November 9, 2018

Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, Isaiah Thomas

1. What does this trade do in terms of this matchup next season? 

 Adam Spinella: Without Jae Crowder or Avery Bradley in Boston, the Celtics will have a more difficult time guarding LeBron James. Kyrie Irving may win a one-on-one matchup with Isaiah Thomas, but the ripple effects of a Crowder loss are vital for Boston. At this point, it’s too soon to tell without knowing exactly how good Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum will be for this Boston team. We’ll also need to see how Isaiah’s hip is. But in looking at this deal after watching Kyrie’s defense last postseason, I’m not sure where Cleveland got worse.

Crowder and Isaiah were the lifeblood of this Celtics team. The talent may have taken a large step forward this summer, but everything else took a step back.

Brady Klopfer: It puts it right back where it was last year: in one-sidedville. Regardless of where you sit on the Kyrie vs. Isaiah debate, these players offer similar value, so call that a wash. The real piece here is Jae Crowder, one of the most overlooked players in the Association.

While no player on this planet can stop LeBron James, Crowder was about as competent as a player could be. Now that he’s gone, Boston will have to A) put Marcus Morris on LeBron, which is not a good matchup at all, B) go small with Marcus Smart, or C) put Gordon Hayward on LeBron, which will hurt their new wing’s energy and offense.

On the other side of things, the Cavs finally have a quality defensive wing to pair with LeBron so he no longer has to guard the opposing team’s best wing scorer (last year we saw him fade ever so slightly in the fourth quarters of games where he had to defend Paul George or Kevin Durant). Yes, the Celtics upgraded with Hayward, but it cost them their two best defensive players, while their competition got better on that end of the floor.

Bryan Toporek: It puts Cleveland back in the driver’s seat. The Celtics added Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes this offseason, while the Cavs’ biggest additions were Derrick Rose (lol), Jeff Green (lolol) and Jose Calderon (lolololol). As such, Boston appeared poised to put a legitimate scare into LeBron James and Co. in a playoff series.

Now? Unless Morris, Hayward, Tatum, Jaylen Brown or Marcus Smart can successfully stifle LeBron, he’s going to rain down nightly triple-doubles on the Celtics.

Both Thomas and Irving are defensive sieves, so the one-on-one swap shouldn’t make a huge difference on either side in this matchup. But adding a versatile wing defender to Cleveland and taking one away from Boston won’t help the Celtics’ chances of advancing to the NBA Finals.

Eric Apricot: Swapping Irving and Thomas probably has little impact for Cleveland as Thomas can slot into Kyrie’s role as an inspired secondary reator on offense. Synergy rates Isaiah as slightly better than Kyrie at Isolations (1.124 points per possession, 95 percentile vs 1.123 ppp, 95 percentile) and noticeably better at pick and roll play (1.042 ppp, 94 percentile vs 0.959 ppp, 83 percentile). Thomas is a more enthusiastic pick and roll player, which may help Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson be more productive. Isaiah will also slot into Kyrie’s role as defensive liability. Throw in Jae Crowder, who can guard Gordon Hayward, and you have about the same as last year: a mismatch.

2.) How does Kyrie fit on these Celtics and what might Brad Stevens do for his career?

Adam Spinella: Expecting Stevens to make Irving into a bonafide superstar lumps the responsibility unfairly upon the coach and not enough on the player. Kyrie demanded a trade for reasons that irk me. He valued ‘being the guy’ over winning and wanted the ball in his hands more often. Stevens is the wrong coach to place anything over winning, and a coach proven to play a style that isn’t pick-and-roll dominant.

For now, Kyrie seems elated and, by all accounts, will try and mesh within the system built around himself, Horford and Hayward. They’ll probably run more ball screens than last year, but at the end of the day, the little things (hustle, play defense, share the ball, be a great teammate) will be the most interesting questions about his fit.

Brady Klopfer: So much of this depends on Irving’s willingness to adapt his game. Brad Stevens runs a college-influenced, motion-based offense. With limited pieces last year, he mostly scrapped that and gave the ball to Isaiah Thomas. Now, with the additions of Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum, the growth of Jaylen Brown, and the familiarity in the system of Al Horford, Stevens can return to his roots.

Problem is, that’s never been Irving’s game. Irving is an isolation scorer, more comfortable dribbling and shooting than passing and cutting. Last year, Irving averaged 28.1 FGA per 100 possessions; LeBron James averaged just 24.0.

If Kyrie is willing to adapt, work a little more off ball, and limit the time standing and dribbling, not only will the Boston offense thrive, but he’ll blossom individually.

Bryan Toporek: It depends how much Kyrie buys into what Brad Stevens is selling. The Celtics averaged more passes than every other team aside from the Philadelphia 76ers last season, whereas Cleveland had the fifth-fewest league-wide. The Cavs ran more isolation possessions than all other teams, while Boston had the third-fewest. Transitioning from an isolation-heavy style of play to one predicated on ball movement will be an adjustment for Irving, albeit one he may welcome.

If Irving avoids the temptation to pound the ball into the ground and adapts to Stevens’ preferred style, his wish may come true. He could emerge as the bona fide face of the Celtics franchise while still being surrounded by a strong enough supporting cast to contend for a championship each year. If Stevens gets Irving to commit more energy defensively, there’s no telling how dominant he could become.

Eric Apricot: The hope for Boston is Irving explodes in productivity in a motion system in the same way James Harden did in Mike D’Antoni’s system. Irving has never had the assist numbers you’d expect from a driver and finisher of his level. Perhaps with more structured outlets, he will find the reads come more willingly. And perhaps with the responsibility of being The Man, he may realize while most players get judged on their stats, a point guard leader gets judged by *everybody’s* stats.

3.) Did the Celtics give up too much for Kyrie?

Adam Spinella: Without the pick, it was still tilted slightly in Cleveland’s favor; with it that’s a steep overpay. I’m still not sure what Irving is clearly better at than Isaiah other than scoring off the backboard. It’s not to say their contractual statuses and situations were equal. Kyrie is younger and signed long-term, whereas Isaiah would be vastly overpaid next year. On its face, I understand that.

What I’m basing the large loss of this trade on right now is the identity change immediately taking root in Boston and the value of that 2018 Nets pick. That draft is, shaking up to be the most loaded draft since 2003, with insane star power and depth. Giving up an unprotected pick in order to gain Kyrie’s services and unload the dilemma of overpaying Isaiah is going to hurt the franchise long-term.

Look at the other trades for superstars that have occurred this summer. The fact the Celtics wanted Kyrie for Thomas, Crowder and the Nets pick, as well as their 2016 first-rounder Zizic, more than Jimmy Butler and Paul George may be okay on its face. But Butler and George went for far less, and Irving is not better than either. I’m in awe Ainge would let that pick go unprotected.

Brady Klopfer: No, the Celtics didn’t give up too much. They gave up way too much. Capitalize it. Italicize it. Underline it. Throw on some exclamation points. Way. Too. Much.

The loss of Crowder hurts a lot, and not simply because he’s a stellar defensive player. Crowder is on one of the best contracts in the league, as he’s locked up for three more years, at just under $22 million total. That means he’s an immensely valuable trade asset, and one Boston could likely pawn off to a contending team for something really helpful. Instead, they treated him like salary filler.

But the real loss here is the unprotected 2018 draft pick from the Nets, a pick the Celtics seemed unwilling to even look at when Jimmy Butler and Paul George were being dangled in front of them. Yes, drafts always look better in August than they do in June, but almost everyone has the 2018 class as being superstar heavy in the first five picks. And newsflash: Brooklyn is a terrible team, and will have a terrible record. It’s quite possible Boston will end up trading the number one pick in consecutive drafts.

Bryan Toporek: On paper, unquestionably. Given what other superstars returned in trades this offseason—notably Jimmy Butler and Paul George—the Celtics may have coughed up the two best assets of any team (IT4 and the Nets’ 2018 first-round pick). I’ve long believed Brooklyn will be more competitive than expected this season, but there’s still a non-zero chance the Celtics just handed Cleveland the No. 1 pick next June. Losing Crowder and Zizic is just the icing on the <poop emoji> cake.

That said, it appears the Celtics adopted the same strategy as many fantasy football drafters will over the coming weeks. If you’re committed to acquiring a player, you may have to overpay. While Irving isn’t likely to match the career output of Thomas, Crowder, Zizic and the 2018 Nets pick moving forward, Boston may have had ulterior motives in making this deal.

For one: The Celtics reportedly were more worried about Thomas’ hip than they revealed publicly, according to ESPN’s Jeff Goodman. They also just spared themselves from having to hand him a max contract next summer, which he’s been openly lobbying for over the past few months. That Nets pick could begin to lose value, too, if D’Angelo Russell takes off in Brooklyn this season. It’s a calculated gamble from Ainge, albeit one with significant potential to backfire.

Eric Apricot: That 2018 Nets pick has had a mythic quality, and pretty much the outcome of that pick will decide whether the trade was merely good for both teams or a colossal robbery by the Cavs. From Boston’s point of view, Thomas is an inspirational leader; but with neutral eyes, he’s the worst defender in the league and won’t be growing any taller; he is coming off an injury that could hurt his primary strength (speed); and he’s hitting 29 and demanding a max contract and leadership of the team.

If you’re not going to max that, you have to trade him, and Kyrie is a very good return. Kyrie has never had a coach as inventive as Brad Stevens (unless you count David Blatt, who immediately alienated everyone). Kyrie and Isaiah had similar profiles, but Irving is three years younger and more athletic, so hope springs eternal that, in a new setting, he will put it together on both ends in a way Isaiah is probably too old to do.

Crowder is a strong 3-and-D type who can guard the many dangerous wings of the NBA and never seems to be as appreciated by Boston as the rest of the league. Ante Zizic has had complimentary reviews as a European prospect, but he’s proved nothing in the NBA.

4.) Is this enough to make LeBron happy? Competitive against the Warriors? 

Adam Spinella: Happy? It depends on what’s bothering LeBron. If the on-court stuff and chemistry with Kyrie was the issue, then this should do the trick. Cleveland got a lot back to help them now and a highly-valuable pick to help them later. But they’ll still have to pay Isaiah and that could get tricky down the line.

But, as I suspect, if it’s the tension with ownership over the front office debacle this spring and Gilbert’s political views causing a rift, nothing may be enough to keep him. It is, however, the perfect deal to attempt to appease James while preparing for a future without him. Home run from Altman in that regard.

Competitive against the Warriors? No. Thomas’ inability to defend anyone in that series kills the Cavaliers’ game plan everywhere else. Golden State remains untouchable to me.

Brady Klopfer: LeBron is nothing if not cryptic. It’s impossible to fully speculate what’s on his mind. One thing’s for sure, though: this can’t hurt. If it’s true that LeBron had already made up his mind to leave, then making a trade that doesn’t mortgage the future was the right thing to do. Maybe he forms a great bond with Isaiah. Maybe a Warrior gets hurt and the Cavaliers win it all. Maybe they get the top pick and he’s enamored with helping Marvin Bagley or Michael Porter Jr. develop. His mind is likely made up already, but at this point, it’s all reward and no risk for Cleveland.

That said, they won’t beat the Warriors. They have a better chance now with Crowder in the fold, but unless Ty Lue suddenly starts coaching defense, it still won’t matter in June.

Bryan Toporek: Is it enough to make LeBron happy? It should be. Is it enough to make him stay beyond the 2017-18 season? Doubtful.

Hot take: The Cavs are now better positioned to topple the Warriors in the wake of this trade. Yes, Kyrie hit the dagger in Game 7 during the 2016 NBA Finals, but it isn’t as though Thomas shrinks in crunch time. Outside of Russell Westbrook, no player had more points than IT4 in clutch situations last season. He shot 47.8 percent overall and 40.0 percent from three-point range in such situations while serving as Boston’s No. 1 offensive option.

Now he gets to play alongside LeBron James.

If the Cavs steamroll the Warriors in the 2018 Finals, it’s hard to see LeBron fleeing in free agency. If Brooklyn wins the No. 1 pick and Cleveland adds a ready-to-win prospect, perhaps that helps sway his decision. Smart money is still on James bouncing from Cleveland next summer, though. In the meantime, this trade improved both the team’s short- and long-term outlooks.

Eric Apricot: This is an okay trade for LeBron. From his point of view, he wants to be in the 2018 Finals with Cleveland, and then probably go to the best available team, which is very unlikely to be Cleveland. Kyrie had to go, and this is a good short-term haul, as Jae Crowder is going to be a valuable defender against Kevin Durant and other Warriors, and Thomas can play the speedy second isolation threat role as well as Kyrie at least for another year if his injury heals.
5.) What does this do for the Cavaliers if LeBron leaves?

Adam Spinella: As I said, home run from Altman. He got the Cavs what they needed—a high-value draft pick—and got it to them as soon as humanly possible. By squeezing that extra pick out of this trade, as well as a player like Isaiah to build around, the Cavs could bounce back from a post-LeBron era solidly. They’d have Isaiah, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and a potential top-five pick. Not too shabby.

Brady Klopfer: While this move helps Cleveland in the short term, it really helps them in the long run if LeBron takes his talents to another city. The Cavs will have cap space with LeBron and Thomas coming off the books, and they’ll likely have a top-three pick in an epic draft. They’ll also still have two years left on Crowder’s terrific contract, which can easily be sent elsewhere for some young players or draft picks.

Losing LeBron will hurt, horribly. But if they can begin a rebuild with one of the most valuable assets in the league (a top pick in 2018), a field of cap space and no horrible contracts, they’ll already be in better shape than many of the league’s current lottery teams.

Bryan Toporek: It gives them a chance to rebuild more quickly. Their own 2018 pick is likely to fall late in the first round. They sent their top-10-protected 2019 first-round pick to the Atlanta Hawks for Kyle Korver in January. They didn’t have the requisite ammunition to rebuild on the fly, but the 2018 Nets first-rounder could be that silver bullet. If the Cavs land Marvin Bagley, Michael Porter or Luka Doncic with that pick, they’ll still have a franchise-caliber player to build around.

If LeBron leaves, there’s little sense in handing Thomas a full five-year max contract, but they may not have to. Like Kyle Lowry, Thomas could find the market chillier than expected, forcing him into a shorter-term, big-money deal. The Cavaliers could always try to sign-and-trade him, too, as few teams will have the cap space to outright sign him to the max deal he so openly desires.

Losing LeBron will be an unavoidable setback for Cleveland, but this trade sets the team up for success down the line. Kudos to new general manager Koby Altman for crushing his first major move. (It’s amazing what you can do when you have a general manager in place, eh, Dan Gilbert?)

Eric Apricot: This is a great trade for the Cavs, who must play for one more win-now year with LeBron but also position themselves to rebuild gracefully when he leaves. This trade gets rid of the disgruntled Irving, a value in Jae Crowder and a flyer on Isaiah Thomas (who either proves himself to be a cornerstone and gets the max, or more likely gets overpaid elsewhere) and that holy 2018 pick, which is a great way to reboot the franchise.

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