After a wildly entertaining offseason, it looked like the NBA would at least let baseball and football share the spotlight in late August. Not so much. On Tuesday, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics sent shock waves throughout the league. Catering to his wishes, the Cavs moved Kyrie Irving out of LeBron’s shadow, dealing him to the team most likely to challenge Cleveland for Eastern Conference supremacy. In exchange, the Celtics sent Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Žižic, and Brooklyn’s unprotected 2018 first round pick to Cleveland.
Wow. There is a lot to unpack there, but what does it mean for the Golden State Warriors right now? The Celtics, with only four players returning from a 53-win team, are a bit of a mystery. Danny Ainge is still trying to balance a win-now approach with a focus on the future. How much will the Celtics improve from last year? Does their current roster have enough firepower to knock off the Cavs? It is possible. The more likely outcome, however, is that Cleveland returns to the NBA Finals for a fourth consecutive showdown with the Dubs. If that rematch becomes a reality, how does this trade impact the way the Cavs can challenge the champs? While the Warriors are still far and away the best team in the league, Cleveland just made things a bit more interesting.
Let’s start with what the Cavs lost. For all of his defensive woes and the occasional iso-heavy, ball-stopping style of play, Kyrie Irving is an incredible offensive talent. He can completely take over a game and make impossible finishes at the rim look routine. Look no further than the 2015–16 Finals, during which he outplayed the unanimous MVP and hit one of the biggest shots in NBA history. During Game 5 of that series, Draymond Green’s absence was huge, and LeBron James was beginning a legendary three-game stretch, but it was Irving who shined brightest. He made 17 of 24 shots, each bucket more important than the last, on his way to 41 points. On the road, facing elimination and a 73-win team, the then-24-year-old didn’t blink. Yes, Irving disappeared for stretches during this year’s Finals, being soundly outplayed by Steph Curry. Overall though, it’s safe to say that Warriors fans are happy to see him take his talents elsewhere.
Of course, no transaction happens in a vacuum, and what the Cavaliers lost in Kyrie pales in comparison to what they gained.
Isaiah Thomas, though an even bigger defensive liability than Irving, is coming off a stellar, remarkably efficient offensive campaign. He averaged 28.9 points per game while leading all starting point guards in true shooting percentage. Like Irving, Thomas can excel both on and off the ball, making him a great fit next to James.
But what about when Cleveland’s best player is on the bench? Last season, Irving struggled to lead the Cavs while James sat. An offensive rating of 103.1 would have been good for 26th in the NBA across a full season. Most notably, in a must-win Game 3 of the Finals, James played 46 minutes and finished with a +7. The Warriors still won by five. In other words, for the two minutes that James sat, the Warriors dominated. Maybe Thomas won’t make a huge difference while LeBron rests, but he’s used to the responsibility of being the best player on a competitive team. Even if that swings a game by a possession or two, it can be the difference between 3-0 and 2-1.
Regarding Thomas being a downgrade from Irving, it seems easy to point to his age and size—until you look a bit closer. Thomas is about three years older than Irving, but their regular season minutes are nearly identical. Factor in the postseason and Irving has played more. And while his diminutive stature may cause some wear-and-tear concern, Thomas missed a total of six games across the last two seasons combined. It’s possible that his recent hip injury lingers and slows him down earlier than expected, but his overall durability track record is much better than Irving’s. Dating back to his one year at Duke, when he played just 11 games, Irving has a lengthy injury history for a 25-year-old. A fractured kneecap kept him out of the first Finals matchup between Cleveland and Golden State in 2015.
Size is about more than durability, but does Irving play “bigger” than Thomas? They both rely on quickness and craftiness to be effective. Neither has ever averaged more than four rebounds in a season. More size suggests a greater defensive potential for Irving, but there's no reason to think he will suddenly make the most of it.
Any way you slice it, bringing in Thomas should result in little—if any—drop-off in point guard production for the Cavs next season. Irving may unlock his MVP potential without the presence of LeBron, but his role on the Cavs wasn’t going to change much had he returned next season. Thomas should be an adequate replacement, and much to the rest of the league’s chagrin, he’s just one piece of what Cleveland was able to extract from Boston.
The modern NBA hinges on players who can shoot from deep and defend multiple positions. In Jae Crowder, the Cavs are adding one of those players, a versatile 3 and D forward on a dirt-cheap contract. Last year, no Celtic had more of an impact on the team’s net rating than Crowder. They outscored opponents by 7.8 points per 100 possessions when he played. They were outscored by 3.9 when he sat.
Crowder isn’t much of a playmaker, but with teammates like Thomas and James in the fold, who cares? Crowder’s job is to hit open shots and make smart decisions. Last year, he connected on nearly 40% of his three point attempts. With James as a teammate, Crowder can operate comfortably on the wing and in the corner. He’ll likely find himself on the receiving end of passes like this:
On defense, Crowder is exactly the type of player the Cavs want to throw at the Warriors. He makes life difficult for shooters. Crowder can switch onto almost anyone. His ability to be an aggressive on-ball defender will allow James to be more successful as a roaming free safety of sorts. In Crowder, the Cavs have added yet another efficient spot-up shooter while significantly upgrading their defense.
Considered a bit of an afterthought compared to the other pieces in this trade, Ante Žižic has the potential to carve out a valuable role for the Cavs, though maybe not this upcoming year. After a lackluster Summer League showing, Žižic may need a bit more seasoning before he is ready to contribute at the NBA level. However, should the Cavs find room for him, he already excels as a bruising rebounder.
When the Warriors and Cavs match up, Tristan Thompson is often an "X" factor. When he is playing with high energy, crashing the offensive glass, and creating second and third shot opportunities, the Cavs become much more dangerous. Žižic has a long way to go before earning that reputation, but if he can prolong any possessions while denying the Warriors second chance opportunities, he could be a valuable contributor for Cleveland.
Brooklyn’s 2018 First Round Pick
The last piece of this trade may end up being the most valuable for Cleveland. In acquiring Brooklyn’s unprotected pick, the Cavs give themselves a way to add talented youth, especially if LeBron decides to leave after next season. That is only one possibility though. Should James reassure them that he plans to stay in Cleveland, or the Cavs simply realize that going “all in” now makes the most sense, they could flip this pick as part of a package to bring in more talent.
Before making this trade, the Cavs had difficulty improving their roster due to a lack of assets. Golden State somehow got even better while the Cavs were stuck signing players like Jose Calderon and overpaying Kyle Korver. Now, Cleveland owns a precious trade chip that could entice a rebuilding team to part with one of its better players. Maybe Memphis gets tired of treading water and makes Marc Gasol available. Maybe the Boogie experiment simply fails in New Orleans. With a pick this valuable, there are plenty of hypothetical scenarios to explore. Rest assured that the Cavs will be watching closely to see which teams get off to rocky starts next year—unless they deal the pick before the season even begins. If they do make a move, it will surely be with Golden State’s lineups in mind.
Kyrie Irving’s ongoing development will be a huge factor in determining how this trade works out over time. But for next season alone, the Cavs made a savvy move that should help them stay on top in the East. The Warriors are still heavy favorites to repeat as champs, but a potential round four of this rivalry just got more entertaining. Let the hype begin. Sorry, baseball and football. Maybe next August.