With rumors swirling and the deadline looming, the NBA is abuzz (as usual) as teams attempt to make a push to the playoffs through the last 30 or so games of the season. Just as squads like the Phoenix Suns have fully embraced the long-term rebuilding process, other teams, like the perpetually struggling Orlando Magic are looking to ship players to break even faster than by rifling through draft picks.
Even then one team stands above the rest regarding roster moves: the Cleveland Cavaliers. More accurately, LeBron James more than casually alluded to the need for a mid-season retooling, particularly after his “top-heavy” remarks in late January. That said, how often do championship teams enlist fresh legs leading up to the February trade deadline? Let’s take a look back at some of the mid-season personnel moves over the last 10 years.
2007 San Antonio Spurs
On February 13, 2007, the Spurs picked up Center Melvin Ely from the Charlotte Bobcats in exchange for Eric Williams, cash and a 2009 2nd round draft pick that turned out to be Robert Vaden. At the time, Williams was a 34-year-old small forward that saw about 5 minutes of action per game leading up to the trade. Similarly, Ely served largely a reserve role in the Spurs championship run, seeing only 65 minutes across 6 games and sitting the entirety of the playoffs. The Spurs were of course led by the timeless core of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, with veteran input coming from the likes of Robert Horry, Bruce Bowen, Brent Barry and more, and as such Ely’s presence in the post season went unnoticed. Additionally, the ’07 Spurs only dealt with 4 other players beyond the Williams-Ely trade, with Jacques Vaughn and Francisco Elson garnering the most minutes among those signed that season.
2008 Boston Celtics
After trading 5 players and 2 draft picks for Kevin Garnett in the summer of 2007, the Celtics managed to avoid making any trades leading up to the deadline. The only notable moves General Manager Danny Ainge made following the deadline were for veteran P.J. Brown and then two-time champion Sam Cassell. Despite seeing limited minutes leading up to the playoffs, Brown and Cassell played in 25 and 21 of the Celtics’ 26 playoff games respectively, bolstering their bench with additional leadership and key reserve minutes at the season’s end.
2009-10 Los Angeles Lakers
The 65-17 Phil Jackson led Lakers were third in the league in offensive rating and sixth in defensive rating en route to the championship. Much like their 2008 predecessors, the Lakers made minimal moves during February, replacing Vladimir Radmanovic with Shannon Brown and Adam Morrison of the Charlotte Bobcats on Feb. 7, and shipping Chris Mimh to the Memphis Grizzles for an unprotected pick in the 2013 draft. Brown is most well-known for his incredible leaping abilities that in turn led to this block in his first game as a Laker 11 days after the trade, but his athleticism and defensive mindedness led him to contribute in 21 of the Lakers 23 playoff games, averaging a hair over 13 minutes per game and just under 5 points per game. Morrison, on the other hand, maintained his reputation as a draft bust, playing only 8 games during the remainder of the regular season and none in the playoffs.
Leading to the eventual repeat in the 2010 NBA Playoffs, the Lakers did not make any roster moves in the month of February, with the biggest offseason signing being Metta World Peace.
2011 Dallas Mavericks
GM Don Nelson’s 2011 Mavericks remained relatively constant throughout the 2011 season. Leading up to the season the Mavs managed to snag Tyson Chandler from the Charlotte Bobcats, and the 2011 All Defensive Second Team center was instrumental, bringing a defense-first center against a Miami Heat team that found most issues in the paint. Interestingly, the Mavericks did not make any deadline moves, instead picking up veteran 3-point specialist Peja Stojakovic in January as a free agent, as well as then 24-year-old Corey Brewer after being waived by the Knicks. While Brewer only appeared in 6 games through the Mavs title run, Peja saw action in 19 contests, shooting 37.7% from beyond the arc. Although Peja’s presence wasn’t as strong in the Finals, he did assist in sealing the series against the Lakers in Game 4, with 21 pts on 6-6 from deep.
2012-13 Miami Heat
After securing arguably one of the biggest free agent signings in league history the season prior, the Miami Heat maintained minimal roster moves during their first championship run in the shortened 2011-12 season. The Heat avoided any major moves near the deadline, having committed to defensive stalwart and veteran mentor Shane Battier in December 2011. Even then, following the trade deadline, General Manager Pat Riley only made moves on Ronny Turiaf, who largely served as a reserve center for Joel “The Warden” Anthony.
During their repeat run, the Heat’s front office again avoided most major roster shakeups, apart from signing Chris “Birdman” Andersen in January after giving him a couple of 10-day contracts, and veteran Juwan Howard in March. While Juwan Howard was almost entirely picked up for his sideline leadership skills (Howard didn’t log any minutes in the playoffs), Andersen became the second-string center after the Heat moved LeBron to the four and Bosh to the five in the starting lineup. Aside from his rugged persona that complemented the flashy “Heatles,” Andersen saw action in 20 of the Heat’s 23 2013 playoff games, posting 6.4 points per game and just over one block per game, second only to Bosh’s 1.6.
2014 San Antonio Spurs
Seven years after they defeated the Cavs and one year after a seven game series with the Miami Heat, the Spurs retained 11 of the 14 players from the previous season. That said, the roster moves the Texas team made were largely inconsequential. After toying with recalling and reassigning Nando de Colo, Malcolm Thomas and Aron Baynes from their D-League affiliate Austin Spurs, only Aron Baynes would make the final playoff team. While Baynes did suit up for 14 of the spurs 23 playoff games, his production was minimal, with his greatest contributions coming in the second and third rounds against Portland and Oklahoma City respectively. Baynes grabbed his playoff high of seven boards in game one against the Trailblazers and again in game four in Portland.
2015 Golden State Warriors
Following a middling season under the leadership of Marc Jackson, first year Coach Steve Kerr made strides with the first seeded Western Conference team of 2015, utilizing much of the same core from the Jackson era. The Warriors did toy with a smattering of D-League call ups and free agent signings early in the season including the likes of Jason Kapono and Justin Holiday, but as February rolled in the roster began to stagnate. Only James Michael McAdoo and Festus Ezeli were picked up during the month with the former contributing in just 5 playoff contests and the latter having a more substantial role in 20 of 26 games. During the approximately nine minutes he played, Ezeli managed 3.5 points and 3.1 rebounds per game with his best performance against the Rockets in the Western Conference Finals.
2016 Cleveland Cavaliers
Surprisingly, or maybe not so, the reigning champion Cleveland Cavaliers kept with the trend of not making too many midseason moves leading up to their title run. After infamously leading the Cavs to an Eastern Conference best 30-11, General Manager LeBron James and Co. had second year coach David Blatt fired and replaced with assistant Tyronn Lue. Lue lead the Cavs to a 27-14 record and the eventual championship, and in the process only saw the addition of Channing Frye and the removal of long-time Cav Anderson Varejao. Frye would become a key role player in the playoffs, contributing nearly 14 minutes per game and 56.5% from three on 46 attempts. Most of his minutes were logged as a backup center, in Cavs lineups that prioritized stretching the floor without the presence of resident big man Timofey Mozgov or Tristan Thompson.
Are LeBron’s calls for more roster depth warranted? Well, it depends. Cleveland lacks much of the winning pedigree that defines organizations like the Celtics, Lakers and Spurs. Prior to Bron’s return, the Cavs were at best irrelevant, with young point guard Kyrie Irving failing to elevate a talentless team to playoff contention. With his second coming, King James redefined the systemic lack of success that cursed not only the Cavs but Cleveland sports as a whole. James was likely well aware that the talent he could collect in Cleveland could never rival that of the 2013 Miami Heat, so finding midseason assistance in the form of Lue and Frye in 2016 and Kyle Korver in 2017 is partially expected.
That said, the Cavs are also struggling with injuries, with J.R. Smith not expecting a return until March (at the earliest) and Chris Andersen sidelined for the remainder of the campaign. Additionally the loss of Dellevedova and increase in minutes for the young DeAndre Liggins, Kay Felder and Jordan McRae would have even the most stalwart of players weary. But with Kevin Love playing some of the best ball of his career (and in fewer minutes, just 31.8 compared to 33.8 in his first year with Cleveland) and Kyrie being, well, Kyrie, the Cavs may be better off solidifying their current core than introducing new pieces too late into the season.