The team is not—or should not be, at least—done making moves, but a thin collection of assets won't make it easy to address the on-paper contender's biggest issue.
While the Cavs were establishing a new rock bottom with Monday's 95-92 loss to the lowly Philadelphia 76ers, their front office was busy making the first major move of the Big Three era. Cleveland acquired wings Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith plus a protected first-round pick as part of a six-player, three-team trade that sent Waiters to the Oklahoma City Thunder, as Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reported.
"We're very excited to welcome Iman and J.R. to Cleveland," Cavs general manager David Griffin said, per Brian Windhorst and Marc Stein of ESPN.com. "With their size and versatility, we think both Iman and J.R. can help our team on both ends of the court and we look forward to them joining us."
The Cavs, who rank 23rd in defensive efficiency, needed a versatile defender to help stop some of their perimeter leaks. The hope is that the 24-year-old Shumpert can solve that problem, provided he can get back from the dislocated shoulder that has sidelined him for nearly a month.
In Smith, Cleveland adds a similar volume-scorer to the one it just shipped out. Smith doesn't have the same dribble-penetration game as Waiters, but the former's ability to space the floor could be a bigger boon to an offense that already features potent scorers LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
While the trade offers a potential on-court lift to the Cavaliers, Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver broke down the financial risk Cleveland has taken:
Acquiring Shumpert, who is in the fourth year of his rookie deal and could become a restricted free agent this summer, required taking on Smith’s contract, which runs $6 million for this season and includes a $6.4 million option for next season. All told, the Cavaliers parted with their top trade chip (Waiters), took on roughly $3.1 million in salary for this year and the possibility of paying Smith next season (at this point he would be smart to opt in) while exposing themselves to new and significant luxury tax penalties in both 2014-15 and 2015-16. And they have still yet to address their biggest need (center).
Economics aside, the Cavs appear to have done well for themselves in this exchange.
They essentially flipped a rotation player they were having a hard time using (Waiters was shooting a career-worst 40.4 percent from the field) for two possible rotation pieces and a first-round pick likely to arrive sooner than later. The pick, owed by Oklahoma City, carries top-18 protection in 2015 and top-15 protection in 2016 and 2017 if it hasn't changed hands before then.
That's good value for Cleveland—but only if another transaction follows. As Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick explained, the Cavs' new players won't help with this group's lack of rim protection:
No matter what Smith or Shumpert do, it won't matter much if general manager David Griffin can't add another functional frontcourt piece. But, even while using his disabled player exception in his deal, he did give himself another chip to acquire one: a protected 2015 first-round pick from Oklahoma City. He also still has a future first-round pick from Memphis that could eventually land in the lottery.
He will need to use those assets for a competent rim-protector, which still won't be easy to accomplish.
The Cavs rank 29th in both field-goal percentage allowed at the rim (56.5) and within five feet of the basket (62.9). Cleveland hasn't employed a shot-blocker all season (Tristan Thompson leads the club with 0.9 rejections per game) and its top interior defender, Anderson Varejao, is out for the season with a torn Achilles.
David Blatt's group needs to get bigger, stronger and more athletic underneath. Clearly, that itch wasn't scratched in this deal.
So, the question now becomes: Where will Cleveland turn for more rim protection and how can it make that move?
The mercurial Waiters was perhaps the Cavs' biggest trade chip, at least among players they would consider moving. Cleveland hasn't seen enough of the James-Irving-Love trio to consider breaking it apart, and it doesn't have the frontcourt depth to risk parting with the glass-cleaning Thompson.
As obvious as the need for rim protection is, actually addressing that vacancy is a far murkier proposition.
"What exactly do the Cavaliers have on their roster to trade?" wrote NBC Sports' Kurt Helin. "Waiters was their big chip and it's going to take something of quality to get a big man. It's a supply and demand thing: Every team wants more size on the paint, so the teams willing to move a guy have options and can start a little bidding war."
The Cavaliers have been eyeing both Timofey Mozgov (Denver Nuggets) and Kosta Koufos (Memphis Grizzlies) for some time, per Stein, but they have been unable to pry either free so far. According to Wojnarowski, the Cavs are still pursuing Mozgov—and still having no success on that front:
However, Cleveland's inquiries on the 7'1" center reportedly aren't being rebuffed as quickly as they were earlier in the season.
"It seems the Mozgov situation is improving for the Cavs," Fox Sports Ohio's Sam Amico wrote. "A deal doesn't seem close by any means, but I'm told at least the Cavs are no longer receiving a 'flat no' from the Nuggets."
Maybe Denver has softened its stance due to its disappointing 15-20 record. Perhaps the Nuggets are more intrigued now that the Cavs have two future picks coming their way (Oklahoma City's and a protected first-rounder from Memphis).
Or maybe this is as simple as Denver having no real intention of dealing Mozgov, but still seeing the benefit of keeping communication lines open in case a no-brainer offer suddenly surfaces in The Forest City.
Koufos could be even more difficult to acquire. While he isn't seeing as much playing time (15.4 minutes per game) as Mozgov (25.6), the former Ohio State Buckeye is filling a valuable reserve role on a team with legitimate championship aspirations. The Grizzlies would likely need to be blown away before thinking about rocking the boat, and even then they might not feel it's worth the risk.
The Cavs might be able to sniff out a few buy-low options on the trade market.
ESPN Insider Nick Borges (subscription required) noted the Cavs have been linked with Los Angeles Lakers reserve Robert Sacre. Sacre's playing time has dropped to 14.3 minutes per game, and he could be deemed expendable with the emergence of Jordan Hill and the arrival of Tarik Black.
The Cavs reportedly had interest in Ekpe Udoh over the offseason before he signed with the Los Angeles Clippers, per Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears. With Udoh having played a total of 50 minutes so far, it's hard to imagine L.A. would be desperate to keep him.
But the Cavs may not want to part with anything remotely valuable for a guy who's been unable to crack a rotation spot on a team that needs defense, let alone a 6'10" power forward with a career 42.8 field-goal percentage.
That means Cleveland may not find much of anything available via trade. If the Cavs cannot drum up interest in their picks, or if they think their cupboards are too light to let one go, they might turn their attention to the free-agent market.
But that crop of players is as short on intriguing options as one would expect it to be in January.
But O'Neal could decide he'd rather have a reunion with the league-leading Golden State Warriors, where he spent last season, or rejoin his former coach Rick Carlisle's Dallas Mavericks. And that's assuming the 36-year-old resists the siren song of retirement.
Okafor, who missed all of 2013-14 with a serious neck injury, may opt to skip this season as well. League sources told Stein that Okafor "is giving strong consideration" to waiting until 2015-16 for his return.
One name worth watching is Samuel Dalembert, who was waived during Monday's flurry of action, per Marc Berman of the New York Post. The 33-year-old isn't the most desirable name by any stretch, but he had been averaging 2.7 blocks per 36 minutes prior to his unceremonious exit.
"The Cavaliers have to be hoping that Dalembert clears waivers and becomes a free agent," wrote ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton (subscription required). "Cleveland would be the most logical landing spot for Dalembert, who would be a huge upgrade on the Cavaliers' current frontcourt backups."
Expect the Cavs to turn every stone in their efforts to shore up their leaky interior defense. Given their limited options, they may need some assistance from Lady Luck to figure this out.
When Cleveland makes its next move—because this really can't be a matter of "if" they deal again—then the basketball world will have a better grasp of what the Cavs just did. Either they addressed one of their minor weaknesses while creating an avenue to solving their main one, or they stripped themselves of their most obvious path to rim protection.