Trading with your competition is mostly unheard of in the NBA. Trading with your competitor and giving that team your best players is even less likely. Yet on Tuesday evening, the Celtics did just that by trading away Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the 2018 Brooklyn pick for Kyrie Irving.
The deal was shocking on many levels. Not only did the two teams who just met in the Eastern Conference finals swap their starting point guards, but it was a rare trade where each team took a calculated gamble, and both put themselves in potentially great positions.
For Cleveland, losing Irving is a pretty big blow. Despite the fact that Thomas was quantitatively his equal if not better in some areas, Irving’s ability to get buckets out of nothing was a key factor for the Cavaliers. Last year, Irving was 3rd in the playoffs in points per possession (1.10) out of isolation and 4th in effective field goal percentage (56.5) despite taking nearly seven shots from that position. He was an unstoppable force against the Warriors and was a key part in carrying the Cavaliers’ offense when LeBron needed to take a rest. Replacing him with Isaiah Thomas won’t look like much of a dip during the regular season if Thomas comes back healthy. However, in the postseason things could get a little tricky because though Thomas is capable of exploding, he’s not the type of elite scorer that Irving was and it’s still yet to be seen how he transitions from being the man responsible for the offense to part-time ball handler. And of course there’s the big question about the Warriors. Despite the fact that Irving and Thomas are both defensive liabilities, Thomas was dead last amongst point guards in DRPM, and at his size it will call for the Cavaliers, who had the 22nd-ranked defense last year, to work extra hard to cover in a hypothetical finals matchup. The Cavaliers are likely going to need Thomas’s scoring, but they may find themselves in the awkward position of being better able to defend with him off.
The addition of Jae Crowder could offset the predicament of Thomas’s defense. Crowder has been a bit of a polarizing player after his streaky year. Most observers from the outside saw a versatile two-way wing capable of hitting the three, attacking closeouts, and defending multiple positions. Crowder did have a great year shooting the ball, hitting 39.8% of his threes on 5.5 attempts, and the defense as a whole was still better when he was on the court. However, we also saw Crowder’s three-point percentage dip to slightly under league average at 35.2% during the playoffs. It even got to a point where the Cavaliers were okay giving him three-point looks, and in terms of individual defense, Crowder had his struggles moving laterally due to a nagging ankle injury. Despite all this, Crowder is a plus on the court and is probably the Cavaliers’ second-best wing outside of LeBron James, but it’s yet to been seen whether he can be relied on to contain the likes of Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, though he will ultimately the best chance the Cavaliers have at doing so.
These summaries may seem overly critical, but this is because I'm viewing the value of these guys specifically in terms of what they can do in the postseason. In reality, the Cavaliers are deeper, more balanced, and better equipped to handle the regular season than they were before. Instead of having to deal with an awkward Irving and James feud, the Cavaliers will be welcoming two very good and very motivated players who are hungry to be in the finals and be a part of something bigger. This could be the emotional shift that takes the Cavaliers to a new level despite the potential potholes in their roster.
And yet, the hands-down best asset the Cavaliers received was the 2018 Brooklyn Nets pick. This pick allows the Cavaliers to have flexibility that they haven’t had since the James addition forced them to go all in. With this pick the Cavaliers now have a path to begin a rebuild in the event that LeBron James leaves. In a 2018 class that is supposed to be very top heavy, the Cavaliers may have their choosing of Michael Porter Jr., Marvin Bagley, Deandre Ayton, and Luca Doncic—all worthy players whom the Cavaliers can select and begin a new chapter in their franchise. On the flip side, if this season turns out to be giant success for the Cavaliers and LeBron James stays, the Cavaliers can easily use this pick as a trade asset to add another star on the roster. Players like JR Smith, Kevin Love, and Tristan Thompson can be paired with that pick to bring along a potential superstar.
Overall, it a huge win for Cleveland. They get a player who put up similar production to Irving, a solid wing, an intriguing young prospect, and a potential lottery pick they can use to prepare for life without James or enhance their life with him.
On the Celtics side of things, the upside is clear. They believe that despite iso-heavy and questionable impact, Kyrie Irving has can be molded into a superstar point guard capable of making those around him better and putting the team on his back if need be. How you feel about that gamble essentially will guide you through how you ultimately feel about this deal. If you think Irving is who he is at this stage and won’t elevate his game, then this deal was horrendous and the Celtics may have cost themselves big time. On the flip side, if you believe that a 25-year-old superstar can take another step in an empowering system, then the value does even out. It should also be mentioned that despite the weird reputation that Irving seems to have generated on the internet, he is very good at basketball. Last season he averaged 25.2 ppg, 5.8 apg, 3.2 rpg and shot 40.1% from three on nearly 6.1 attempts. (For added context: here is how Irving and Thomas stacked at similar ages, and remember what the analysis of Thomas was at that time). Irving was also one of the most electric finishers in the league, ranking 5th in FG% amongst guards who took five or more attempts within 5 ft and finished a hair under 60% taking shots at the rim. Irving is an absolutely lethal scorer at all three levels, and to top it off, he has the best handle in the entire league.
The Achillies heel however has been his defense. Though Irving isn’t 5’9”, he is on the smaller end at 6’2” and has a short wingspan as well. He has trouble fighting over screens, he can get bullied down low on bad switches, and you don’t necessarily want him on an island defending anyone. However, the Celtics already had a defense built around helping Isaiah Thomas, who was flat out the worst defender at his position. So interestingly, the Celtics are getting a very slight upgrade on that end. Furthermore, what Irving does add that Thomas didn’t is that he averaged 1.2 spg, showing a propensity at reading passing lanes, and he averaged 3.2 rpg and could probably average more if the Celtics decide to make their bigs and wings box while their guards crash. It’s possible that just being “bad” on defense as opposed to being borderline unplayable can be enough to keep the surrounding Celtics players from overreacting in the same manner they did whenever Isaiah Thomas was guarding anyone.
But all of that improvement depends heavily on what the Celtics are going to get from second-year man Jaylen Brown, newcomer Marcus Morris, and rookies such as Jayson Tatum, Semi Ojeleye, and Gursechon Yabusele. Boston is a completely new team now, and any previous chemistry and connection they had on defense for the most part will be gone. It’s still yet to be seen how good Jaylen Brown can be defending starting quality guards and wings. This was a player who couldn’t even get on the court in the Chicago series because he was having a hard time defending Butler and Wade. Is he ready to take on the best an opposing team has to offer every night? Gordon Hayward and Marcus Morris check out as solid defenders who have the lateral movement and strength to keep up with most wings and bang with a selective group of bigs. Aron Baynes will be tasked with helping keep the minutes light on Horford by battling in the interior, and Boston will have the opportunity to add some more potential help with two extra spots for minimum guys. So it isn’t necessarily a full-out reliance on young players, but regardless, all of these parts are going to have to get used to each other and learn to play together during the course of a season where they’re expected to be the biggest competitors to the Cavaliers. That will be no short task.
Overall, the deal for the Celtics is one that banks on their development and coaching. How far can they bring along Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and the other rookies? How quickly will they be able to mesh this completely new roster. And what will a LeBron-less Irving look like? These are all questions that have no clear answers, but the Celtics felt confident enough that they pulled the trigger. Now it’s time to wait for September.