CLEVELAND: The trade with the Memphis Grizzlies was supposed to be all about the draft pick.
But with the Jan. 22 deal came another gift. With it, the Cavs became a team.
Few in Northeast Ohio probably had heard of Marreese Speights and Wayne Ellington when they arrived in the swap that brought the Cavs another potential lottery selection. At that time, star Kyrie Irving and rookie Dion Waiters dominated the headlines and talk shows, as they still do.
There was speculation whether General Manager Chris Grant was the right man for the job, about how much longer fans would have to wait post-Decision for the Cavs’ return to respectability, about how owner Dan Gilbert was getting a free pass from the area’s psyche-battered sports fans.
Then Grant, with the players taken in the salary-dump trade designed to get the Grizzlies under the luxury tax, found himself a bench.
It was almost as if no one realized how bad the bench had been until Speights and Ellington became its anchors, along with free-agent point guard Shaun Livingston, signed on Christmas Day. The trio joined C.J. Miles and Luke Walton and suddenly the Cavs had a defensive unit for those tight fourth quarters, reserves with energy when the youngsters’ legs were sagging.
The Cavs have always had veterans, but in the past 2½ seasons, perhaps not enough of the right veterans. Oft-injured Anderson Varejao can only do so much.
Walton, long plagued by back problems, appears of late to have found a miracle cure. Livingston, the fourth overall pick of the Los Angeles Clippers in 2004 who suffered a horrific knee injury in 2007, looks like the passer who was once compared to Magic Johnson. Speights has become the bruiser the Cavs were lacking and has scored in double figures in 11 of his 15 games with the Cavs. Ellington and Miles are long-range threats.
In Wednesday night’s 103-92 victory over the Toronto Raptors, the Cavs’ reserves outscored their counterparts 39-8. In February, the Cavs’ reserves averaged 41.3 points per game, sixth-most in the NBA.
February also was the Cavs’ first month above .500 since March, 2010, when they went 13-2 when Akron’s greatest athlete still reigned Quicken Loans Arena. Last month, the Cavs also averaged 106.4 points, second in the Eastern Conference and fifth in the league.
Going back to the Jan. 22 trade, the Cavs are 10-6, 9-6 in games in which Speights and Ellington played.
“We’ve got guys who understand what trying to be a team is all about,” Cavs coach Byron Scott said Wednesday night. “Our second unit has been fantastic. Everybody is pretty comfortable. Everybody understands their role and they try to go out there and do it to the best of their ability.”
The second unit has been so fantastic that fan favorite Daniel Gibson can’t get on the court.
The trade might have been the turning point, but the addition of Livingston can’t be underestimated. He seems to have been especially helpful to Waiters.
“We’re growing every game, just the vets talking to us, telling us to be patient, don’t get rattled in certain situations,” Waiters said. “Shaun’s been doing a great job talking to me, teaching me a lot of things.”
The Cavs have a 51-year-old coach who earned three championship rings as a player with the L.A. Lakers, but the young pups might rather learn their lessons from Livingston.
The league had never seen the likes of the 6-foot-7 Livingston, drafted higher than any high school guard had ever been chosen. Livingston hasn’t been the same since the gruesome injury he suffered sprinting to the basket when he was 21. When he got to the hospital, there was talk of amputation, according to a story on Grantland.com. He had to learn how to walk again.
Livingston is playing for his seventh NBA team, not including a stint with the D-League’s Tulsa 66ers, but his voice might resonate in the locker room as well or better than Scott’s.
Livingston was once considered the Clippers’ future, just as Irving and Waiters are for the Cavs.
“I love playing with these guys, even if it’s practice,” Waiters said. “Everybody’s having fun ... Just sticking with each other and having each other’s back no matter what the situation is.”
Waiters wouldn’t have said that in November or December, when the Cavs won a total of six games. Two months later, they seem to have learned what teamwork means, even if it was by accident.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.