A Look Back and Look Ahead at Cleveland’s Changing of the Guards
by Joe Gabriele (@CavsJoeG)
7/23/18 | Cavs.com
Season Overview: The players themselves, mostly the veterans, said it repeatedly near the end of last year: That the 2017-18 season felt like two or even three different seasons. (Depending on which day they were asked.)
For the Wine & Gold, it was a long, strange trip back to the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive season – featuring a stretch in which they won 18 of 19, a funk that lasted over a month, a complete roster overhaul at the trade deadline, two seven-game slugfests in the Eastern Conference Playoffs and a sweep at the hands of Golden State in June.
And as we take one last look back at last season before the calendar turns to August and we start planning for Camp, the transformation that Cleveland has undergone in the last calendar year can be almost perfectly summed up at the point guard position.
There’s no need to re-hash all the drama from the previous offseason, but in one calendar year the Cavaliers starting point guard position has been manned by Kyrie Irving, Derrick Rose, Jose Calderon, Isaiah Thomas, George Hill and now, quite possibly, Collin Sexton.
(You could probably add LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Iman Shumpert and Jordan Clarkson to that mix – although things seem convoluted enough after the first list.)
Of course, Irving opened the season donning Celtics green against his former squad and ended it on Boston’s bench in a blazer.
While Isaiah Thomas – the Eastern Conference’s reigning scoring champ at the time of the trade that sent Kyrie to Beantown – rehabbed his surgically-repaired hip, veterans Derrick Rose and Jose Calderon took turns running the point, and each experienced some early-season success.
Rose came to Training Camp claiming to feel better mentally and physically than he had in years. He notched double figures in each of his first seven games with Cleveland, but a sprained ankle suffered against Milwaukee in the second outing of the season derailed any hopes he had of a big comeback season. He missed 32 games with the ankle injury, returned for nine uneventful performances and was traded to Utah as part of the mass veteran exodus at the deadline.
Jose Calderon didn’t put up big numbers at any point during his single season as a Cavalier – except in the win column, compiling a 23-9 mark as starter during the regular season and 2-1 record in the Playoffs. The Cavs will still be seeing plenty of Calderon this upcoming season after the 13-year vet signed as a free agent with Detroit over the summer.
Isaiah Thomas, who inked an offseason deal with Denver, had a calamitous 15-game stretch for Cleveland. He averaged 14.7 points per after returning from hip surgery on January 2 against Portland, but shot just 36 percent from the floor, including 25 percent from long-range.
But it wasn’t just the numbers that indicated Thomas’ level of discomfort with the Cavs, who found themselves mired in a midseason morass coinciding with his insertion into the starting lineup. Thomas proceeded to go 6-8 as a starter and was one of the veterans shipped out in a series of deadline deals on February 8.
In those deadline moves, the Cavaliers stabilized their point guard spot for the stretch run in the regular season and into the Playoffs – with 10-year veteran George Hill taking the reins. Hill didn’t put up flashy numbers when he took over, but he guided Cleveland to a 14-8 mark in the final two months of the regular season before showing his true worth in the postseason – returning from a back injury to post a heroic Game 7 performance against Indiana and notching 20 points on 7-for-12 shooting in a must-win Game 6 against Boston in the ECF.
The point guard position was in flux all season long. And while you couldn’t exactly set your watch to the shooting guard spot, there was much more stability at the 2 last year – with JR Smith reclaiming his starting spot three games into the campaign before losing it with 16 games left (then getting it back again in Game 2 of the First Round matchup with Indy).
Swish was healthy this year, but he struggled to find true consistency in his fourth season with Cleveland. He shot .375 from beyond the arc this season and just a shade under that in the Playoffs. He had a strong Second Round series against the Raptors – averaging 16.7 points despite taking the collar in Game 3 of the four-game sweep – and put up decent numbers against Golden State, despite his infamous Game 1 gaffe.
Along the way this season, Smith moved up to 12th-place on the NBA’s all-time three-pointers list – having now canned 1,917 for his career.
Kyle Korver had a solid second year with the Wine & Gold before his world was thrown into disarray following the tragic death of his younger brother, Kirk. When he returned, Korver was understandably not the same player. He was still solid through the first three rounds of the postseason – notching double-figures in half of Cleveland’s 18 games before hitting a wall against Golden State in the Finals.
The veteran sharpshooter still shot .436 from beyond the arc on the season – good for 6th-best mark in the NBA – and he led the Cavaliers with 164 triples this season.
The season began with a pair of grizzled vets backing up the shooting guard spot – with incumbent Iman Shumpert playing a defensive role and future Hall of Famer, Dwyane Wade, doing a little bit of everything.
Wade was actually very good in his limited time with Cleveland – averaging 11.2 points, 3.9 boards and 3.5 assists in 46 games primarily off the bench before being sent back to Miami as part of the series of deadline day deals.
Shump, who started for Cleveland during their dramatic 2015 Finals run, was shipped to Sacramento in the George Hill deal but didn’t play in a single game for the Kings down the stretch.
With Shump and Wade gone, the door opened up for Cleveland’s two new acquisitions – Rodney Hood, acquired in a deal with the Jazz that sent Jae Crowder to Salt Lake City and Jordan Clarkson, as part of the Isaiah Thomas trade with L.A.
The new backcourt duo hit the ground running after the deadline and both were solid down the stretch. Hood, who wound up starting 11 contests, tallied double-figures in 13 of his 21 outings. Clarkson, who finished as the league’s second-league bench scorer at 13.7 ppg, was even better – notching 20 regular games in double-figures among the 28 he played as a Cavalier.
It’s safe to say they’ll both be a little more prepared for the Playoff pressure the next time.
“So, in 30 games we had to do the best we could, to be the best help, to learn the most plays we can, to learn the defensive schemes like that – and we’re still learning.”
George Hill on joining a new squad late in the season
Highlight: After grinding their way through the roughest regular season patch in recent memory – dropping 13 of 20 games and looking bad doing so – the Cavaliers had to make a move. And first-year GM Koby Altman pulled the trigger on February 8, making a series of deals to reshape the roster.
After smashing Atlanta the following day, Cleveland’s new players made their debut in a nationally-televised Sunday afternoon matchup in Boston. That day – as the Celtics were prepared to honor Paul Pierce with a win over a struggling Cavaliers squad sans Kevin Love – the new-look Cavaliers crushed Boston, with each of the team’s recent acquisitions contributing.
The trio of Jordan Clarkson (17 points, 7-of-11FG), Rodney Hood (15pts, 6-of-11FG) and George Hill (12pts, 3asst) all showed that the Cavaliers were back in business as Eastern Conference Champs – and they’d return a few months later to finish the job.
Lowlight: The Cavaliers backcourt might’ve gotten the better of Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals, but their magic ran out against the reigning World Champs one round later.
Boasting arguably the top shooting backcourt that the Association has ever seen, it was never close in the Finals – with the one-two punch of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson outscoring the Wine & Gold’s starting duo in every game of the series – bookending the Finals with a combined 100-30 advantage in Games 1 and 4.
Odds and Ends: Right before the Cavaliers took on the Boston Celtics for Game 1 of the East Finals, George Hill had some unfinished business to attend to – receiving his degree from IUPUI School of Liberal Arts as a 32-year-old.
One of two speakers at the commencement, the veteran point told his fellow graduates: “Trust your gut. Build your dream team. Don’t be afraid to take risks. Create a vision for your life. Be a leader in your own life. Give of yourself selflessly to make a positive change in another human being.”
By the Numbers: 2,213 … Three-pointers that Kyle Korver has now drilled over the course of his 15-year career – good for fourth-place on the NBA’s all-time list. This season, the former Creighton star will continue to chase Jason Terry (2,282), Reggie Miller (2,560) and Ray Allen (2,973) for the top spot.
Quotable: George Hill … on he and his teammates joining a new squad late in the season and adjusting for the Playoffs …
“It’s a tough process. I think we have six new guys come to this team in the middle of the season with 30 games left, to come out here and say, hey, you’re coming to a team that competes for NBA Finals every year, that already has everything really set in stone, and how can you guys find a way to put yourself in position to fit in, that’s tough. If we could go back in time, we’d say, man, let’s start the season in October, all of us here. But we didn’t have that time. We didn’t have that time machine to do that. So, in 30 games we had to do the best we could, to be the best help, to learn the most plays we can, to learn the defensive schemes like that – and we’re still learning.”
Looking Forward: The Cavaliers will look different in many ways next year and although many of these same backcourt guys could very well return to Cleveland, the one guard most fans are incredibly excited to see hasn’t even been mentioned.
This past June, after a year of some uncertainty at the point, the Wine & Gold tabbed Collin Sexton with their top pick – acquired in the Kyrie Irving deal with Boston — as we come full-circle.
The “Young Bull” – who set Alabama freshman scoring records in his single season at Tuscaloosa – was taken with the No. 8 overall pick and is coming off a stellar Summer League run in Vegas – playing in all seven contests and gaining confidence with each passing one – averaging 19.6 points on 43 percent shooting, adding 3.6 boards and 3.3 assists per and earning a spot on the All-NBA Summer League First Team.
George Hill should expect a Young Bull challenge from the opening moments of Training Camp. After that, Cleveland can turn him loose on the rest of the Association.