Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas were the centerpieces of the summer’s biggest deal, but neither makes their new team better.
It was a quiet Tuesday when the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics executed the NBA Twitter-breaking move of the offseason. Shams Charania broke the news, and Kyrie Irving got sent to Beantown for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 first-rounder, which is likely to be in the top-five.
Kyrie and the Cavaliers have had an unsteady summer. The 25-year-old came out of nowhere with his trade request. Cleveland was hesitant, but being able to get a young star in return would’ve been enough to change their mind. For Boston, everything was going well. They signed Gordon Hayward and drafted Jayson Tatum, but moved Avery Bradley, and a lot of questions were beginning to rise about Thomas’ impending payday.
This trade is bizarre because neither team’s present improved. Say what you will, but Irving and Thomas are of similar calibers. Last year, Isaiah had the edge in points (28.9 to 25.2) and assists (5.9 to 5.8) and was considerably better at getting to the free throw line (8.5 attempts a night to 4.6). Additionally, all these advanced stats favor Thomas:
- PER – 26.5 to 23.0
- Win Shares – 12.5 to 8.9
- Offensive Box Plus/Minus – 8.7
Regardless of the numbers, Thomas and Irving are two of the most electrifying scoring guards in the NBA, and, quite frankly, they’re about equal on a skill basis. Kyrie is a better dribbler and a more accurate shooter, but Thomas gets into the lane just as efficiently and is going to get a fair amount of open looks playing with LeBron James. There are, however, some problems.
As great as these two are at putting the ball in the basket, they’re the two-worst defensive point guards in the NBA. It’s just a fact. We’ve chastised Thomas all season for being a shotty stopper because of his physicals, but Kyrie isn’t much better. The Celtics know this, but trading away Bradley to the Detroit Pistons and including Crowder in this deal is silly. Boston’s defense was average at best last season, and it’s going to take a hit.
Cleveland had an atrocious defense last year, and it’s going to get worse. They added Derrick Rose, Jeff Green and Jose Calderon before the Thomas deal, and we all know how that’s going to play out. If you want a crash course in building the worst defensive team possible, look no further. Moreover, IT has had hip problems all summer long and, even though he won’t need surgery, the extent of his injury still isn’t known, and the Cavaliers are holding their breath as they get set to run his physical. Like every other great point guard, Thomas’ game is reliant on changing gears. He, however, has to do it better than everyone else to make up for his short stature.
Now that they got the deal done, it’s obvious the Cavaliers are prepping for a future without LeBron James. I mentioned this earlier, but Thomas is entering a contract year and turns 29 in February; Irving has two years left on his current deal that includes a player option for 2019-20.
Cleveland’s haul manages to give them one more shot at the Golden State Warriors while simultaneously easing them into their rebuild. James is as good as gone next summer and now the Cavaliers don’t have to worry about any drama with Kyrie. They’ve got Crowder and Zizic, and are likely to add someone like Michael Porter or Marvin Bagley in the 2018 draft. Above all else, letting Thomas walk next summer is another plus. After everything he’s done for them, the Celtics would’ve felt the pressure to re-sign their All-Star. (For God’s sake he went and played a playoff game a day after his sister died.) Cleveland doesn’t have to worry about that. They’ll let James and Isaiah walk and look toward the future.
(The value of Crowder’s contract might be the most overlooked part of the deal. He’s set to make about $22 million over the next three years and is the ideal three-and-D guy for any team. Cleveland has the former, but they’re going to need all the help they can get on the other side.)
Danny Ainge must’ve realized Cleveland’s plans for a rebuild and wanted to cash in on Kyrie for one reason — to dominate once LeBron leaves. The Celtics are the second-best team in the conference, and the difference-maker doesn’t even play for them. Aigne has packed tons of talent onto his roster. He believes Irving has yet to play the best basketball of his career, which is true. Now that the two stars switched, Kyrie is in a place where he can be “the guy,” but the odd part is that he isn’t exactly carrying the team.
He and Hayward are going to flip-flop as the number one. If Irving is there long-term, he’ll then have to worry about Jayson Tatum, who’s one of the potential stars from the 2017 class. History repeats itself if nobody learns from it. Nothing is stopping Kyrie from requesting another trade if he feels that a younger player is coming to take his role.
Cleveland is still the team to beat in the East. Swapping Irving and Thomas, even with other pieces included, doesn’t change much. However, give credit to the Cavaliers for finagling Brooklyn’s pick. Who knows what they’re going to do with it, but Ainge is notorious for hoarding picks (and Terry Rozier) and it’s shocking to see him part with one. If the Cavaliers decide to make a push this year, they can use it in their hunt for another star; maybe one of the bigs from New Orleans? (It’s unlikely the Pelicans trade Anthony Davis, but you never know. If things don’t start working out, the two sides could agree to part ways.)
The Cavaliers are looking toward the future, and that’s why they won this trade. Thomas and James will leave next summer, and they’ll be able to do whatever with that pick. However, the Celtics didn’t make a mistake. They felt that Irving was an upgrade over Thomas because he’s significantly younger. Boston is playing for that weird window between the Cavs’ downfall and the rise of all the other teams in the East, and Kyrie fills that spot perfectly.
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