Ante Zizic

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Three questions the Cleveland Cavaliers must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer this season to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last season: 51-31, won the Eastern Conference out of the second seed, lost to Warriors in NBA Finals.

I know what you did last summer: It was a busy summer of roster changes, something you don’t usually see from a team that has been to three straight Finals. Kyrie Irving didn’t want to be the guy left behind if LeBron James bolts the team next summer, so he pushed for a trade. New GM Koby Altman struck a deal that sent Irving to Boston for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the Brooklyn first-round pick in the upcoming draft. In the past week, the Cavaliers signed Dwyane Wade as a free agent (after his buyout from Chicago). Gone from the Cavaliers are Deron Williams and James Jones, but the team added depth with the trade and the additions of free agents Derrick Rose, Jeff Green, and Jose Calderon.

THREE QUESTIONS THE CAVALIERS MUST ANSWER

1) When does Isaiah Thomas get back on the court? And how well can he move? The trade with Boston was a perfect combination for Cleveland of keeping an eye on the future (the Brooklyn pick) and still winning now in LeBron’s prime by getting All-NBA point guard Isaiah Thomas — if Thomas is healthy. Which he is not right now. The hip injury that ended his playoff run early still has him sidelined.

When will he return? On media day the Cavaliers were honest and said January. About halfway through the NBA season. Which creates a challenge for those first 40 games or so (see the next question) but is not insurmountable because the Cavaliers have one LeBron James.

The bigger question: How good will Isaiah Thomas be when he does return? I fear we saw peak Thomas last season, when he was an All-NBA player and fifth in MVP voting. How well with Thomas move when he returns, how explosive will he be? Can he be anything like the spark plug point guard we have come to know? His game is based on that athleticism and crafty moves, if those are limited so is he. It matters to Cleveland as they try to integrate him into the offense for the playoffs — if they get 90 percent of that Thomas it is a big boost for the Cavs, but if it’s 70 percent things get tougher. How he bounces back also matters to Thomas, who is a free agent after this season and needs to show he is healthy to get paid anywhere near what he wants.

2) Cleveland has a lot of talent, but does it fit together? On paper, the Cavaliers are deeper this season — Isaiah Thomas and Derrick Rose at the point, J.R. Smith, Dwyane Wade, and Kyle Korver at the two, Jeff Green behind LeBron on the wing, Jae Crowder adding to Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson up front. There’s a reason I — and many others — are still picking the Cavaliers to come out of the East.

But when you start to put rotations together, things get harder, because all the talent doesn’t fit together well, especially for the first half of the season when Thomas is out. For example, can the Cavaliers really play Rose and Wade together with LeBron? Neither Rose nor Wade are good off the ball, they need the rock in their hands to create to do damage, but neither of them is near the creator or floor general LeBron is. Do the Cavs take the ball out of LeBron’s hands in this scenario? Remember, this is not the Wade from LeBron’s first couple seasons in Miami, this is a guy on the decline who can still create but is limited in other ways. Plus, both Rose and Wade (and Thomas when he returns) are limited defensively.

I like what Tyronn Lue is doing to start games: Rose, J.R. Smith, LeBron, Jae Crowder, and Kevin Love. That is a switchable and passable defensive lineup that will have great floor spacing on offense. Rose can create a little, but most of that should still fall to LeBron. It gets better when Thomas is back and Rose can go to the second unit with Wade — those two can do the shot creating and scoring with that group against other benches, and Tristan Thompson can handle the defense and dirty work with that unit. (Credit Thompson for taking his move to the second unit, which most would see as a demotion, as an opportunity.)

Cleveland has the talent to beat 28 other teams in a seven-game series, but the questions of fit come back to haunt them against their biggest foe. If the Cavs are still playing in June.

3) Does the “is LeBron staying?” saga weigh on the team? Probably not. Or at least not much. This is a team of veterans who know how to shut out the noise from the outside.

However, every move this team and LeBron make all season will be viewed through the prism of “what does this say about LeBron’s future?” And if for whatever reason this team gets off to a relatively slow start and things start to go sideways, that pressure will ramp up. If that losing starts to creep into the locker room — J.R. Smith and Crowder get into it again, Thompson gets frustrated with his bench role, or a million other things — then it becomes a problem. I wouldn’t say it’s likely, but it’s possible. This could be LeBron’s final season in Cleveland, and that certainly can become an issue.

Celtics pay the price to transform themselves

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

Boston turned over 11 of 15 players from a team that earned the No. 1 seed and reached the conference finals. The Celtics made three trades each bigger than many teams’ biggest move this summer, and they signed Gordon Hayward.

An offseason so busy, I had to grade it twice.

Boston’s massive overhaul culminated in dealing for Kyrie Irving, a huge trade among the Eastern Conference’s two best teams. The Celtics got the young star, but at a significant cost.

The Nets’ unprotected 2018 first-round pick is an elite asset. Jae Crowder is a versatile 3-and-D wing on one of the NBA’s most team-friendly contracts. Isaiah Thomas is a star himself when healthy (obviously a major question). Ante Zizic is a nice developmental prospect. And Boston sent another second-rounder to complete the deal.

It can be hard to conceptualize the value of the Brooklyn pick, as it doesn’t show up when comparing last year’s Celtics roster to this year’s – definitely younger, maybe even better. But that pick was the centerpiece of their offer, and to me, it tilted the trade to unfavorable.

At least Irving will be ready to begin the season, unlike Thomas. That’ll keep the Celtics rolling, especially with Hayward.

Hayward was the lynchpin of a successful offseason. An in-his-prime star acquired with cap space created by renouncing marginal players and trading Avery Bradley for Marcus Morris.

That trade wasn’t great in a vacuum. I didn’t like trading the No. 1 pick for the No. 3 pick (Jayson Tatum) and a future first-rounder, either. My reservations about those deals largely stand from my initial grading:

Boston traded down from the top pick to No. 3 to draft Tatum. Count me among those who believed there was a significant drop from Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball to the next tier – and the tier after that.

The extra first-rounder the Celtics acquired has also only lost value since the trade.

It’d convey from the Lakers if they pick 2-5 next year. But they added two players, Brook Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, better than they were expected to get. Los Angeles looks less likely to stumble into a top-five pick – especially without incentive to tank.

If not the Lakers’ pick this season, Boston will get the higher of Sacramento’s and Philadelphia’s 2019 first-rounders (or lower if one is No. 1). The Kings signed a couple veterans, George Hill and Zach Randolph, to help them in 2018-19. Sacramento’s young players will be more developed by then, and mirroring the Lakers this year, there’s no incentive to tank. (Philadelphia is also on the rise, but the Celtics probably already knew that.)

There’s still a chance Boston winds up with a high pick – or even wins the trade with a middling additional selection. Tatum, as the Celtics have claimed, might be a better prospect than Fultz outright.

I originally thought the trade was about fair. Developments swing the pendulum away from Boston, though perhaps I’m overly colored by my relatively dim evaluation of Tatum. (I expected the Celtics to draft Josh Jackson when the trade was made.)

Boston’s next big move, signing Hayward, also comes with a major caveat. To get Hayward, the Celtics had to downgrade from Avery Bradley to Marcus Morris.

The reasons are clear: Bradley is earning $8,808,989 in the final season of his contract. Morris is locked up for two more seasons at $5 million and $5,375,000.

Bradley for Morris is understandable given the circumstances. Trading down for Tatum is a difference of opinion, and Danny Ainge is rightfully sticking by his.

The Celtics are in awesome shape. They have a young good team plus three extra first-rounders, including the vaunted Lakers/Kings/76ers pick and a sneaky valuable Grizzlies pick.

But it’s important to remember they entered the offseason in awesome shape, and I’m grading how their position has changed. Though I didn’t love their decision-making, luring Hayward with cap space that mostly existed anyway was a massive victory.

Offseason grade: B

Isaiah Thomas to miss start of season, but Cavaliers otherwise secretive/uncertain

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Isaiah Thomas was better than Kyrie Irving last regular season.

If Thomas maintains that advantage next postseason, the Cavaliers – whose championship window is open with LeBron James – will be massive winners in their trade with the Celtics. But that’s uncertain given Thomas being three years older, six inches shorter and far more injured than Irving.

The age and size difference are known quantities. The status of Thomas’ hip is not.

So, that became the obvious discussion point at Cleveland’s press conference to introduce Thomas, Jae Crowder and Ante Zizic.

Isaiah, how is your hip? Isaiah, what’s your timetable? Isaiah, what can you do right now? Isiah, when did you know you tore your labrum?

“I don’t want this to be the Isaiah Thomas hip press conference,” Cavs general manager Koby Altman interjected. “So, I’m just going to – with all due respect – shut down the hip questions. If we’re going to talk about Isaiah, let’s talk about Isaiah the All-Star.”

But will the Cavaliers ever get Isaiah the All-Star? If so, when?

“Isaiah’s not going to be starting the season,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue let slip when asked to compare Thomas to Irving.

It was tough watching Altman battle Thomas-hip questions, which barely relented despite the general manager’s decree, when Cleveland extracted an extra second-rounder from Boston due to Thomas’ physical and Thomas himself declared he wouldn’t lose a step. The Cavs can’t simply dismiss this as an issue not worthy of discussing.

Altman said surgery wasn’t in the cards – “Y’all hear that?” Thomas added. “Everybody want to be doctors now” – and that the the Cavaliers wouldn’t rush anything. But Altman wouldn’t even disclose whether a private timeline exists, going only as far as saying the goal is for Thomas to return “at some point this year.”

It’s a big season for everyone involved, with free agency for Thomas and LeBron looming. Hopefully, the Cavs have a firmer grasp on the situation than they revealed today.

Report: LeBron James, Tyronn Lue “cooled” on Isaiah Thomas trade

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When the Cavaliers did their own physical and saw Isaiah Thomas‘ injury could have him missing part of the season, and may be more prone to re-injury, they went back and asked for more in their trade with the Celtics. They got it, credit Dan Gilbert for that (deserved or not).

Did that injury news also dampen LeBron James and Tyronn Lue’s interest in the deal?

It did, reports Kevin O’Connor at The Ringer.

One league source with an understanding of Cleveland’s situation told me that as news spread throughout the organization that Thomas could miss time deep into the upcoming season, James and Lue cooled on the deal. According to the same source, both the Cavs’ franchise player and their head coach were apparently told by upper management that Thomas and Crowder were being brought in to help the team compete with the Warriors now.

The real question has been “when will Thomas return?” Always has been. There isn’t an answer to that, yet. While Thomas has pushed back against the idea he would be anything less than his peak self, even before this trade Brad Stevens was saying they needed to see an early September scan before getting an idea of IT’s return.

LeBron and Lue will deny this is true Even if it is true, they will come around.

The thing is, even if Thomas were out until Christmas, it doesn’t really change much the Cavaliers. Their season starts in mid-April — they need to be healthy and right for the playoffs. That’s what matters. So long as LeBron is healthy the Cavaliers are a top two seed in the East in the regular season, then in mid-April the season they will be judged on begins.

Cleveland got more than it should have expected out of this trade. The Cavs got the Brooklyn Nets 2018 first round pick that helps set them up for the future (with or without LeBron). They got a quality “3&D” guy in Jae Crowder. They got a prospect to develop but with potential in Ante Zizic. Then they added a second round pick. This was a good deal for the Cavaliers.

LeBron and Lue can see that.

 

Celtics let Cavaliers save face to save Kyrie Irving deal

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Now can we get back to focusing on Boston, led by Kyrie Irving, visiting the Cleveland Cavaliers on opening night?

A week ago we thought we had a trade that sent the disgruntled Irving from Cleveland to Boston for Isaiah Thomas, and Cleveland did very well getting Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and — the real steal in the deal — the unprotected Brooklyn Nets pick in the 2018 draft. That was a fantastic deal for the Cavaliers, way more than anyone expected them to get.

And it wasn’t enough.

Cleveland got a look at Thomas’ physical and the hip injury he had that ended his playoff run, and thought he could miss more time than they had expected this season. Plus he was more prone to re-injury than they thought. Cleveland wanted to re-open the talks and get more compensation.

Boston wanted nothing to do with it. From the start the Celtics front office said it was up front with everything they knew about IT’s hip and recovery, so even if Cleveland’s doctors saw things differently why should Boston pay more? (The Cavaliers’ would have pushed for surgery after last season, Thomas wouldn’t have wanted that heading into a contract year.)

The Cavaliers treated it like a negotiation — they leaked that they were interested in Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown as the added compensation, knowing full well they would never get those players. But you aim high to work down to what they thought more realistic — another first round pick. Maybe a Celtics pick (so late first), but a first.

Boston would not budge.

However, the Celtics also wanted the deal to go through — Irving is younger and taller than Thomas, and in two or three years Boston (and, frankly, everyone else) would rather have Irving. Boston is playing the long game, the “we got next after LeBron but before the Sixers rise (if it comes)” game. Irving fits with that better than Thomas, who the Celtics were concerned about having to pay a lot of money next summer.

So Boston let the Cavaliers save face and threw them a pick to get the deal done — a 2020 Miami second rounder.

Boston, and a lot of other league executives, didn’t like the precedent of a team re-opening negotiations after a trade was agreed to, but the Celtics wanted it to go forward badly enough to let it happen.

For some fans, there may have been a sense of “we waited all week for that?” Cleveland should feel lucky they got that. Boston was never going to surrender another first round pick.

How valuable is that 2020 Miami second round pick? Depends on how good Miami is in three years, something very difficult to predict. This is a good but older team now, maybe they are crumbling a little by then and this pick is in the 30s, where maybe a guy who could grow into a rotation player sits. Maybe Pat Riley pulls off another big move and this pick is in the 50s, where most guys picked never reach the NBA. Miss Cleo might know the answers, but we don’t know what that pick will be.

Boston didn’t care. In reality, by 2020 they want to be competing for a title, and whoever they draft in the second round is not likely to see the light of day with them (maybe, if it were a high pick). The Celtics don’t need it, they can let the pick go to get closer to competing for a title in the first place.

In the end, this was a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. It barely moves the needle on this deal.

But both sides wanted it to go forward, so they found a way for everyone to save face and make it happen.

Now let’s get back to talking basketball… or the Carmelo Anthony trade rumors.