Even before the Cavaliers’ latest upgrade, the Raptors and Celtics found themselves staring at a clear-cut predicament: Are the East’s second-tier teams playing for gold this season, or are they willing to settle for bronze? Now that Cleveland has plucked Kyle Korver from Atlanta, addressing a relatively minor roster weakness, the spotlight brightens on Toronto’s Masai Ujiri and Boston’s Danny Ainge. Will one of these two well-respected, calculating executives finally swing the type of deal (or deals) necessary to truly challenge LeBron James’s run of six consecutive Finals appearances?
For Cleveland GM David Griffin, the Korver addition amounts to another logical, proactive midseason move in a long line of them. Two years ago, shortly after James’s return from Miami, Griffin revamped his roster to better suit his star player on the fly, parting with draft picks and taking on salary to acquire Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert in a pair of January trades. Last year, Griffin grabbed Channing Frye from Orlando at the trade deadline, adding an extra floor-spacer and frontcourt injury protection.
In both cases, Cleveland’s purpose was clear: win at all costs. In 2015, Griffin’s trades proved crucial to providing James just enough help to withstand postseason injuries to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love and make the Finals. Mozgov, in particular, was indispensable, averaging 10.6 PPG and 7.3 PPG during the 2015 playoffs, a run that earned him a $64 million payday from the Lakers last summer. In 2016, Frye shot a whopping 56.5% from deep in the playoffs, including a 27-point explosion against the Hawks in the second round. Even though Cleveland opted for smaller and more mobile players in the Finals, Frye logged more postseason minutes than Mozgov and played a meaningful role against the Raptors in the East finals.
Now, with Korver, the Cavaliers have added one of the greatest spot-up shooters in league history, a career 42.9% three-point shooter, and a player cut from the same cloth as Mike Miller, James Jones and late-career Ray Allen, all favorite targets of James in the past. At 35, Korver (9.5 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 40.9 3P%) has seen his impact and efficiency slip from his 2015 All-Star season, in part because two key pieces around him in Atlanta—Jeff Teague and Al Horford—departed last summer.
A Korver renaissance, albeit in a limited role, could very well be in cards. In Cleveland, Korver will get to play with two off-the-dribble threats, Kyrie Irving and James. He will also get to play for a team that is even more committed to spacing than the Horford-led 2015 Hawks, given the presence of fellow shooters Kevin Love, Irving, Smith (when healthy), Frye and Shumpert. The 2017 Cavaliers are shooting 39.1% on 33 attempts per game; the 2015 Hawks, who won 60 games and made the East finals, shot 38% on 26.2 attempts.
In other words, Korver should be in line for more looks, and more open looks, than he was even at the peak of Hawks hysteria. He’s also arriving at a time of particular need: Smith is out until mid-March following thumb surgery and Mike Dunleavy Jr., signed last summer by Cleveland to fill a Korver-like complementary role, has had trouble staying on the court for health reasons. That the Cavaliers chose to pull the trigger now is no great surprise: Their depth has been tested this week with the short-term absences of Irving and Love, forcing James to carry a larger-than-ideal burden, and Griffin has proven himself to be a decisive executive, whether he’s filling roster holes, dumping former coach David Blatt or breaking up the immortal Irving/Dion Waiters backcourt.
Now, will Ujiri and Ainge allow the Cavaliers to race further ahead, or will they, like Griffin, strike too?
For Toronto, there’s no debate: action is needed. Despite a trip to the 2016 East finals, two All-Star guards, a 24-11 record and a No. 2 ranked offense, the Raptors are now more two months into the season without a truly impressive victory. Dwane Casey’s team is not only 0-7 against the Cavaliers, Warriors, Spurs and Clippers, but they gave up an average of 116 points in those losses.
Their backcourt firepower is simply insufficient to overcome their matchup problems in the frontcourt. Traditional center Jonas Valanciunas struggles to keep up against small-ball opponents, young bigs Bebe Nogueira and Pascal Siakham aren’t quite ready for primetime, Jared Sullinger still hasn’t touched the court yet this season, and Patrick Patterson can only fill so many minutes. Meaningful improvement will have to come from outside if Toronto hopes to compete with a frontline that includes James, Love and Tristan Thompson.
But this isn’t simply a matter of positional balancing for the Raptors, this is an organizational crossroads. The past two seasons represent the golden era of the franchise’s history, in no small part because Kyle Lowry is in his prime. Lowry, 30, is headed for a massive pay increase as an unrestricted free agent next summer and then age-related decline not too long after that. This is Toronto’s shot. As the Raptors learned after Vince Carter’s departure, and then again after Chris Bosh’s relocation to South Beach, shots can sometimes take years and years to materialize. The Raptors need only turn to the 2012 Celtics, or the 2014 Pacers, or the 2015 Hawks to realize how quickly and firmly the window for contention can be shut.
To be clear, Toronto isn’t just praying talent lands in its lap. Ujiri is armed with a glut of young wings, headlined by Terrence Ross, and an extra first-round pick.
Boston, meanwhile, is similarly primed for onboarding talent. Last summer, Ainge scored a rare double victory: 1) he added Horford, an All-Star in his prime, and 2) he didn’t have to part with any major assets to do it. At the time, SI.com believed that adding Horford should be viewed as a precursor to whatever happened next. With a cache of young (and expendable) rotation players and too many future draft assets to count, Ainge can reasonably construct attractive trade packages for all but, say, the NBA’s top 15 stars and top-tier young prospects.
Perhaps the urgency is slightly less in Boston than in Toronto, given that Isaiah Thomas is younger than Lowry, the relative youth of the Celtics’ key cast members, and the treasure trove of quality picks that are being hand-delivered from the Nets. Regardless, this is a team and an organization that should be going for it: Brad Stevens has steadily rebuilt the Celtics, Thomas has made another big leap this season, and Horford, at 30 and with some major injury issues in his past, is ready to compete now.
After back-to-back empty trips to the postseason, Boston finds itself this year in much the same boat as Toronto last year: The honeymoon period is over and it’s time to win a series or shamefully don the “Disappointment” label. Like the Raptors, the Celtics are 0-5 against the Cavaliers, Warriors and Spurs, conceding an average of 115 points in the five losses. Like the Raptors, the Celtics could use some frontcourt help: Boston ranks near the bottom in rebounding rate, and its defense has regressed this season in part due to injury absences to key players like Horford and Jae Crowder.
There’s one obvious answer for both Toronto and Boston, Atlanta’s Paul Millsap, and surely other options will emerge as the trade deadline gets closer. Millsap, a three-time All-Star and 2016 All-Defensive selection, would fit in with virtually any contender, given that he can score without dominating the ball, defend multiple positions, and function as either a power forward or a small ball five. In Toronto, he would plug Casey’s biggest positional hole and give the Raptors a much more intriguing small look. In Boston, he could reprise his pairing with Horford, giving Stevens a big upgrade at the four and giving Thomas another proven auxiliary scoring option.
With Korver gone, Millsap is the last remaining starter from the 2015 Hawks and it makes little sense to hang around given management’s ongoing retooling efforts. At 31, he is undoubtedly seeking one final major pay day next summer, but he would be foolish to tie himself to a Hawks franchise dumped Teague to avoid paying him, couldn’t convince Horford to re-sign, settled for Dwight Howard, and shopped Millsap last summer. That’s not just writing on the wall, that’s sprawling graffiti.
To be clear, though, for the Raptors and the Celtics this has become about more than than simply taking part in the inevitable Millsap auction. Indeed, the next six weeks or so are about whether Ujiri and Ainge are willing to roll the dice and improve rosters that clearly need improving. The Korver trade is the latest reminder that Cleveland is fully committed, whether it be luxury tax dollars or future assets, to defending its title. No doubt, Cleveland will look to address its other holes, perhaps an extra ball-handler, and Golden State will respond in kind, especially once buyout season rolls around.
There’s been plenty of frustrated chatter this season around the idea that the NBA is too top-heavy and that its two Superteams are headed for a third straight Finals showdown, and understandably so. But at least some of that venom should be saved for executives like Ujiri and Ainge, should they decide to sit on their hands and assets, playing for a future that may not come.
The Cavaliers and Warriors have both worked tirelessly to tinker with and perfect their rosters, even after both won titles and even though such efforts often come at great cost. It would be borderline infuriating if their arms race remains a two-team affair.