By James Holas
After hoarding assets through several trade deadlines, passing on a few potential deals, Danny Ainge finally cashed some in.
The Boston Celtics acquired disgruntled All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving from the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the unprotected 2018 Brooklyn Nets draft pick—an asset that had long been Ainge’s crown jewel.
The trade was met with shock and bewilderment by fans on both sides.
Cleveland had been reeling since getting bum rushed by the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. There were the reports that LeBron had one foot in California already, an odd parting of ways with GM David Griffin and the bombshell Kyrie was fed up playing Robin to LeBron’s Batman; not to mention a bloated cap sheet and an aging, muddled roster.
Worse, Irving’s trade request seemed to have suppressed his value on the open market, and the deals Cleveland initially explored were all rebuffed. Teams like Denver and Phoenix were unwilling to offer the treasure trove of youth and picks newly installed Cleveland general manager Koby Altman was asking for until Ainge offered a lifeline.
By any assessment, Altman’s first at-bat as the Cavaliers general manager was a grand slam. In recent months, the trade environment for stars has been unimpressive. Jimmy Butler operates just a half-step below the level of a superstar, yet the Chicago Bulls received only an injured young scorer in Zach LaVine, a reclamation project in Kris Dunn and jump-shooting rookie big man Lauri Markkanen. Paul George netted the Indiana Pacers Victor Oladipo, a role-playing swingman on a giant contract, and Domantas Sabonis, a big man who might be an okay rotation player one day.
By comparison, Cleveland acquiring the Trifecta (an All-Star, another quality starter AND a potentially juicy lottery pick) is almost comically slanted in the Cavaliers’ favor.
Insert Isaiah Thomas in the Cavaleirs’ lineup for Irving and you don’t lose a thing offensively. In fact, Thomas scored more (28.9 points per game) at a more efficient clip (62 percent True Shooting) than Kyrie (25 points per game, 58 percent True Shooting) last season. Thomas IS a defensive downgrade due to his diminutive stature, but that’s where acquiring Jae Crowder is such a boon.
Other than LeBron, the Cavs lacked any sort of versatility on the wings last year. Going into next season, Cedi Osman is unproven and Jeff Green is a perpetual disappointment.
Crowder brings shooting, solid defense and toughness to a team in desperate need of all three with round four against the Warriors looming. He’s a small forward who’s big enough to defend power forwards, yet agile enough to switch out onto most shooting guards. After connecting on only 32 percent of his threes in his first four years, he’s turned himself into a deep threat, connecting on 39.8 percent from downtown last season. He won’t start, but expect Crowder to see quality minutes, both backing up and playing with Lebron James and Kevin Love.
Judging from LeBron’s time with the Miami Heat and the lackluster, uneven tenor of the Cavaliers last season, a super team constructed around King James has a shelf life of about four years before stalling out. Moving Irving to bring in players of Crowder and Thomas’ caliber allows for a rejiggering of sorts; injecting a shot of vitality in a locker room grown stale.
With Thomas and Crowder joining recently signed Derrick Rose and Jeff Green, the Cavs are suddenly deeper with legitimate options off the bench.
A Thomas-J.R. Smith-Crowder-Lebron- Love lineup can be an overwhelming offensive machine (well, at least against 28 of the other teams), with Thomas and James initiating a dual drive and kick attack and everyone else bombing away from deep.
Next summer will be even more interesting for Cavaliers. Thomas will be an unrestricted free agent and has been telling anyone who’ll listen he’s worth a max contract. Will playing alongside Lebron change that? Will Thomas’ presence be enough to sway LeBron into remaining a Cav?
And while it’s a given the Nets pick will be in the lottery, the question now is how far up Brooklyn’s summer moves will bump them up in the basement. Either way, with reinforcements in the lineup and new blood on the way in the draft, things are suddenly looking up in Cleveland.
For the Celtics, there’s some logic to moving on from Isaiah Thomas, but other aspects of this trade are positively head scratching. Jae Crowder and the Nets’ 2018 pick were reported to be sticking points in deals for Jimmy Butler and Paul George. Danny Ainge suddenly unleashing both in a deal for, in my estimation, a lesser player than either of the above-mentioned wings, doesn’t make sense.
The fluctuating value of the Nets’ 2018 pick will be one of the more fascinating subplots of the coming season. Maybe Ainge’s sudden disinterest in the pick is tied to the idea Brooklyn might not be the worst of the worst. Does adding DeMarre Carroll, a refocused D’Angelo Russell, Timofey Mozgov and sniper Allen Crabbe to a healthy Jeremy Lin and Caris LeVert make the Nets a playoff team? Almost certainly not. Does it make them better than talent depleted teams like Atlanta and Chicago, maybe putting them in the same tier with the New York Knicks and Pacers? It’s possible.
Looking at the rosters, I’m not sure the Orlando Magic really got that much better; the Phoenix Suns are still finding their way as a team full of young potential and, if they decide to move on from Eric Bledsoe, they’ll be in a race to the bottom. The Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Lakers still must prove they can be competitive. The Knicks are chronically a mess, and if they move on from Carmelo Anthony, may be in all out tank mode. The surety of the 2018 Nets being abysmal is no longer guaranteed. What if they’re merely bad?
Including Jae Crowder is harder to understand. At just 26 years old, Crowder wrapped up his best season (almost 14 points and six rebounds a game, great defense, deadeye three-point shooting). He’s on an amazing contract through 2019, and has been the consummate glue guy for Boston. Gordon Hayward will exceed Crowder’s raw production, but it remains to be seen how the team responds to losing their connective tissue.
Which brings us to Isaiah. In a little over two seasons in green and white, Thomas turned himself from a backup sparkplug to a flame spraying, bona fide all-star. His stellar production (almost 29 points, six assists, countless “wow” moments a night) and charisma (his late game heroics earned him his “King of The Fourth” moniker) scream max superstar. Still, it’s understandable if the Celtic brass were hesitant to fork over $175 million for five more years of IT.
Thomas turns 29 right before next season’s all-star break and history says small guards don’t fare well past 30. A max deal for Isaiah would mean the Celtics would be shelling out over $90 million for the Horford-Gordon-Thomas trio, with Thomas making over $35 million at the age of 33. And as amazing as Thomas was last season, there’s reason to believe we’ve seen the best he’ll ever be and his asking price is just too high.
So, it makes sense for Ainge and company to avoid contentious negotiations by bringing in a younger, bigger guard who does much of the same things on offense. And Kyrie’s height advantage means offenses can’t pick on Boston’s starting point guard anymore.
Thomas’ very public stumping for Boston to “back up the Brinks truck,” for him as a free agent seems to be at odds with the “free agent nuclear winter” on the horizon as the wellspring of new NBA money almost dries up next summer. The possible headache of those negotiations undoubtedly played a part in Boston sending Isaiah out for Kyrie. Irving is three years younger and under contract until 2019, meaning the Boston front office can kick the “Third Giant Contract” can down the road one more year. The idea of signing a 6’3”, 27-year-old scoring guard for four or five seasons is a lot more palatable than inking a 5’9” soon-to-be 30-year-old gunner for five years.
So, while Thomas and Irving are very similar players, the size, age and contract disparities make Kyrie a definitive upgrade.
When factoring in how valuable Crowder was to Boston’s success last year, (according to basketball-reference.com, Crowder was top three on the roster in Win Shares, Offensive Boxscore Plus/Minus, Value over Replacement Player, and sported the highest net rating (+11.5), despite being only 10th in usage) and how much he figures to bring to the table for Cleveland, the trade skews heavily in the Cavaliers favor.
Kyrie is one of the best pure scorers in the league, and he’ll thrive playing off passers like Al Horford and Gordon Hayward. Irving- Marcus Smart-Hayward-Jaylen-Horford lineups will give opponents fits on both sides of the ball. After years of playing “my turn, your turn” grind in Cleveland, can Kyrie adjust to the egalitarian, ball sharing style of Boston? He’s got the talent, now let’s see how quickly he and Brad Stevens get on the same page.
After this trade, only four players (Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, Terry Rozier, and Marcus Smart) remain from a 53-win team that made the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics lost a versatile enforcer in Crowder and a crunch-time whirling dervish in Isaiah Thomas, but gained an elite scorer just entering his prime in Kyrie, while opening the path to playing time to their two blue chip small forwards, Jaylen brown and Jayson Tatum. By handing over the 2018 pick, Ainge is signifying that the acquisition portion of their rebuild is done, that the Celtics are reasonably comfortable with the depth, talent, and temperament of the squad moving forward.
On balance, Jae Crowder helps the Cavs more than he hurts the Celtics, at least on paper, while swapping Kyrie for Isaiah is an overall plus for Boston. Cleveland gaining possession of what could be juicy lottery pick in the talent rich ‘18 draft is the decider for me: on the face of it, Danny Ainge got the short end of the stick in this transaction.