New-look Cavaliers provide reason for optimism, but questions remain

Are Cavs in prime position to keep LeBron? (1:47)

With the latest additions from the trade deadline, Dave McMenamin details how the Cavaliers have increased their chances in the East and odds of convincing LeBron James to re-sign this offseason. (1:47)

Tristan Thompson bounced offstage following a panel discussion about "The Carter Effect" -- the Uninterrupted-produced documentary about how Vince Carter helped instill a love for hoops in Thompson and a whole generation of Canadian basketball players -- and spoke about his love for the moves the Cleveland Cavaliers made to change their season.

"We've got a lot more energy, a lot more youth," Thompson told ESPN during All-Star Weekend at the NeueHouse Hollywood in Los Angeles, where Uninterrupted shares its office space. "So I'm excited to get back to practice and really just mesh with the guys even more."

Beyond practice, Thompson is prioritizing "the hang" -- putting in the effort to establish bonds beyond the locker room.

"I think us spending a lot of time off the court, getting to know each other as humans, that's going to help on the court," Thompson said. "And I think we brought the right guys in that want to be around everyone off the court. Which is going to speed the process up."

Thompson's words painted a stark contrast to his own statement less than three weeks prior, when, in the aftermath of an explosive team meeting that became public, the Cavs' big man raised eyebrows by dismissing the value of team chemistry.

"When we're between these lines, we got to play for one another and that's all that matters," Thompson said. "I don't care if X don't like X off the court. I really don't give a s---. As long as you're on the court playing hard and playing for each other, that's all that matters to me. We don't got to talk to each other off the court. As long as we talk on the court, on the defensive end, that's all that matters to me. You go to work every day and you might not like a guy. You might not like the guy you work with. So be it."

Cleveland's roster revamp at the trade deadline -- sending six players out and bringing four players in to replace them -- was seen as a necessary transfusion for a team that was, in the words of general manager Koby Altman, "marching a slow death."

Gone are Isaiah Thomas and his struggles on the comeback trail from a serious hip injury; Dwyane Wade and his demanding presence if not always consistent production; Jae Crowder and his awkward offensive fit; as well as role players Channing Frye, Derrick Rose and Iman Shumpert.

In are George Hill and his defense-minded approach to the point guard position combined with a steady outside shot; Rodney Hood and his smooth offensive game with potential for becoming a two-way impact guy; Jordan Clarkson and his scoring penchant and fast-paced motor; and Larry Nance Jr. and his elite athleticism and win-at-all-costs approach without needing the ball in his hands.

There is plenty of reason to be optimistic about the overhaul, even though only 26 games remain for the Cavs to get into playoff form. The Cavs, as Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue noted at the first post-break practice, are basically starting from scratch.

"Just like how I suspected, they forgot the plays," Lue said after Wednesday's practice session when asked what his new players retained over the weeklong break that put their 2-0 start together on pause.

Lue will tinker with the lineup, determining things such as whether he'll be able to use Nance Jr. in automatics at the elbow and whether Hood will be able to regularly pick up full court on defense as he did against Russell Westbrook.

And Lue, finally, after dancing around the question all season prior to the trade deadline, could give a direct answer when asked about the identity of his team.

"It starts with our defense," Lue said. "That's what we've got to be: turn our defense into offense. If we're guarding the basketball, we're getting stops, getting turnovers, we can really get out and run because we have four guys on the floor at all times that can make a play."

It's a surprising thing for a head coach to say when it's already late February and his team ranks 28th in defensive efficiency (109.8 points allowed per 100 possessions), but that's how much the Cavs have changed in the past several weeks. Still, it doesn't abolish all of the issues.

On the day of the NBA draft back in June, just days after Cleveland parted ways with former GM David Griffin, a robust Cavs contingent made up of front-office personnel, coaches and team support staff members held an impromptu, "what if?" discussion about Kyrie Irving's future, multiple team sources confirmed to ESPN.

The discussion, characterized as "small talk" by one source familiar with its content, was less a formal straw poll of what the Cavs should do with their All-Star point guard should trade opportunities present themselves, and more of a thought exercise anticipating what the market could bear for a player of Irving's caliber.

The talk got back to Irving, multiple team sources told ESPN, and that served as the tipping point that led to Irving formally requesting a trade a little more than two weeks later.

"It was sloppy," one league source familiar with the draft-day discussion told ESPN, adding that any talk about trading a player of Irving's ilk -- however informal it might be -- should be handled strictly between the GM and owner, because of the sensitive nature of its content. Once a player feels expendable or undervalued from his own team, getting him to buy back in is a prickly proposition.

While Altman was involved in the meeting, he and Mike Gansey -- at that point officially the head of the Cavs' G League team -- were only keeping the ship afloat on an interim basis and had yet to be formally elevated to their current roles as GM and assistant GM, respectively.

It was a lapse in judgement that is looked back at by some still within the franchise as the consequential moment that led to the trade that sent Irving to Boston and put Cleveland at a disadvantage for most of the 2017-18 season prior to Altman's trade deadline deals.

Whether the decision to hold that discussion in front of so many people was a prudent one or not -- and it should be noted that no one believes it was Altman who leaked that discussion to Irving or his agent, Jeff Wechsler -- there was a communication flow Altman had to control once he was put in place to run the Cavs' front office.

While the Cavs were struggling in late December through early January, LeBron James questioned Altman's absentee status on a long Cleveland road trip, team sources told ESPN. It was a big difference from Griffin, who was in constant communication with James in their three seasons in Cleveland together. Altman had his reasons, however. For one, he and his fiancée welcomed the birth of their first child, who experienced health complications, and Altman was there for his family as a father. Also, unlike in years past, the Cavs had two first-round draft picks to prepare for in the 2018 NBA draft. Altman's scouting duties were more involved than Griffin's were in the past.

The fact that Altman went to James prior to the trade deadline for a sit-down meeting to loop in his superstar about the potential deals the Cavs would swing, as earlier reported by ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, was seen as progress.

James publicly lauded Altman, referring to him by name in a news conference for the first time since media day.

"I think Koby did a heck of a job of understanding what our team needed," James said after the Cavs' win over the Thunder before the All-Star break. "It just wasn't working out for us and he felt like, obviously you guys saw his quotes, he made the changes that he felt best fits our team."

Earlier that day, James offered a maxim that could very well be the guide for the Cavs organization to follow in making the most of the opportunity ahead of them this season.

"Communication is always key in sports," James said. "If you have new guys or guys who have been together for years, communication is always key."

When Kevin Love makes it back on the court from his broken left hand, which is expected to keep him out at least three more weeks, he'll be rejoining a team that has said goodbye to his three closest teammates from a year ago: Frye was traded this month, Richard Jefferson was traded in October, and James Jones retired in the offseason.

Without that insulation, Love recognizes he will have to go out of his comfort zone to make connections to his new teammates -- particularly because he won't have the benefit of playing with them as they dip their toes into the Cavs' waters for the first time.

"For me it's [imperative to] continue to stay vocal, always being around, make sure I'm on the road trips," Love said during All-Star Weekend. "Even when I'm not out there [on the court], I need to be there and be one of the leaders for this team."

There is some wisdom earned through experience behind the quote.

Love left the arena early after feeling sick during an embarrassing 148-124 loss to the Thunder on ABC's Saturday prime-time game on Jan. 20, and missed practice the following day. That led to a tumultuous team meeting when the Cavs convened for practice the following Monday, prompted by Thomas and Wade -- two teammates Love was playing with for the first time. The confrontation began after Lue brought the team in to start practice and Love didn't offer up anything about his status. Several team sources told ESPN they believe the meeting never would have occurred the way it did had Love provided an explanation.

There were still lingering feelings, sources told ESPN, from how Love handled a loss in Chicago last March when he fouled out midway through the fourth quarter and immediately retreated to the locker room, rather than remain on the bench in support of his team. Jefferson ran to the back to bring him back out, but the damage was done.

Love, of course, was not the reason the sub-.500 Bulls scored 37 points in the third quarter that day. He wasn't the reason Irving shot 7-for-20, or the reason Shumpert shot 2-for-8, or the reason James had four turnovers and shot 1-for-4 (0-for-3 from 3) in the fourth quarter. Even if he was a scapegoat, as often has been the case with Love in his three and a half seasons in Cleveland, there was still a perception of him giving up on the team.

It's another issue he and the team will have to face head-on for the Cavs to reach their ultimate goal this season.

Outside of James, Love is indisputably the most accomplished player on the Cavs after their roster reshuffle. He said that it was "pretty apparent" the trade deadline moves were a necessary shake-up. Love would benefit by staking his claim on the new-look team.

"I live by a great quote and it's, 'Only by admitting who we are can we get what we want,'" Love said.

Whatever skeletons remain in the Cavs' closet will likely not surface to the degree they have this year if Cleveland returns to winning form.

Cleared out are many of the "agendas" that Lue referred to following a disappointing loss in Toronto last month. In their place are four new pieces, an intriguing rookie in Cedi Osman and a rejuvenated James.

James, whose usage percentage in his last two games before the break was 39.2, according to ESPN Stats & Information -- which leads the NBA -- and who is on pace to play in all 82 games for the first time in his 15-year career, appears ready to give his all between now and whenever the Cavs' run in the playoffs is over.

"I'm ready to go, that's all that matters," James said Wednesday. "That's all that matters, a great break, so I'm ready to go."

And the rest of the Cavs, according to Lue, are prepared to follow along right beside him.

"I just think when you're young, you don't know any better," Lue said. "You just want to play the game and play hard and that's all you know."