CLEVELAND—Listless and losing games in spectacular fashion, the Cleveland Cavaliers needed to do something. Having aspirations of returning to the NBA Finals, a point guard not living up to expectations and a star in LeBron James in need of additional help, the team's front office pondered its contention, crunched the numbers and pounded the phones.
Minutes before the deadline, the team called in a pair of blockbuster trades that sent multiple players out—some of whom had initially been rife with promise—and received a handful of players back, providing the team with fresh blood in what was a rare and risky in-season rebuild.
The year was 2008.
Larry Hughes, despite his ascent with the Washington Wizards, was clearly not going to be the Robin to James' Batman. Drew Gooden never quite made up for losing Carlos Boozer in free agency years earlier. And while Shannon Brown had promise, he was going to need time. Danny Ferry didn't have time.
In came Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West and Joe Smith—four players who could give James and the Cavaliers playoff experience, veteran leadership and an entirely new look with roughly one-third of the regular season remaining.
Fast forward to 2018, and the Cavaliers once again pulled the strings on multiple deals midseason. While the 2008 trades led by Ferry involved 11 players, Koby Altman's version a decade later involved just 10. Out went Dwyane Wade, Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Channing Frye, Iman Shumpert and Derrick Rose. In return, the Cavs received three guards in George Hill, Rodney Hood, and Jordan Clarkson and a big man (with a side dish of nostalgia) in Larry Nance Jr.
While there have been plenty of multi-player deals consummated over the years, the Cavaliers have been more of an anomaly in the scope of their trades, both in 2008 and 10 years later. The willingness to overhaul a significant portion of a rotation is rare, and rarer when the goal is to return to the NBA Finals and avenge previous defeat.
There are plenty of parallels to be drawn, from the team down to its star player, and plenty of questions left to be answered. Can a team turn over a third of its roster in February and expect to be a contender come April? More importantly, can this team, one that tried desperately to infuse talent midseason 10 years earlier, take the steps that one could not?
LeBron James is the one man remaining who was a member of the Cavaliers at that time, and even he isn't sure he has the answers.
"It's a challenge, man," James said in a one-on-one discussion with Bleacher Report. "It's very challenging. Especially for me, being someone who likes chemistry and having things in order."
In 2008, the Cavaliers made their blockbuster deal under the premise that they had one of the best players in the NBA but were not good enough to win a title. A year earlier, they surprised the NBA world by making the Finals but were promptly identified as a one-man band while being swept by the San Antonio Spurs.
The 2018 version of the Cavaliers are undoubtedly a contender. They have made the Finals every year since James returned in 2014, winning the title in 2016. The NBA landscape, however, is much different this time around, with the Golden State Warriors dominating much of the last three seasons. The front office admitted to needing a drastic improvement in the morale department.
Oh, and by the way: James is 10 years older, delivering a right hook to Father Time with each additional game.
As if age and the challenge ahead was not enough of a contrast, the 2018 Cavaliers inherited four players who served to bring the team's average age down a few pegs. The 2008 trades brought about veterans with playoff experience, All-Stars and even a championship ring, while this year's crop included three players who had only played for one team through their still-young careers.
James has long preferred experienced, grizzled veterans over wild cards. Since his return to Cleveland, the team has dealt a No. 1 pick in Andrew Wiggins and a No. 3 pick in Dion Waiters for older, more-seasoned talent. Free-agent additions have largely been over-30 players like Wade, James Jones, Richard Jefferson and Mike Miller.
Since this February's trade, however, James has looked like a re-energized player. He's coming off the first month of his career where he averaged a triple-double and has taken on a leadership role that has him admittedly curious as to how this year's deadline trades will play out.
"Vets have seen more," James told Bleacher Report. "They've experienced more. Ben Wallace had won a championship before he came over. Wally [Szczerbiak] had been an All-Star and played in big games in Minnesota with Kevin Garnett. Joe Smith was the No. 1 pick in the draft and played in some big games as well.
"Now, we're learning on the fly. Jordan [Clarkson] and Larry [Nance] have never played in a playoff game. George [Hill] has been in some big games, and Rodney [Hood] had his first taste last year, but yeah... we'll see what happens."
What has happened since the trade has resembled nothing short of a preseason training camp in Independence. Due to the NBA's adjusted regular-season schedule, the Cavaliers had two games with their new players but then had an eight-day layoff thanks to the All-Star break. Since their return, they've had a back-to-back and have played every other day since, allowing for little in the way of implementation.
"Practices have a training camp vibe to them," Lue told Bleacher Report. "They're longer than they've been in the past. Some of the guys who have been here, they get bored with the process, but we have to do it. In a way I think it's good for them too, but we just have to do it. [The down side is] we're playing every other day, so we can't really practice hard or drill, but we just have to come in, get our walkthroughs in, go through our offensive plays every day, and see if we can continue to pick it up."
Alas, Cavs head coach Ty Lue has been effectively running two sets of plays—pick-and-roll or drive-and-kick—out of the very common "horns" offensive set. The first actions have largely resulted in open shots. Some nights, like in their dominant 121-99 win over the Boston Celtics, these shots have fallen. In others, like their frustrating 110-103 loss to the Washington Wizards, they did not. But when that first action breaks down, that's when things get sticky.
On the defensive side of things, Lue has started calling for his team to switch 1-through-5. For the majority of the season, with Kevin Love playing center, the team has switched 1-through-4, with the center being called to stay on his man. Nance, however, gives the team a center who can guard multiple positions, allowing added flexibility.
When it comes to the nuances of the game, though, verbiage has been a headwind. Much like an NFL player having to learn an entirely new cadence from his quarterback and terminology from his coach's playbook, Clarkson, Nance and Hood have only played for one team in their respective careers and, in turn, only know one style of calls. To listen to them discuss the recent changes, it could easily be compared to learning an entirely new language.
"We're still trying to learn certain looks and certain calls," said Nance to Bleacher Report. "There are times where I'll switch out and still call 'red'—that's a Lakers call. It's little things like that. You have to get acclimated to the nuances and tendencies.
"It's like training camp, but for four of us. We're trying to catch up and everyone else is waiting for us to catch up. I think we're doing a pretty good job of it, but we're learning on the fly. To be honest with you, I'm enjoying the heck out of it."
Hill, the veteran of the group, is on his fifth team. And while he's the type of player who has earned the lifelong praise of Gregg Popovich, even he will tell you that parachuting into a new team with roughly 25 games left to play is not the easiest way to earn an NBA paycheck.
"I've never moved to a new team in the middle of a season," Hill told Bleacher Report. "I'm a veteran, but to me it's all new. Thankfully, LeBron's been the captain here—being very vocal, communicating on both ends of the floor, and in practice when we're trying to figure things out."
If there has been any silver lining to this recent overhaul, it has come in the way of a homestand that has allowed the Cavs to stay in Cleveland for six of seven games to start the post-All-Star-break run. In the event Cleveland needs another tailwind, the month of March, while being littered with road games, comes equipped with contests against a host of lottery-bound teams. While the Cavs have been no strangers to playing down to their competition throughout the 2017-18 season, it's tough to think of a better situation for a team looking to further incorporate four new players into an eight- or nine-man rotation.
Cleveland may need every tailwind it can get. The history books have not been kind to teams looking to leverage the trade deadline into greener pastures. It has certainly provided no shortage of axis-tilting deals since the turn of the century, but some of the biggest deals to take place have involved one key name. Think Rasheed Wallace in 2004, Carmelo Anthony in 2011 or DeMarcus Cousins in 2017. Since 2000, however, the only team to win an NBA title after trading for a star player is the Detroit Pistons, who added Rasheed Wallace to a team of All-Stars that included Chauncey Billups and Ben Wallace.
When the Cavaliers made their deal in 2008, they ran into the buzz saw of the Boston Celtics and their "Big Three" of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. A year later, with Wallace struggling to cover floor-stretching bigs like Rashard Lewis, they were shockingly eliminated from the playoffs by Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic. That group would never return to the NBA Finals, eventually being disbanded through a litany of moves through James' free agency departure in 2010.
While there isn't necessarily a headline-making name that was a part of the 10-player deal from February 8, the Cavs are confident this was the right series of moves to get them over the top. The team infused youth, added players with a better fit for the style they wish to execute and added by subtracting, with Altman quick to point to the team's eroding locker-room culture as an impetus for the deals.
Ask anyone in the Cavs locker room and you'll be told they are still very far from where they wish to be. While directionally correct, with the team learning more with each practice and becoming more acclimated with each game, the next 22 outings will be crucial for a team attempting to rebuild while the rest of the contenders are looking to hit their respective playoff strides.
"Trades happen," James said. "You're trying to make adjustments, and when you have an opportunity to win...the organization thought it 10 years ago, and they thought it again this year. I'm the lone survivor that's seen them both. I just have to try to make things happen."