Cavaliers made it easier for Lakers to steal LeBron James, and they don't care

Say what you want about this Cleveland Cavaliers front office, but maligned GM Kobe Altman and even more maligned owner Dan Gilbert just pulled off an incredible trade-deadline face-lift that should only be viewed as an absolute A-plus for an organization that has clearly taken the control back from LeBron James

To recap, here's the list of moves Cleveland made:

Obviously, there are so many ways to break down what this means for all of these players and the respective teams involved, but the only player who holds the future of the Cavs -- and to some degree the entire league's landscape -- in the palm of his hand is LeBron James, and make no mistake, these moves were all about him. They weren't done for him, but they were about him. That's a major distinction. 

The simple truth is the Cavs were in the seemingly no-win situation of having to play for the here and now while LeBron is still on board, while also covering themselves should he decide to leave this summer. Somehow, rather miraculously, they have accomplished both. Give Gilbert credit. He said he wouldn't again be held hostage by LeBron, and he kept his word on that. He is absolutely preparing for life after the King. 

Think about it: If Gilbert and Altman were hell-bent on retaining LeBron, why would they hand deliver the Lakers, a team that has been heavily connected to LeBron, the cap space they need to sign him? Because that's exactly what they did in sending the expiring deals of Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye to Los Angeles. The Lakers now have room for not just one, but two max players this summer. 

Clearly, the Cavs have at least somewhat conceded to LeBron leaving, and if indeed that happens, what do they care what team he goes to, particularly if that team is in the Western Conference? Go ahead, LeBron. Go to the Lakers. Go to Houston. This is effectively what Gilbert and Altman are saying with these moves, that the Cavs will be fine without LeBron, or at least far better off than they were when he left for Miami in 2010. And they're not wrong. They got more athletic on Thursday. They got younger and better defensively. These things are true independent of LeBron, and they still have that Brooklyn pick. 

Take LeBron away, and a team with George Hill, Rodney Hood, Kevin Love, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver and Tristan Thompson is still a playoff team in the East. Add a top-10 pick to that, and It might be a threat for a top-four seed. Of course, the grand prize would still be re-signing LeBron, and if the Cavs have even a puncher's chance of making that happen, it lies entirely in this front office's ability to put a championship-contending team around him. 

Before Thursday, that was seemingly impossible. They had very little leverage and a bunch of old players comprising the most pathetic defense this side of the Sacramento Kings. Having remade virtually their entire roster on the fly, are they suddenly a title contender again this season? Let's wait and see on that. A lot of new pieces have to jell in a short amount of time, but if that happens, in theory, it's absolutely reasonable to say this is a team that has put itself back in the conversation with the East's elite, notably Boston and Toronto. 

You might say any team with LeBron is always in that conversation. I would completely disagree. Before Thursday, the Cavs were not a serious threat to get back to the Finals. On Wednesday, they needed LeBron to play out of his mind to beat the Wolves by two, at home, in overtime, and they still gave up 138 points. Even if LeBron could've summoned yet another superhuman playoff run, that defense just wasn't going to hold up. No chance. 

Now? Listen, they're not the Bad Boys, but Nance is an athletic defender who can guard multiple positions, Hood is a capable 3-and-D guy (if more of the 3 and less of the D variety), and Hill, though his on/off numbers were awful in the context of that Sacramento train wreck, is a defensive-minded player who can still guard the pick and roll at an elite level -- which is clearly a monumental upgrade from Thomas. 

But let's not get too bogged down here in terms of what these moves mean for the Cavs this season. James Herbert has that covered. In the big picture, again, this was a clear announcement that LeBron is no longer in change of this team. He didn't want the Cavs to capitulate to Kyrie Irving's trade demands this summer, and they still traded him. He talked the team into bringing in his buddy Dwyane Wade, and on Thursday they traded him back to Miami. 

Gilbert has tried, and failed, to get a long-term commitment from James, and in the absence of that, the Cavs had no choice but to cover themselves, particularly after that Irving trade was starting to look like one of the more lopsided deals in recent memory. Now, the Cavs effectively traded Irving for Hood, Clarkson, Nance and the Brooklyn pick. That looks a lot better than Thomas and Crowder, who were out of place in Cleveland from Day One. 

Privately, it has to be a sigh of relief for the Cavs' front office to be making moves free of LeBron's thumb. James is the best player in the world, and with that, you pretty much have to play by his rules, but you can only do so much when the best player on the team is an ongoing flight risk. Look at Oklahoma City, which has Russell Westbrook committed long term. Now Paul George knows the situation he's considering signing up for. How do you sell a team built around a guy who's constantly dangling leaving?

Hawks GM Travis Schlenk thinks it was LeBron who leaked the rumors about his being open to meeting with Golden State. On Tuesday he said he was committed to the Cavs for "this season" as he addressed his unwillingness to waive his no-trade clause. If he would waive it, the way this front office cleaned house on Thursday, you'd have to think they would be willing to move him for a King's ransom. 

LeBron's not going to let that happen. He's not going to go out of his way to help Gilbert, but by the same token, Gilbert is no longer going out of his way to bend to LeBron. Again, say what you want about Gilbert, but he's no dummy. He knows there's a good chance LeBron is gone after this season. He knows what happened last time he left. On Thursday, he and Altman announced loud and clear that they're not going to let that happen again, and as the icing on the cake, they made the Cavs significantly better this season, too. 

Take a bow, gentlemen. 

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