5 takeaways from the Kyrie Irving – Isaiah Thomas trade

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 19: Isaiah Thomas
CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 19: Isaiah Thomas /

There’s no need to bother with a long preamble. You know why we’re here. The two best teams in the Eastern Conference engaged in the blockbuster trade of the offseason Tuesday night, with the Cleveland Cavaliers sending Kyrie Irving to the rival Boston Celtics in exchange for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the Brooklyn Nets’ unprotected 2018 first-round pick.

Here are the first five things I thought about in the immediate wake of the trade.

1. The Celtics apparently valued Kyrie Irving much more highly than DeMarcus Cousins, Jimmy Butler, or Paul George. We’ve seemingly been waiting years for Danny Ainge to cash in his chips and land a star by using one or more of the Nets picks in conjunction with other assets. We’ve been waiting for so long, and Ainge has been so protective of those assets, that it became a running joke when a superstar got traded to say that Boston has almost gotten him, but Ainge would have had to give up too much.

Now the Celtics finally cashed in by acquiring Kyrie. Boston had opportunities to deal for three other star-level layers over the last six months but decided the cost was too steep, reportedly declining to put the Nets pick(s) on the table. (That may or may not be true depending on whose reporting you believe, but considering the return each of those teams got for their players, it seems somewhat unlikely the Nets picks were ever firmly part of an offer.) Why were they hesitant to part with the pick(s) for those players, but willing to do so for Irving?

Read More: Isaiah Thomas is unlike any teammate LeBron James has ever had

Some of it likely had to do with concerns about attitude and leadership (Cousins), timing (Butler), and the number of years remaining on the player’s contract (George), but it seems like at least a Butler deal could have been worked out if the Celtics were apparently willing to part with Thomas, Crowder, and Avery Bradley at some point this offseason.

2. Is Kyrie Irving worth Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and a near-surefire top-10 pick more than Isaiah Thomas? I don’t think it’s out of line to say that Irving is a better player than Thomas. He’d been the more productive player prior to the 2017 season, and the two had vaguely similar statistical profiles last year — Thomas just had a higher usage rate. But is Irving so much better that he’s worth a quality starter on one of the best value contracts in basketball, a former first-rounder that just came across from overseas, and another top-10 pick in addition to that vaguely similar player?

Both Irving and Thomas are almost entirely one-way contributors. Kyrie has shown the ability to ratchet up his defensive intensity from time to time, but he’s never been anywhere near consistent enough with that effort for it to truly matter over the course of a season. He’s the rare elite-level player that appears to be far more valuable within smaller samples than he is over larger ones. His ability to get off any shot he wants from anywhere, at any time, is one of the most valuable skills in the NBA on a single-possession basis. So is his ability to make shots that appear on the surface to be impossible. (There may not be anybody in the NBA better in that specific arena.) But there are only so many of those possessions over the course of a season; there are far more possessions that are run-of-the-mill, and thus don’t necessarily allow that singular talent to shine through.

And while that talent seems singular, Thomas showed last season that he’s got a little bit of the same kind of magic. Irving’s brand of virtuosity might be a bit more reliable or a bit more consistent, but if all you’re looking for is a jitterbug-style point guard that can create any shot out of thin air, well, Thomas will do in a pinch.

Of course, Irving is three years younger, six inches taller, eight pounds heavier, and considerably stronger than Thomas, and thus seems less likely to decline — and decline quickly — anytime soon. He is also under team control for both 2017-18 and 2018-19, meaning he provides an extra season’s worth of value to the Celtics, who almost certainly didn’t want to have to pay Thomas a maximum contract next offseason. Players Isaiah’s size don’t tend to fare well once they hit their 30s, and he was going to be 29 when he hit unrestricted free agency next offseason. He was also going to be the Celtics’ only realistic “point guard of the near future” option, though, so they would have been somewhat over a barrel in terms of having to pay him a relatively sizable contact. Now, they’ve gained an extra year to make their decision.

Is all that worth what the Celtics paid for it? Does it put them over the top against the team they just traded with next season? Maybe. Maybe not. They’re clearly positioned to be the best team in the East if and when LeBron leaves Cleveland, but that was also probably true already.

3. The pressure is on Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown. The 2016-17 version of the Celtics had four top perimeter defenders to sic on opponents. The two most experienced players of those four are now gone — Crowder is with the Cavs and Avery Bradley is on the Detroit Pistons. Marcus Smart now becomes the team’s top defender of ones and twos, while sophomore Jaylen Brown is probably the team’s top defender on the wing. (Gordon Hayward’s a quality defender, but given the offensive load he seems likely to carry, will probably not be able to give full-bore, Crowder/Bradley/Smart/Brown-style effort on that end.)

Smart is a (cliche alert) bulldog, willing to throw his body between literally anybody and anything. He’s pesky, he’s feisty, he’s whatever else you want to call him. He’s like a tiger-sized gnat with the fangs of a python. He’s also wildly over-aggressive at times, and unlike Bradley, can occasionally be played off the floor by defenses that ignore him on the other end. He nominally makes for a good fit next to Irving in that he can share ball-handling responsibilities and handle whichever guard assignment is tougher on defense, but there could be other concerns with him taking Bradley’s minutes.

I’m a huge fan of Brown and think he has the potential to be a quality starter for close to a decade, but he wasn’t yet that player last season. His summer league showing this year was encouraging to an almost absurd level, but we have to see that player show up against real NBA-level talent before we pencil it in. Is he ready to guard the LeBrons and Durants of the world on an every-night basis? We’re going to find out rather quickly.

4. The Cavaliers accomplished all of their goals. New Cavs general manager Koby Altman had a tough needle to thread in these negotiations. Everybody knew Irving wanted out, so the only real leverage Altman had was a willingness to enter training camp and the season with a clearly unhappy star playing next to a presumably even-unhappier superstar.

And because LeBron James is both still on the Cavaliers’ roster for next season but not under contract for the following year, Altman basically had to serve two masters with this deal. Squandering any LeBron season without being a clear contender is a non-starter and a near-guarantee that he walks out the door next summer, so any Irving trade had to bring back enough talent so that the Cavs remained the class of the East and a potential threat to the Warriors if everything breaks right and a couple guys on Golden State get hurt or something. But with LeBron’s future so uncertain, Altman had to make sure not to mortgage the future for one last run at things.

With this deal, he nailed both of his targets. Thomas, assuming full health, brings to the Cavaliers a reasonable approximation of Irving’s skill set. He’s not quite as good an off-ball threat as Kyrie, but he brings the same off-the-dribble dynamism and scoring prowess the Cavs are looking for in their point guard.

Crowder, meanwhile, was basically created in a lab to play the Miami-era Shane Battier role next to LeBron. He’s stout enough to guard fours, quick enough to guard threes, shoots well from the corners, moves well without the ball, doesn’t need the rock in his hands to be an offensive contributor, and is basically willing to do all the stuff LeBron doesn’t want to do on a night-to-night basis. Cleveland often had J.R. Smith guard the primary wing threat on the opposing team in the playoffs unless they got into real trouble because they wanted to save James’ energy to run the show offensively. The Cavs can now do the same thing with a far better defender. Irving might be better than Thomas, but he couldn’t do for the Cavs what Thomas AND Crowder can.

Not only did they get that immediate help, but the Cavs also snagged Zizic, a 2016 first-rounder that signed with Boston this offseason. He’s 7-foot, he has long arms, and David Blatt used to call him Baby Shaq. He’s worth a flier, but he isn’t even the jewel of the future haul for the Cavs; that’s the Nets’ unprotected 2018 first-rounder. Sure, Brooklyn is improved, but that pick is pretty much guaranteed to land in the top-10. Cleveland wasn’t getting that kind of draft asset anytime soon unless LeBron left and they bottomed out again. That still might happen, but they’ll be ahead of the eight-ball with an extra top-10 selection this time.

5. Are the Cavs taking on the Isaiah age and injury risk or are they planning to let him walk and start over? As mentioned, Thomas gives Cleveland a reasonable approximation of Kyrie for the 2017-18 season… if he’s healthy. He’s coming off a torn hip labrum that the Celtics elected to have him rest and rehab rather than treat with surgery.

Here’s the thing about hip labrum tears: they are incredibly painful and restrict your body’s movement in a way that you can’t really understand unless and until you tear your hip labrum and feel it for yourself. (This writer recently underwent surgery to treat the same injury and has spent the last couple months practically living in a physical therapy office.) For a player like Thomas, who depends so much on speed, quickness, and the ability to change directions on the drop of a dime, being limited by a hip injury can throw a serious kink into his game.

The Cavs will have the next year or so to evaluate Thomas and see if they want to make a long-term commitment to him, but given that he’ll be 29, 5-foot-9, and demanding a massive deal, this doesn’t necessarily feel like a multi-year commitment. It feels like a team taking one last shot with LeBron before starting over when he walks out the door next summer.

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Cleveland built this entire team around LeBron and it will take a while to play out some of the bad deals they’ve doled out to keep him happy (Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith, for example), but they’ll also have some positive-value assets to spin forward into more building blocks alongside Zizic, the Nets pick, and Cedi Osman. Kevin Love seems sure to get moved next summer if LeBron leaves, for example, and should have a several suitors for the two years and approximately $50 million left on his deal, assuming he has a similar season to the one he just put together. Tristan Thompson’s $36-ish million remaining over two years could bring something back as well.

Starting out from that point would put the Cavaliers far ahead of where they were the last time LeBron left them high and dry. In the meantime, they can try to get one more title while he’s still in town.