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Cavs’ big deadline day gives LeBron James the one thing he needed: a fighting chance

Even as the Cavaliers celebrated an electric, last-second overtime win over Minnesota on Wednesday night, team officials knew: something had to give. Cleveland’s defense was atrocious and its locker room fractured, and the likelihood that LeBron James would exit via free agency for the second time this decade had never been stronger. Management was under fire, and trust — both public and among players in the locker room — had eroded, badly.

The Cavs needed to be bold. On Thursday, they were.

Six players and two draft picks exited Cleveland on Thursday, with four players and a heavily protected second-round pick coming back. The Cavs dumped two key offseason acquisitions (Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder), gutted the bench (Derrick Rose, Iman Shumpert and Channing Frye) and sent LeBron James’ closest friend (Dwyane Wade) packing. In exchange, Cleveland got an infusion of young talent (Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr.) and a starting point guard (George Hill) with deep playoff experience.

LeBron James, left, celebrates his game-winning basket in overtime Wednesday night. (AP)

This was a good day for Cleveland, for GM Koby Altman, and anyone who thinks otherwise is foolish. The Thomas experiment wasn’t working — his agent, Aaron Goodwin, in an interview with Cleveland.com, admitted as much — while Crowder had been a shell of his former self. Rose never clicked in Cleveland, and Shumpert had been either out of the rotation or injured since mid-November. The Cavs’ defense was getting gashed nightly, and Thomas, who was routinely dying on pick-and-rolls, was a big reason why.

Altman — and owner Dan Gilbert, who has emerged as hands-on as ever in the aftermath of former GM David Griffin’s exit last June — let Kyrie Irving bully them into a hasty deal last summer, but give the embattled brass credit — it put in the work here. Deals with Utah, Sacramento and Los Angeles were discussed for weeks, league sources familiar with the discussions told Yahoo Sports, and the Cavs were able to keep the most coveted asset — the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick — tucked away.

This midseason shakeup guarantees nothing — for sure, Golden State’s brass isn’t meeting today wondering how to respond — but there’s no doubt a reeling team got better. Hood is the best player in the deal, a vastly underrated wing scorer deemed expendable by Utah because of his upcoming free agency and the emergence of rookie Donovan Mitchell. Hood is a 16.8-point-per-game scorer connecting on 38.9 percent of his threes this season, which instantly puts him among Cleveland’s leaders in both categories. Hood is better as a secondary scorer than a leading man, which is exactly the role the Cavs have for him.

Hill was going through the motions in Sacramento, a starter whose purpose was as much to force De’Aaron Fox to earn minutes as it was anything else. His defense was mediocre, but even Kings officials believe that placed back in a winning situation — Hill was the starting point guard in Indiana’s back-to-back Eastern Conference finals teams in 2013 and ’14 — his game will improve. His NBA-best 3-point shooting percentage (45.3 percent) won’t hurt, either.

Clarkson and Nance are young, energetic and entering uncharted territory: being asked to play meaningful minutes for a team playing meaningful games in April. Clarkson isn’t a high-level 3-point shooter, but he plays well off the ball and offers some firepower off the bench. He doesn’t defend anyone, but in a perfect world he’ll only have to deal with backups — not the murderers’ row of Irving, John Wall, Kyle Lowry, Goran Dragic and others who await the Cavs in the playoffs. Nance oozes upside, and though there is probably a ceiling there, his athleticism and unselfishness should make him a fixture in Ty Lue’s rotation, both this season and beyond.

So what about beyond? Several rival team executives told Yahoo Sports that in making these deals, the Cavs are sending a clear message to James that they are in it to win, no matter the cost. Trading the Nets pick with no idea what James will do in July was a nonstarter in Cleveland, but the Cavaliers did everything else. They absorbed bad contracts, traded a first-round pick in a market in which almost everyone else refused to and shook up a locker room that badly needed it. Cleveland took a big risk here; lose James next summer — and the Lakers deal makes it a lot easier for James and another star to jump to Los Angeles — and Cleveland could be in for a 19-63-ish season like the one it suffered through in 2011.

The Cavs can’t walk back the Irving deal, but with two-plus months left in the season they have significantly improved James’ supporting cast. This group will have to jell quickly, and young players unaccustomed to playing in big games will have to learn to play in the spotlight. James will have to take on the challenge of bringing this team together, while continuing to carry it on nights the newcomers can’t. It might change nothing; the core of the Cavs remain, and J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson have had defensive issues all season. But Altman’s deadline wheeling and dealing has given the Cavs a chance, which after a horrifying first half is all they can ask for.

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