Cleveland Cavaliers jump in James Harden trade, steal Jarrett Allen and make big addition to growing young core

by 24USATVJan. 14, 2021, 11:01 a.m. 22
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CLEVELAND, Ohio -- The Cleveland Cavaliers have always coveted a player like Jarrett Allen -- a bouncy defensive anchor that can grow with, and protect, their young undersized guards.

It’s why they attempted to trade for Indiana Pacers defensive linchpin Myles Turner at the deadline in February before getting rebuffed. It’s why they eventually made the deal for Andre Drummond, pre-spending their salary cap space to bring the two-time All-Star aboard, always expecting him to opt into his contract, which he did.

The Cavs have seen Drummond’s impact. They went 4-4 with him in the lineup during 2019-20. They are 5-6 in games he’s played this season.

Tuesday night was Drummond’s first absence of the season because of an Achilles contusion, and the Cavs got blasted by 30 points. It was also uncoincidentally their worst defensive showing, allowing the Jazz to score 117 points on 50% from the field and 53.3% from 3-point range.

Drummond’s arrival nearly one year ago was the first move that showed a commitment to improving on defense -- the core of coach J.B. Bickerstaff’s desired identity.

But Drummond is set to be an unrestricted free agent this offseason and initial conversations with him haven’t gone well. An exit this summer was looking more likely, if not getting flipped in a trade earlier than that. The Cavs knew they didn’t have much control over that outcome. JaVale McGee, who started in Drummond’s spot Tuesday night, is in the final year of his contract as well. Before Wednesday’s shrewd move, the Cavs were staring at a thin center depth chart beyond this season -- and a limited path to changing that.

When Brooklyn called Wednesday afternoon, the Cavs willingly jumped into the four-team agreed-upon James Harden blockbuster that sent shockwaves through the NBA -- and stole one of the league’s top up-and-coming bigs.

Brooklyn got what it wanted, snagging Harden -- the lethal scorer and crown jewel of the swap -- and teaming him with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving (if he ever returns from personal leave) to form a daunting trio. They gave up Allen, recognizing they couldn’t afford to keep him beyond this year. The Houston Rockets probably feel better about their future with a haul of draft picks to ignite a rebuild. Indiana swapped Victor Oladipo for Caris LeVert and saved money in the process.

The Cavs benefitted as well, adding Allen and swingman Taurean Prince in exchange for Dante Exum, the unprotected Milwaukee Bucks’ 2022 first-round pick that lost some value with Giannis Antetokounmpo signing a max extension, and a 2024 second-round pick that one source called the worst asset in Cleveland’s pile.

Prince, an essential throw-in to help Brooklyn move money, hasn’t had a great year. But a change of scenery -- and perhaps greater opportunity -- could help revive his value. Prince will provide depth on the wing. A competitive and defensive-minded forward with the versatility to play 3 or 4, the 26-year-old former first-rounder gives the Cavs another healthy rotational piece as they continue to battle attrition.

But make no mistake: This move was about Allen -- a guy the Cavs had near the top of their 2021 free agency board and were prepared to make a run at this offseason.

“Delighted,” a source said when asked to describe the feeling in the building. “You get a guy who is 22 years old and just about to go into the prime of his career with our growing young core. To acquire a player of that magnitude, of that age, that’s why we acquired those assets, to have these opportunities.”

The Cavs have liked the 6-foot-11 Allen for years, going back to the 2017 NBA Draft. A few months ago in free agency, sources say members of Cleveland’s front office talked to Brooklyn about Allen’s availability as a potential Tristan Thompson replacement. At that time, the win-now Nets weren’t interested in moving on, especially given his low salary number and the way he played inside the Bubble.

Allen has carried that into this season, averaging 11.2 points on 67.7% shooting from the field to go with 10.4 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.6 blocks in 12 games. He ranks 10th in rebounds and ninth in blocks.

On offense, he’s an efficient pick-and-roll finisher and high-flying lob threat who doesn’t eat up possessions or need plays called for him to make an impact -- an important characteristic on a team with ball-dominant guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. With numbers pointing to Allen as a lethal pick-and-roll partner alongside Irving, the Cavs have visions of a successful Garland-Allen combination, helping unlock another area of Garland’s budding game. Dating back to 2018-19, only Rudy Gobert has been used as a screener more in that particular set.

At the other end, he’s a heady backbone and elite rim protector, ranking fourth in the NBA in field goal percentage against in terms of players with at least 250 field goals defended over the last two seasons.

What’s the best way to minimize the deficiencies that come with playing two small guards? Surround them with defensive-minded pieces.

The Cavs have enough early data to highlight the size and rim protection impact on this group. With Drummond and McGee roaming the paint, Larry Nance Jr. disrupting passing lanes and rookie Isaac Okoro pestering opponents on the perimeter, the Cavs have risen to the top of the league in defensive rating -- an extraordinary turnaround for a team that ranked last two years in a row.

In the short term, Cleveland’s center spot is a bit cluttered. Thon Maker will be waived and the Cavs have already received calls about McGee, sources say.

While the veteran seems most likely to get squeezed by the Allen addition, the rash of injuries throughout the first few weeks makes depth an asset. It will be up to Bickerstaff to balance minutes and make the pieces fit. Drummond, who has been fully engaged and upped the franchise’s competitiveness level since arriving last year, is said to be on board with a center rotation similar to Brooklyn with DeAndre Jordan and Allen. Sources say Drummond texted general manager Koby Altman shortly after the news broke, calling it a “great trade.”

The Cavs have invested numerous resources into fixing their defense. They didn’t want to lose any of that positive momentum. They couldn’t afford to regress. With uncertainty surrounding Drummond’s future, they need some protection. Even if Drummond would’ve stayed in Cleveland beyond this year, the Cavs were planning to search for another frontcourt piece.

Potential free agency target Bam Adebayo was off the market, signing a massive extension in Miami. Rudy Gobert inked a new deal in Utah, eliminating him from the potential plans. Anthony Davis, always a pipedream anyway, unsurprisingly chose to stay in Los Angeles.

What’s the point of having cap space if there’s no one to spend it on?

In many ways, that money was earmarked for Allen, who is a restricted free agent. Only this way the Cavs have more control. They inherited his Bird rights, can potentially match any offer sheet and are optimistic about their chances of signing him to a lucrative long-term contract. They didn’t give up a first-round pick to let him bolt.

Now the Cavs have 50-plus games to show Allen this is where he belongs -- at the center of a promising young core that features Garland, Sexton, Okoro, Nance, Dylan Windler and Kevin Porter Jr.

Consider this their free agency pitch -- about six months earlier than expected.

New Cavs face masks for sale: Here’s where you can buy Cleveland Cavaliers-themed face coverings for coronavirus protection, including a single mask ($14.99) and a 3-pack ($24.99). All NBA proceeds donated to charity.

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