CLEVELAND — The new NBA calendar was supposed to be a positive.
With fewer back-to-backs and four-games-in-five-nights slates, players would be more rested. More rest would, in theory, equate to improved health. And improved health would lead to better quality of play and better records for teams that would not be obliged to sit their stars.
For the Cleveland Cavaliers, you have a team with a cast of aging stars who have benefited from the additional rest. But in the true fashion of "no good deed going unpunished," the new NBA calendar comes with a trade deadline that is two full weeks earlier than the previous season's.
With this, there's a chance Thursday's deadline is a complete flop, despite the flurry of rumors.
Few teams have been linked to rumors more than Cleveland, but what happens if the Cavs don't pull the trigger? The answer is one Cleveland—a team in dire need of a shake-up and an influx of talent to compete this season while also needing to sell its star forward on the future—may not want to find out.
In a recent podcast with Zach Lowe, fellow ESPN reporter Adrian Wojnarowski laid out the headwinds facing a team that entered the season as one of its favorites but is now staring down an abrupt rebuild if things do not go according to plan. Wojnarowski said:
"There's a lot on their board that they're weighing as they get closer to Thursday. What's the best possible deal they could do? What makes sense? I think the worse this team gets, the worse the environment and the relationships—and the relationships are frayed at every level—that there's no savior for them. There's no trade that could fix this."
Factoring into Wojnarowski's comments is the team's recent string of play that has seen it lose multiple games by margins of more than 20 points, doing so as recently as Saturday night versus Houston. Chris Paul had his way with the Cavs, so much so that LeBron James—whose quotes instantly become headlines—was left speechless following the game.
Also playing a role, however, is James' unwillingness to commit to the Cavaliers beyond his current contract, which ends this summer. A recent report by ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst vividly described the toxic backdrop, resulting in a locker room that lacks trust and a coaching staff that lacks answers.
According to Windhorst's report, James is frustrated by the number of players who have been traded in the last year (Oklahoma City's Paul George, for example) that have not made their way to Cleveland.
Conversely, the Cavaliers were reportedly willing to deal for George this offseason and asked for a commitment from James in hopes to protect themselves from mortgaging the future on two star players who could leave after one season. James was unwilling to budge, leading to a trust-based impasse that has bled into the winter months. Wojnarowski said:
"The LeBron James-Dan Gilbert [owner] issues set the tone in the organization for others to square off. When the two most powerful people in the organization have that kind of relationship, it opens the door for others to have that. You have a lot of taking of sides and a lot of cliques—guys who have been there, guys who just came in, and what's going on with players and coaches."
This situation is starkly different than the trade deadlines of yesteryear.
During James' first stint with the Cavaliers, acquisitions of players such as Larry Hughes were made to provide a Robin to his Batman. The addition of Shaquille O'Neal was well-intentioned, and Antawn Jamison was thought to have been a perfect fit given his ability to stretch the floor. Even as both moves turned out to be failures, the likelihood of James leaving Cleveland at the time seemed low.
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Fast forward to 2018, and you have a player who has managed to outrun Father Time only to see ground being made up with each loss.
James' sole demand since his return in 2014 was to compete for championships, and he has done just that, winning one in 2016. But the rest of the Eastern Conference has improved. Not only might the first-place Boston Celtics acquire Greg Monroe, according to the Boston Globe's Adam Himmelsbach, but they are ready for when the buyout market starts to unfold.
The Cavs front office has recently been linked to deals with both the Charlotte Hornets (per Lowe) and Los Angeles Clippers (USA Today's Sam Amick) as well as a trade with Sacramento for point guard George Hill (Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee).
The issue, of course, is that no one player will be enough.
Acquiring Kemba Walker would almost certainly require the Brooklyn Nets' lottery pick and would also require Gilbert to incur even more luxury tax.
Acquiring DeAndre Jordan would provide the Cavs with a rim-running, rim-protecting big man who could help on both sides of the floor. But it would come at an extreme cost in salary and the chance he could leave at the end of this season.
Acquiring Hill alone does little outside of providing some depth at one of the team's weakest spots. Yet it does so at the expense of a player like Channing Frye, who has been thrust into duty following Kevin Love's broken hand.
While Cleveland fans dream about landing players such as George, New York's Kristaps Porzingis or Portland's CJ McCollum, all the Cavaliers have to offer are underachieving players such as JR Smith, Iman Shumpert and Tristan Thompson.
Utah's pair of on-the-market players—Rodney Hood and Derrick Favors—are on the market for a reason. Would the Cavaliers be willing to deal a first-round pick for such marginal upgrades? Wojnarowski said:
"I think the Cavs are weighing how much, if at all, do we cut into our future assets. Anything that short-circuits a rebuild...how much do they want to do to mortgage the future? I think they have a lot of really hard questions to answer this week. They just don't have players that interest people.
"Tristan Thompson and JR Smith are not moveable. George Hill isn't a game-changer in any way. This weekend only served to further crystallize that their issues are so deep and their future with this group is so bleak right now that they're asking themselves these tough questions."
While the Cavaliers appear to have everything working against them, from the early trade deadline to an underperforming cast, other teams are looking to shed salary. Gilbert has never been shy about opening his wallet, cutting luxury-tax checks each year since James returned.
However, as spending has become the new normal, the second Gilbert decides to turn off the spigot and stop spending is the second James is indirectly told the team will no longer be doing whatever it can to compete.
If that happens, the Cavs will have officially ushered in a new era, a blow that no number of first-round picks will be able to cushion.