the start of the playoffs. Griffin told reporters Thursday afternoon that the Cavs will use their open roster spot to monitor the buyout market, which may see the likes of David Lee, Joe Johnson or Steve Novak come available.
That will be Cleveland's likely haul: Frye and a past-his-prime veteran on a minimum deal. It’s impossible to look at the Cavs, even with Love and Kyrie Irving healthy, and think those additions alone are enough to make a meaningful impact against the Warriors.
Frye will help. He’ll get plenty of open looks playing with this much star power around him. He doesn’t demand the ball, and his reputation around the league is that of a total pro who should not struggle to adapt to a new offense.
But in the grand scheme of things, he doesn’t swing the pendulum much. The Cavs’ bigger moves will come this summer, when every team has seen the implications of the rising salary cap.
Maybe then, franchises that miss out on the big-name free agents will make more serious offers for Love, and Griffin can take a deeper look at what this team should look like for the remainder of James’ prime.
That day is not today. Cleveland got better Thursday, but it may not be enough.