Debate began the instant the Cavs traded away half their roster with two months left in the regular season. Good trade, bad trade? Opinions shifted almost by the day, often depending upon how well Ben Wallace played or how many shots Wally Szczerbiak hit.

Debate began the instant the Cavs traded away half their roster with two months left in the regular season.

Good trade, bad trade? Opinions shifted almost by the day, often depending upon how well Ben Wallace played or how many shots Wally Szczerbiak hit.

When the season ended a week ago, the debate changed to this — are the Cavs better now than last June when they were swept in the NBA Finals by the Spurs?

The Cavs had their chance to weigh in on that the day after their season ended with a loss to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

From the players’ perspective, here’s veteran center Zydrunas Ilgauskas: “I don’t think we’re any worse. Last year, we had a lot easier (playoff) schedule. This year, the road to the finals was a lot tougher with us, starting with Washington and obviously drawing the best team in the league with Boston. I don’t think we’re any worse. ... It just wasn’t good enough this time.”

Here’s the take of General Manager Danny Ferry, the man who made the trade: “I like this team. I like the guys we have. I like the skill sets. I think we have toughness this year. We had a defensive edge at the end of the year at a pretty high level. We’re a better shooting team overall. But we’ve got to still find ways to get better.”

In the end, the view here is good trade but not good enough.

The addition of Wallace, Szczerbiak, Delonte West and Joe Smith on Feb. 21 kept the Cavs a contender in the East. They took the 66-win Celtics to seven games in the conference semis.

With what they had Feb. 20, the day before the deal, the Cavs would’ve struggled to hold down the fourth spot in the conference. A first-round playoff exit was a definite possibility.

The trade gave the Cavs depth, better chemistry, stronger defense and some room for error. But not much. The Cavs certainly could play with the Celtics, but they still had little room for error. Any bad stretches, and the Cavs were in trouble.

LeBron James did just about everything to keep the Cavs competitive before the trade and make them a challenger after it. But the bottom line is more will be needed for Cleveland to make another trip to the NBA Finals and have a chance to succeed there.

James knows it. Deep down, the Cavs know it. But making the necessary moves will not be easy and will require creativity.

Ferry showed a willingness to get creative in February. How many people thought Chicago and Seattle had the spare parts needed to give the Cavs a playoff tune-up, much less unload the salary of Larry Hughes? Ferry found a way. Now he and his staff need to do it again.

Who’s available

The Cavs don’t have the salary cap room to dive deep into the free agent market, but that’s not a bad thing. Depending upon who opts out of their contracts, this is not a market saturated with talent.

The current big name among unrestricted free agents is Antawn Jamison. Other players who may opt out and become free agents this summer are Allen Iverson, Baron Davis, Elton Brand, Corey Maggette, Gilbert Arenas, Shawn Marion and Ron Artest.

Some of the lesser named but possibly valuable unrestricted free agents are guards Anthony Carter of Denver, Chris Duhon of Chicago, Keyon Dooling of Orlando and Beno Udrih of Sacramento. Two unrestricted veterans still going in the playoffs are Michael Finley and Kurt Thomas of the Spurs.

The list of restricted free agents is highlighted by Golden State’s Monta Ellis and Philadelphia’s Andre Iguodala. Others in that group are Chicago’s Luol Deng and Ben Gordon and Atlanta’s Josh Smith and Josh Childress.

Trade talk

The best way for the Cavs to upgrade their roster significantly most likely is by trade. That’s where the Cavs’ expiring contracts, namely Wally Szczerbiak’s $13 million due this season, could help. Others that could be used in this scenario are Damon Jones and Joe Smith.

With the right package, the Cavs can hope to snag an elite player from a team in tear-it-down mode, such as Milwaukee. If so, the obvious target is former Ohio State star Michael Redd, who Cleveland made a run at three summers ago. With $15.78 and $17.04 million coming his way the next two years, the rebuilding Bucks may look to move Redd.

The size of his contract might be enough to drive down interest, which helps the Cavs.

Draft talk

The Cavs have the 19th pick in the June 26 draft. Immediate help usually is not found that late in the draft. None of last year’s final 15 first-round picks made a significant impact this season. But recent late first-round picks to become stars are Tony Parker (28th, 2001), Gerald Wallace (25th, 2001), Tayshawn Prince (23rd, 2002), David West (18th, 2003) and Josh Howard (29th, 2003).

So far, various mock drafts have the Cavs taking former GlenOak High School star Kosta Koufos, Memphis All-America shooting guard Chris Douglas Roberts and 6-foot-11 small forward Donte Green, who is leaving Syracuse after one year.

Reach Repository sports writer Chris Beaven at (330) 580-8345 or e-mail chris.beaven@cantonrep.com. Read more about the Cavs at Chris Beaven’s blog: www.cantonrep.com/cavsworld