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Cavaliers’ blockbuster midseason rebuild is all about trying to keep LeBron

Owner Dan Gilbert placed a brash bet to keep James in Cleveland

Dan Gilbert threw up a half-court heave on Thursday afternoon, chucking the ball as far he could, as if he were one of his players trying to beat the final horn. Yes, the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers wanted to salvage the season and kick-start a lethargic franchise that had lost 13 of its past 19 games.

But the trading-deadline flurry that sent six Cavs players packing was about so much more.

Moving Isaiah Thomas after just 15 games in a Cleveland uniform, and overhauling a roster to add more youth and fewer creaky knees, was Gilbert’s last-ditch attempt to keep LeBron James from leaving him a second time — a Hail LBJ shot he so hopes catches the rim and bounces in.

Otherwise, Life Without LeBron begins anew this summer.

Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson, whom the Cavs acquired from the Los Angeles Lakers, and George Hill, whom they got from Utah, make Cleveland younger and better defensively. By trading Derrick Rose to the Utah Jazz and sending Dwyane Wade (James’ best friend in the league) back to Miami, the Cavs pumped the brakes on their Legends Tour and instantly became a roster infused with more energy and urgency.

Cleveland’s moves work immediately on two fronts. They give James a legitimate shot to rebrand the season and try to get back to the NBA Finals for an unprecedented eighth straight time (this would be his fourth straight with the Cavs). It also acquired a young and talented enough crew to protect the franchise from completely falling off the map should James leave Cleveland this summer.

But it’s also a painful, if premature, acknowledgment that Thomas, the key player in the Kyrie Irving trade to Boston this past summer, was never going to be the complementary player to James that Irving had been for the Cavaliers. And with Thomas’ contract status in limbo after this season, now was a better time to move Thomas than later.

Finally, Thursday’s moves mark the evolution of Gilbert, who still believes he is the team’s best general manager but was flexible enough to realize that the mistakes made in the Irving trade had to be rectified sooner rather than later — or James was as good as gone.

Amazing, no, that Gilbert, the most angry scorned ex in NBA history just eight years ago when James left Cleveland for Miami, has emerged as Trader Dan, willing to jettison half his roster so Northern Ohio’s favorite son might feel good about staying in Cleveland past this summer, when James again becomes a free agent.

It remains to be seen how the new pieces will fit in, whether more athleticism and youth equal instant wins. But the team that takes the floor Friday night in Atlanta is suddenly transformed around James, whose sole purpose in the final years of his career is to win titles and enhance his legacy as an all-time great player, if not the greatest.

It’s why James won’t sign with a rebuilding team this summer or a franchise without a championship pedigree in its past. He doesn’t want the hassle of luring big-name free agents to a new team, in essence recruiting another championship team, a la the Heat circa 2010-14. He needs to know the goods are in place, because getting to the second round of the playoffs holds no meaning for a player who has played basketball into June for nearly a decade.

It’s why most of the Western Conference still feels like a long shot to land James. If you’re going to get beaten by the Warriors, the theory goes, it’s better for it to happen on the game’s biggest stage on network television than in a cable-only conference final.

If the Eastern Conference is indeed still a crapshoot, Gilbert just went all-in, hoping James’ new teammates will not only salvage this shipwreck of a season but also persuade Gilbert’s No. 1 attraction to stay in Cleveland for the rest of his career.

It’s bold, brash and expensive. But then, so is James. If that’s what it takes to possibly keep him, it was a chance worth taking.

Mike Wise is a senior writer and columnist at The Undefeated. Barack Obama once got to meet him.