CLEVELAND (AP) — Once LeBron James gets his knee and back healthy enough to play again, the superstar will rejoin a Cavaliers team that has undergone some rehabilitation as well.
The Cavs have started the new year with yet another new look.
On Monday night, general manager David Griffin addressed his team’s sore need for bench scoring and a defensive stopper by acquiring guards J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert from the New York Knicks in a three-team trade that sent mystifying guard Dion Waiters from Cleveland to Oklahoma City.
With the Cavs underachieving — they lost to the 5-32 Philadelphia 76ers on Monday without James and Kyrie Irving — and amid ongoing chemistry issues, injuries and concerns about coach David Blatt, Griffin pulled the string on a deal that should have immediate, short-term impact and perhaps set the table for another roster move.
The Cavs remain in search of a rim-protecting center and have made inquiries about Denver’s Timofy Mozgov and Memphis’ Kosta Koufos. Cleveland used its disabled player exception for losing center Anderson Varejao (torn Achilles) for the season and still has a $5.2 million exception to obtain a big man.
Griffin, who also got a protected first-round pick from the Thunder, has shown a fearlessness when it comes to doing whatever’s necessary to improve his team This trade was his second involving a first-round pick since James re-signed this summer. In July, he swapped Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett — both No. 1 picks to get Kevin Love.
In dealing Waiters, the No. 4 pick in 2012, Griffin again made it clear he’s not averse to risk.
For now, Smith and Shumpert, when he recovers from a dislocated left shoulder, can help Cleveland get back on track.
Assuming, that is, James can get back on the floor. He’s missed the past five games with back and knee strains, injuries that have deprived him of the explosiveness that made him the game’s best player and may explain why he chose to lose weight coming into his 12th season as a pro.
On Jan. 1, the Cavs announced a minimum two-week timetable for James’ return. But if he’s not ready, and the 30-year-old knows his body better than anyone, James won’t rush back and risk further damage.
As he recovers, the Cavs retooled their roster to help in his quest to deliver a championship to championship-thirsty Cleveland.
Smith is a talented scorer who also has a reputation for being self-centered and a less-than-ideal teammate. Smith was at his best in 2012-2013, when he was named the league’s top sixth man playing on a Knicks team with Carmelo Anthony, Jason Kidd, Amare Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler — all established veterans. Smith embraced his role coming off the bench, averaging 18.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists.
He’ll have to accept a similar supporting role with Cleveland, which has an abundance of scorers in James, Irving and Love. What the Cavs need is someone to lead the second unit for Blatt, who couldn’t get Waiters to buy in and doesn’t have anyone else with Smith’s talent on his bench.
James knows Smith, who has a $6.4 million player option for next season, well as the two worked out together during past offseasons. Their relationship should help with Smith’s transition to a team that needs him to drop his ego and some shots.
Shumpert earned his reputation as a relentless perimeter defender, something the Cavs desperately need to handle bigger guards and small forwards. The 6-foot-5 Shumpert should start alongside Irving, who has been dealing with back tightness and skipped the team’s trip to Philadelphia.
The Cavs are about to enter one of the season’s most challenging stretches.
After hosting Houston on Wednesday, Cleveland will head to the West Coast for five games in seven nights, during which they must integrate two new players and hope their best one has healed. It will be another tough test in a season that hasn’t gone according to plan for this unfinished team.
“We’re down,” Love said after the ugly loss in Philadelphia. “But not out.”
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