The two best teams in the Eastern Conference have swapped point guards. With Isaiah Thomas now member of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Kyrie Irving the starting point guard for the Boston Celtics, the fight for supremacy in the East now much more interesting and more complicated, not only for next season but in the years to come.
Here’s how the trade looks on paper: The Cavaliers received Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and Brooklyn’s 2018 first round draft pick. The Celtics received Irving.
At first glance, it appears that the Cavaliers came out on top. Yes, there is a question about whether Thomas’ hip will have healed in time next season, but the ability to grab not only Crowder but future first round pick compensation is huge.
If Thomas returns to his Top 5 MVP voting form, you have a deadly combination with the roster already in place for the Cavaliers. Set aside LeBron James for a minute — the ability of the team to mix Thomas with J.R. Smith, Kevin Love, and Tristan Thompson puts them in a prime position to continue do what they have done for years: dominate.
Meanwhile, adding Crowder to the wing not only gives the Cavaliers a bump in experience when it comes to their depth, but perhaps flexibility this season as well. Rumors have swirled around the team making a move and readjusting their front court, specifically around Love, and Crowder could be the key to that in the future.
From a long-term perspective, that depth gives Cleveland both wing experience and star power to cushion the blow if Lebron does decide to leave in the summer of 2018. The first round pick comes in heavy here, as it would help the Cavaliers rebuild if James is no longer in Ohio.
Did the Celtics give up too much? Perhaps. But not all has tipped in the scales for Cleveland.
Boston was already going to be less reliant on Thomas next season when it came to the offense. Signing Utah Jazz free agent Gordon Hayward was always going to make sure of that. Irving represents a superstar talent that many in the NBA regard as Thomas’ equal, if not his superior. There is no doubt a bit of heightism attached to that, but we will leave that as it is. Neither are particularly reliable on defense, so I have a hard time taking size into account.
There has been some rumors of trepidation on the part of the Celtics organization to pay Thomas’ next big contract due next summer. That seems like it could have played a role here, especially as Irving is signed through 2019, with a player option in the year after that.
Reports have been that Cleveland was previously insistent on getting rookie Jayson Tatum in this deal as well, which the Celtics smartly managed to avoid. With both Avery Bradley and Crowder no longer in Boston, Tatum will now be the backup plan along side Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown.
That is perhaps the biggest sticking point here. Yes, Bradley was also due a big contract next year, so shipping him off to Detroit did make some sense, even if the return was underwhelming. However, that trade was made at a time in which it was clear that Boston was going to keep Crowder. The Celtics didn’t get back a defender in this trade, so they will be relying on their young players to try to bolster that wing defense in his absence. That will proved to be tricky.
Still, this means the Celtics are both younger than they were a year ago while still having some of their star players signed to long-term deals. That could give them the edge over the Cavaliers in the coming seasons, even if LeBron decides to stay in Cleveland. At some point, Danny Ainge needed to bet on his developing players, and he’s all in now.
In a short lens it appears the Cavaliers have been able to move from place of no leverage with Irving’s public trade request to a position of strength. Grabbing wing depth and in All-NBA caliber player is great news, especially if you are taking him from one of your main conference rivals.
But Boston will certainly be a good team for years to come, especially now as they don’t have to consider the ramifications of giving Thomas a big new contract. Adding Hayward to the mix was crucial, but the development of their young players — Smart, Brown, and Tatum — will be a key storyline next season, especially when we reach the playoffs.
The Celtics aren’t complete losers here. They did gain a great player in Irving, and they do have some flexibility. Both Horford and Irving can opt out of their contracts at the end of 2019. If the core is not working as planned, the Celtics will be free to go in a different direction with something like $51.6 million coming off their cap. They still have the Lakers pick for 2018, so giving up the Nets pick to Cleveland doesn’t damage the team in context quite as much.
Above all else, it seems odd that a trade of this magnitude happened between the two best teams in East. This NBA offseason has been a weird one, and if this exact trade was proposed on your Twitter timeline you might have scoffed it off as unrealistic. Yet here we are, with Irving as a Boston Celtic and Thomas potentially set to get a big payday either from the Cavaliers or from another team in a year’s time.