As the Cleveland Cavaliers cruised through the Eastern Conference playoffs, it was hard to imagine any other result. Of course, the team with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving (even in his diminished state) and a bunch of athletic and skilled role players was going to dominate the Chicago Bulls' stagnant offense, and the Atlanta Hawks' undersized front line.
Five months ago, however, things were looking dire in Cleveland. Forget a run at the NBA Finals. Did Cleveland even have enough to get out of the first round? The Cavaliers were 19-16 on Jan. 5, and fifth in the East. David Blatt's job was in peril and the Irving/James/Kevin Love Big 3 wasn't clicking.
That was the day general manager David Griffin saved the season with two moves. First, Dion Waiters was sent to the Oklahoma City Thunder in a three-team deal that landed J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. Two days later, Griffin gave up two first-round picks for Denver Nuggets center Timofey Mozgov.
The trades were panned at the time as desperation moves made by an overwhelmed executive. Many believed the Cavaliers gave up far too much for those three players. In hindsight, they are the reason the Cavaliers are playing for an NBA title.
The Cavaliers ranked 19th in the league in three-point percentage before the trade. The starting shooting guard at the time, Mike Miller, was shooting a decent but unspectacular 36.4 percent from outside, while Waiters was connecting on just a shade over 25 percent of his attempts. This despite 43.5 percent of the team's threes coming with no defender within four feet.
Three-point shooting was a huge problem for Cleveland because the role players were not making the defense pay for leaving them open and helping on the stars. That changed when J.R. Smith arrived.
Smith shot 39 percent on seven three-point attempts per game as a Cavalier during the regular season. When the defender was six feet away or further, Smith shot 48 percent. That's almost 15 percentage points better than Waiters and eight percent better than Miller. You just can't leave him open.
During the playoffs, Smith is shooting over 39 percent while taking even more threes per minute. He's embraced his new role as long range bomber and gave the Cavaliers exactly the type of wing player they needed to take defensive pressure away from the stars. His hot shooting saved the Cavaliers in two must-win games: Game 4 against the Bulls and Game 2 at Atlanta.
If Smith gets hot, the Golden State Warriors simply can't leave him open. That means even more space for LeBron to do his thing.
Shumpert was hurt when he was traded and took a while to get settled. Once he did, Cleveland found its ace perimeter defender.
Shawn Marion was brought in to be the perimeter stopper that could relieve James from the burden of chasing elite talent around night in and night out, but he proved to be far too old for the job. Shumpert is not far too old. The former Knick boasted the only sub 100 defensive rating on the team since the trade and also acts as a credible offensive threat, something Marion can't do anymore.
Shumpert replaced Waiters as the team's sixth man and the upgrade was massive. Waiters could handle his man one on one, but his off-ball defensive was atrocious. Shumpert is significantly better chasing players through screens and guarding spot up situations, per Synergy Sports.
That off ball defense had a huge impact on the Cavaliers' overall numbers. With Shumpert on the court in the regular season, opponents shot just 28 percent from outside.
In the playoffs Shumpert has shined even brighter, emerging as a dead-eye shooter to go with his stellar defense on guards like Derrick Rose and wings like Kyle Korver.
The Cavaliers need all of his defensive skill in the finals, because he'll be switched between both Splash Brothers. Shumpert's versatility gives him a chance to stop whichever of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson is playing better. Without Shumpert, the Cavaliers' defense has no chance to slow the high-powered Warriors attack.
The first trade aimed to improved the back court at both ends, but with Anderson Varejao sidelined with a torn Achilles tendon, the Cavaliers desperately needed help inside. Any hope of Love developing good defensive instincts had extinguished, and Brendan Haywood proved to be as done as everyone assumed he was. Before the trade, the Cavaliers were allowing over 63 percent on fields goals within five feet of the rim, the second-worst mark in the league.
Once Mozgov arrived, things changed. He finally gave Cleveland a real rim protector, allowing just 46 percent on shot attempts at the basket, per SportVU data. The Cavaliers' interior defense improved as teams started finding opposition when they drove. Opponents shot 58 percent within five feet after the trade, around league average. That's a major change caused entirely by one player.
Yet Mozgov also made an impact on the offensive end. By adding another big man that could crash the offensive glass, the Cavaliers put a ton of pressure on opponent centers to rebound. Mozgov finished 20th in offensive rebound percentage and kept alive over 11 percent of Cleveland's misses.
In the postseason, Mozgov is only allowing 40 percent on shots he contests at the rim and has posted an offensive rebound percentage of over 12 percent. Everything he's done well during the regular season has gone up a level in the playoffs.
While the Warriors do a lot of work from the perimeter, Mozgov will still be an important piece in the finals. The Cavaliers need to grab offensive rebounds to delay the Warriors' deadly fast break, and Mozgov can aid that effort.
This is how two separate trades for three ordinary players turned the Cavaliers' season from a horrible disappointment into a success. None are stars. None are big names. They were just players that could fill needs.
No one could have predicted at the time that two Knicks rejects and a shy giant from Russia that the Knicks traded away earlier would be instrumental in the creation of a top contender. Five months later, they could be the unsung heroes needed to defeat a great team like the Warriors. That's how quickly things change in this league.
SB Nation presents: LeBron is carrying a team of spare parts yet again