How the Cleveland Cavaliers changed their season with a flurry of trades


In the 24 hours before Koby Altman pushed to complete the three deals that resurrected a season and reshaped a franchise, the Cleveland Cavaliers general manager sought a most elusive engagement: a sit-down with LeBron James.

Before he shared the framework of possible trades for Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., Rodney Hood, George Hill and DeAndre Jordan last Wednesday, Altman prefaced his visit with the unmistakable truth that nothing the front office could do mattered much until James had re-engaged on the court. James had been angry, brooding and playing with an indifference that Altman hadn’t witnessed in their three-plus years together in Cleveland.

Most of all, Altman wanted the best player on the planet to know that he understood his frustrations with the Cavaliers’ mismatched assemblage of talent and crumbling culture. Altman assured James that management was determined to uproot the roster and fight to restore order.

For Cavaliers elders, an audience with James had been a rare occurrence. James had largely left his agent, Rich Paul, to communicate with the team on roster issues. Owner Dan Gilbert had spoken directly to James only once since conversations about a Paul George trade on June 30. Back then, Gilbert required James’ commitment of an additional season beyond 2017-18 for George to consider a comparable pledge. In the end, Indiana made the George deal with Oklahoma City — not Cleveland.

Gilbert and James didn’t meet again until opening night against Boston, hours prior to tipoff inside Quicken Loans Arena. James has declined to commit to Cleveland beyond this season, which is part of the reason that Altman had come to James with trades that didn’t include the Brooklyn Nets lottery pick acquired in the Kyrie Irving deal with Boston.

Six months after his promotion to GM, Altman’s marching orders were these: Bring on younger, athletic players under contract or control beyond the 2017-18 season and work to soothe a splintered locker room.

In ESPN’s conversations with those involved in the final hours of completing those three trades, a common theme emerged: One way or another, Altman planned to make dramatic change to the roster. Whatever incarnations of deals emerged and re-emerged, the Cavaliers organization was sure of this: Isaiah Thomas had to go, Dwyane Wade deserved to make a decision on his own and, ultimately, Cleveland couldn’t give LeBron James reason to leave so easily in July.

When Altman visited with James in the Cavaliers’ practice facility a week ago, he let him know that there were still talks alive with the LA Clippers on a Jordan deal. What’s more, there was significant progress: Altman had ownership approval to send the Clippers Jae Crowder, Channing Frye, Iman Shumpert and the Cavs’ 2018 first-round pick for Jordan. The Clippers were willing to accept the trade, but on one significant condition.

Clippers general manager Michael Winger explained to Altman that LA didn’t want another shooting guard. He hoped to find a third team that would take Shumpert and his $21 million with draft compensation, and have the Clippers get a center back. Altman and Winger agreed to make more calls to try to find a third team to make the deal work. Winger wondered whether Altman would let him talk to Shumpert’s agent on a possible contract buyout, but Altman wanted trade talks to be further along before granting that permission.

Clippers president Lawrence Frank, Winger and Altman had talked for weeks on a trade, but they got nowhere. The Clippers wouldn’t take Tristan Thompson, JR Smith or Shumpert in a deal, and that never changed. As Wednesday wore on, Altman became more convinced that a deal with Los Angeles was within reach — only not with the Clippers.

Altman and the Lakers’ front office had discussed the possibility that they were clearing the way for L.A. to create space to sign James as free agent this summer. Altman had been the assistant GM under David Griffin in 2014, when the mere opportunity to bring back James pushed them to unload contracts in advance of his July free agency decision, dumping Jarrett Jack and Tyler Zeller. Altman watched Miami’s flurry to clear space for James and Chris Bosh in 2010 and Golden State for Kevin Durant in 2016. He knows that superstar partnerships in big markets are tough to combat.

If the Lakers and James wanted to be together, the Cavaliers couldn’t stop it. Lakers GM Rob Pelinka and Altman had expanded conversations beyond Jordan Clarkson to include forward Larry Nance Jr. There came a crystallization that the Cavs were taking a far bigger risk passing on players who fit Cleveland’s profile than rejecting a trade based upon the possibility of bad optics in July.

In the late evening hours on Wednesday, Pelinka called Altman and told him that Lakers ownership had approved of a trade unloading Clarkson and Nance for Thomas, Frye and the Cavaliers’ 2018 first-round pick. Now Altman knew he’d go to bed with a deal in his pocket — and the ability to do more before Thursday afternoon’s deadline.

After talking separately to Utah on Hood and Sacramento on Hill, Altman broached the idea of a three-way trade that would land the Cavaliers both players. Utah was willing to do the deal for Crowder and a minimum expiring contract. Cleveland could choose — Derrick Rose or Dwyane Wade. The Jazz planned to waive either player. Altman told Utah he’d let them know which player he’d be sending them on Thursday morning.

Altman had negotiated the trade with Kings assistant general manager Brandon Williams, who works under GM Vlade Divac. The management structure in Sacramento can make deals dicey, because Divac seldom gets on the phone for the trade-building parts — and yet he ultimately has decision-making power with owner Vivek Ranadive.

That’s why a 3 a.m. ET deal memo sent from Sacramento to Cleveland left Altman at first incredulous — and then angry. Suddenly, center Georgios Papagiannis had been included as part of the three-way trade. Cleveland and Utah were adamant that Papagiannis’ name had never been discussed. Williams would later say that Papagiannis or Malachi Richardson were set to be included in the deals and insisted his notes confirmed that.

Because Sacramento had the makings of a trade with Toronto for Richardson, rival executives say that the Kings pushed to spare themselves the embarrassment of waiving the No. 13 overall pick in the 2016 NBA draft — and let someone else do it. In the middle of the night, Altman and Williams vocally disagreed over the insertion of Papagiannis into the trade. Cleveland couldn’t take him into its roster because the NBA’s repeater tax would turn the balance of his $2.3 million contract this year and $2.4 million next year into three times that with the luxury-tax bill.

In the morning, Altman let the Jazz know about Sacramento’s insertion of Papagiannis. Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey was livid. To him, this was a deal-breaker. He hadn’t dealt directly with Sacramento, because there had been no need: The deal went through Cleveland, and Altman had never suggested to Lindsey that Utah would have to take a 7-foot draft bust onto his roster.

Altman stayed on the phone with Winger on Thursday morning, keeping the DeAndre Jordan deal within reach. The Clippers were closing on a third-team to take on Shumpert, and Altman had to determine if he could create a pathway to a deal with that first-round pick still on its way to the Lakers. What’s more, he had to decide: Were the Cavaliers motivated to extend Jordan’s contract at over $100 million? The answer to both questions was no, and that’s why Altman turned his attention back to selling the Jazz on a $1.1 million payment to the Kings.

In Lindsey’s mind, the Jazz were out. Cleveland could do the deal without them. Altman offered him a solution: Cleveland was willing to finance the balance of Papagiannis’ $3.2 salary, but NBA rules allow a team to send out a maximum of $5.1 million in trades a year. Cleveland had $2.1 million remaining on that budget and could send no more than that to the Kings. Cleveland needed Utah to supplement $1.1 million into the trade or the Kings wouldn’t agree to the deal.

Because Utah was working directly through Altman on the trade, he felt a brunt of the Jazz front office’s frustration. He understood it. His relationship with Utah’s assistant GM Justin Zanik played a part in soothing the frayed feelings and advancing toward a reshaped deal. Lindsey wasn’t happy, but ultimately agreed with a text Altman sent: This deal isn’t worth losing over $1.1 million.

It would cost the Cavaliers, though. Utah wanted a swap of 2024 second-round picks. Owner Dan Gilbert agreed. Now, Altman wanted a promise from the Kings that the deal was done, that he wouldn’t get embarrassed returning to the Jazz with assurances that he couldn’t keep.

He also knew that he needed to circle back and connect with James again. The Cavaliers’ charter flight would be leaving soon for Atlanta, and he wanted one more face-to-face meeting. This time, he told James of the trades they were completing — and asked for his blessing to offer Wade the chance to return to Miami. Wade’s role would be minimized in Cleveland, and Altman wanted to afford him the respect of letting him return to his old team. Altman had called Heat GM Andy Elisburg with the Wade idea. He ran it past president Pat Riley. Sure, they told him. We’ll bring him home. Let us know.

Once Altman raised the idea with Wade and his agent, Leon Rose, there was no hesitation. Soon, all of the deals were done. Thomas, Frye and Shumpert were headed West, Wade had gone home and now everything had changed in Cleveland. Finally, Altman and his staff stood to let out a yell, hug and high-fives. Whatever happens, they knew this: In one of the most impactful trade deadline days ever, Koby Altman and the Cleveland Cavaliers weren’t prepared to extinguish an era. Twenty-four hours had changed everything.

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