Lost in the chaos of Wednesday’s blockbuster Houston Rockets and Brooklyn Nets trade that united James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving was the involvement of the Indiana Pacers and Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Pacers swapped disgruntled All-Star point guard Victor Oladipo for rising star Caris LeVert, solidifying the foreseeable future of an underrated team currently tied for third in the Eastern Conference standings.
Oladipo is in the final year of the four-year extension he originally signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2016. He transformed into an All-NBA guard who helped the Pacers take LeBron James’ Cavaliers to seven games in the first round of the 2018 playoffs. Oladipo’s rise was met with a devastating knee injury in January 2019 that also kept him out for all but 19 games last season. He is still striving to return to form.
Oladipo publicly pledged his commitment to Indiana, where he also played his college ball, despite persistent rumors of stalled contract discussions and an impending departure, as well as a report that he openly lobbied to join opponents in front of his Pacers teammates. Still, it was increasingly clear that neither side was committed to the other. The hope for the Rockets is that he is part of their reconstruction plan.
Should Oladipo become a formidable playmaking force again, Houston has a chance to retain its status as a perennial playoff team. Fellow oft-injured star John Wall and productive young big man Christian Wood may not elevate the Rockets to contender status, but both are signed through 2023. New Rockets general manager Rafael Stone also has the added flexibility of 11 first-round draft picks over the next six years.
Indiana, though, is now more secure in its standing as a consistent threat to unseat higher-profile East contenders. Few teams have been more adept at spinning outgoing assets into quality players under team control, the hallmark of a small-market outfit that has missed the playoffs just once in the past 10 years. (Fun fact: Indiana drafted LeVert 20th overall in 2016 and traded his rights to Brooklyn for Thaddeus Young.)
LeVert fills Oladipo’s role as a pick-and-roll playmaker alongside Malcolm Brogdon, only he too is signed through 2023. Likewise, the Pacers have All-Star big man Domantas Sabonis signed longterm. Myles Turner, T.J. Warren and Holiday brothers Aaron and Justin are all valuable commodities, both as contributors to a winning team and trade assets for the further bolstering of a smartly constructed roster.
We are just months removed from LeVert averaging 20.3 points, 9.5 assists and six rebounds in a playoff series against the defending champion Toronto Raptors, who came within a game of the East finals again.
In the short-term, Cleveland’s plan appears less seamless. They added Jarrett Allen to a misfit frontcourt that already includes Andre Drummond, Kevin Love and Larry Nance, acquiring the promising young center for a pair of inconsequential draft picks. In the bigger picture, the Cavaliers’ future just got more formidable.
Drummond is a free agent at season’s end. The Cavs acquired him for a pittance at last season’s trade deadline, and they may well recoup the second-round pick they spent by dealing him again this year and handing the primary center role to Allen for years to come. Not to do so would be a hinderance to the development of the 22-year-old Allen, who is averaging a double-double serving as a quality rim protector.
Cleveland guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland — both recent top-10 picks — are averaging a combined 42.3 points (on 50/50/84 shooting splits) and 9.8 assists. Rookie Isaac Okoro has shown flashes as a defensive monster on the wing. With Allen as the anchor for that young core, the Cavaliers are quietly building a formidable team for the future in the ashes of LeBron James’ departure.
In the shadows of Brooklyn, a pair of unheralded Eastern Conference teams also improved on Wednesday.
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