Roughly six months ago, the Cleveland Cavaliers stunned the NBA by sending Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the Brooklyn Nets’ unprotected 2018 first-round pick.
On Thursday, they did it again, sending Thomas, Channing Frye and their own 2018 first-round pick to the Los Angeles Lakers for Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., as The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor first reported.
Though they didn’t settle there—they also shipped out Jae Crowder, Iman Shumpert, Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade to net George Hill, Rodney Hood and a heavily protected second-round pick, per ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski—the Thomas trade set the stage for an eventful day.
The TL;DR version: The Cavs admitted their mistake before it was too late.
Prior to Wednesday’s overtime victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Cavs had lost 13 of their past 19 games. Their locker room had been infected with discord, highlighted by an acrimonious team meeting during which Thomas reportedly called out Kevin Love for leaving a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder with an unexplained illness.
Heading into Thursday, the Cavs had the NBA’s second-worst defense, in no small part due to Thomas. The diminutive point guard was already one of the league’s worst defenders in 2016-17, and the hip injury that sidelined him through the first two-and-a-half months of this season didn’t help matters. With Thomas on the court, Cleveland hemorrhaged 118.6 points per 100 possessions, by far the worst mark of any regular rotation player. In fact, that defensive rating was the worst of any player over the last 20 years (among those who averaged at least 25 minutes per game), according to ESPN Stats & Info.
In Boston last season, Thomas’ offensive explosiveness largely outweighed his defensive deficiencies, as he averaged a career-high 28.9 points on 46.3 percent shooting, 5.9 assists and 3.2 triples in 33.8 minutes per game. The Cavaliers gambled on him reclaiming that All-NBA form…and they lost.
Had they stood pat, they were facing two unpalatable choices: They could pray Thomas miraculously recovered between now and mid-April, or they could resign themselves to an early playoff demise as teams relentlessly exploited him on defense. Had the Washington native kept his head down upon his return and not mouthed off to the media, they may well have chosen that route.
Instead, he blasted his teammates and coaching staff repeatedly over the past few weeks.
One night, he told reporters last year’s Celtics played “a lot harder” than this year’s Cavaliers. A week later, he shrugged off blame for the team’s dismal defense. On Tuesday, he said one of the team’s biggest problems all year was a lack of adjustments, to which head coach Tyronn Lue responded, “That’s not true.”
If Cleveland continued along its current path, Dan Gilbert may as well have given LeBron James a one-way ticket out of town in July. There’s no guarantee this overhauled group will be any more competitive against the Boston Celtics or Toronto Raptors, much less the Golden State Warriors, but shedding Thomas may wind up being addition by subtraction.