A day after declaring Coach David Blatt’s job was safe, Cavaliers General Manager David Griffin decided the team’s roster required some tinkering to turn around a season gone awry. That meant dealing disgruntled former first-round pick Dion Waiters to Oklahoma City and taking back J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert from New York. The Knicks, taking the express train to Tankville, were simply looking to dump salary and only took back three players on non-guaranteed deals.
LeBron James and Kyrie Irving were nursing respective injuries back in Ohio and didn’t travel with the team, which blew a 17-point lead and became the first home victim of the season for the lowly Philadelphia 76ers in a 95-92 loss.
Back in his home town, Waiters was expecting to get his first start since Nov. 4 but was pulled from the lineup roughly 90 seconds before tip-off and sent back to the locker room. Cleveland players had to quickly shift to playing with Joe Harris instead, while saying farewell to Waiters, Lou Amundson and Alex Kirk.
“No time to think about it, because we had a minute, 30 [seconds] to get ready for the jump ball,” said Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson, who had 18 points and nine rebounds in the loss. “We didn’t find out until it was time to go out for the jump ball. We said our ‘I’ll see you laters.’ We wished Dion, Lou and Kirk all the best. They’ll do fine in their next destination.”
Amid the confusion in the arena, Scoop Jardine, Waiters’s former teammate and close friend at Syracuse, announced on Twitter that Waiters had been traded to the Thunder. Oklahoma City surrendered Lance Thomas to New York and a first-round pick to Cleveland to get Waiters, the fourth overall pick of the 2012 NBA draft. The Knicks also received Amundson and Kirk from Cleveland.
Waiters never settled into a comfortable role with Cleveland after being benched in favor of Shawn Marion as the starting shooting guard earlier this season. Before the season, Waiters stated that he and Irving formed the league’s best young backcourt. Waiters shadowed James closely during training camp but began to sour on his situation when the shots and minutes diminished.
“I just don’t know,” Waiters told reporters in Philadelphia, when asked his role at the morning shoot-around. “My job is to go in there and do what I do and try to win basketball games. That’s the only thing I think is true.”
The Cavaliers have now traded away three of the five lottery picks that they earned during that forgettable period when James was in Miami.
They essentially swapped Waiters for an older version of Waiters in Smith. The two players take equally frustrating shot attempts and had almost identical statistics this season: Waiters averages 10.5 points on 40.4 percent shooting while Smith averages 10.9 points on 40.2 percent shooting.
Smith, the sixth man of the year in 2013, is a much better three-point shooter than Waiters and more comfortable in a reserve role. But he is also less malleable, more set in his hard-headed ways and a rather questionable addition to a team that already has chemistry problems.
Acquiring Shumpert was what pushed the Cavaliers to make the move. Shumpert is a perimeter defender who could potentially complement Irving in the back court and spare James from taking on the top perimeter scorer each night. He also helps give Cleveland some of the athleticism it perhaps lost when it dealt Andrew Wiggins to Minnesota but he hasn’t been quite the same since a knee injury ended his promising rookie season in 2012.
But the deal didn’t address the Cavaliers need for a rim protector – a hole that has become more pronounced with Varejao out – but they have until the Feb. 19 trade deadline to make more moves.
James will be sidelined for at least another week with a sore left knee and the Cavaliers (19-16) are 1-5 without the four-time most valuable player this season. Though shorthanded in Philadelphia, the Cavaliers were still smarting over helping the 76ers snap a 14-game home losing streak.
“We had it under control; we just didn’t bury them,” Kevin Love said after scoring 28 points and grabbing 18 rebounds. “We felt this was a team we should have beat.”
Cleveland has a rough upcoming schedule that includes a home game Wednesday against Houston and a five-game road trip through Golden State, Sacramento, Phoenix, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers. Irving sustained a lower back injury in Sunday’s loss to Dallas and has been dealing with a left knee injury for some time. His return is unknown.
With the 76ers’ victory and New York’s loss in Memphis, the Knicks (5-32) now have the NBA’s worst record but are celebrating nearly $20 million in salary and luxury tax savings. New York, which also got a 2019 second-round pick from Cleveland, shed Smith, who has has a player option worth $6.4 million next season, and Shumpert, who will become a restricted free agent this summer. The Knicks also waived center Samuel Dalembert, whom they acquired from Dallas last summer in an ill-fated trade involving Tyson Chandler.
This season hasn’t gone as expected for either Cleveland or New York but the levels of disappointment and depression are relative.
The Cavaliers are fifth in the Eastern Conference despite the presence of James and all-stars Irving and Love. The Knicks have fielded their most hideous outfit ever in Phil Jackson’s first full season running basketball operations despite giving Carmelo Anthony a $124 million contract last summer. They now only have two players remaining from the team that won 54 games and the Atlantic Division title two years ago in Anthony and Amaré Stoudemire.
Next season can’t come quickly enough for the ready-to-rebuild Knicks but the Cavaliers have made a desperate attempt to salvage a season that was supposed to be so much more rewarding after James decided to come home.