Cavaliers get: Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, Nets' 2018 first-round pick
Celtics get:? Kyrie Irving
The timing of Irving's trade request heading into what could be the final season of LeBron James' contract (he holds a player option for the 2018-19 season) put rookie Cavaliers GM Koby Altman in a tricky situation. Should Cleveland prioritize trying to win a championship now with James on the roster or start thinking about a potential future without him?
This trade allowed the Cavaliers to accomplish both goals simultaneously.
There's a case to be made that adding Thomas and Crowder gives Cleveland a better chance of winning the 2018 NBA championship than the Cavaliers would have had keeping Irving. Crowder is precisely the kind of 3-and-D contributor Cleveland needed to better match up with the Golden State Warriors and hadn't yet added this offseason. ( Jeff Green, signed for the veteran's minimum, doesn't count as a player of that caliber.)
Crowder can play the role Richard Jefferson filled during the Cavaliers' comeback from a 3-1 deficit against the Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals, playing alongside James at forward and defending either Kevin Durant or Draymond Green while also having the capability of switching out on Golden State's guards. While Crowder's 39.8 percent 3-point shooting last season looks out of place with the rest of his career, he's a capable enough outside shooter to keep defenders honest and be more valuable than Jefferson at the other end of the court.
Getting two starting-caliber players -- it's unclear whether Crowder might start alongside James on the wing or come off the bench -- for one dramatically improves Cleveland's depth, which should help the Cavaliers manage James' minutes during the regular season.
The hope of Cleveland being better in 2017-18 does rest on Thomas' health. He suffered a torn hip labrum during last season's playoffs that sidelined him after Game 2 of last season's Eastern Conference finals against the Cavaliers. Doctors determined over the summer that surgery was not necessary, but Celtics head coach Brad Stevens recently told Chris Mannix that the team wouldn't be sure of Thomas' timetable for training camp until after a scan in early September.
While adding Crowder is a clear win, Cleveland does downgrade to some extent at point guard. Granted, Thomas was a better player in the 2016-17 regular season than Irving; he used a higher share of his team's plays and scored more efficiently, which landed him a spot on the All-NBA second team while Irving wasn't selected to any of the three teams. But Irving matched his offensive performance in the playoffs, part of a consistent trend of postseason improvement. And while both players have been defensive liabilities, Irving's issues have more to do with effort than size, allowing him to improve defensively in the crucible of the playoffs.
Boston has matched up well with Golden State with Thomas at point guard, but largely because former backcourt-mate Avery Bradley allowed the Celtics to crossmatch defensively. Some of the defensive gain the Cavaliers make in a potential NBA Finals rematch with the Warriors is offset by replacing Irving with Thomas.
Even if you don't believe this trade makes Cleveland more likely to win the 2018 championship, the fact that it's even debatable is a huge win for the Cavaliers. It's unclear whether keeping Irving was realistic after his desire to get out of James' shadow was reported as an explanation for his trade request, and it would be hard to beat the short-term value of this package in an Irving trade. Above and beyond that, Cleveland also adds long-term value in 2018-19 and beyond by getting the Brooklyn Nets' 2018 first-round pick.
Though the Nets have improved the team that finished with the NBA's worst record a season ago, projections based on ESPN's real plus-minus (RPM) have Brooklyn in the league's bottom five on average. The average simulation based on those projections has the Nets' pick coming up fifth overall, with a reasonable chance (about 9 percent) of it landing No. 1 overall for a second consecutive year.
In the event James walks away next summer, the Cavaliers can let Thomas leave as well and kick-start their rebuilding effort with (in all likelihood) a lottery pick in hand. In such a scenario, Crowder would surely have plenty of trade value with two years and approximately $15 million remaining on his contract. Overlooked in this deal, Cleveland also gets a useful center prospect in Ante Zizic, the No. 23 pick of the 2016 draft who has posted strong numbers overseas despite limited athleticism.
Things actually get a little trickier if James stays, in which case re-signing Thomas would push Cleveland's payroll deeper into the luxury-tax stratosphere. (For this season, the Cavaliers potentially save more than $30 million in taxes because the three players they added make less combined than Irving.) But at this point, that's a problem the Cavaliers would be thrilled to have. And this trade solves several others for Cleveland.
As much as I love this trade for the Cavaliers, I don't necessarily hate it for the Celtics, in no small part because the teams are operating on slightly different timelines. For Cleveland, it's mostly about next season, making Thomas' expiring contract actually somewhat ideal. From Boston's standpoint, Thomas' impending free agency meant a difficult decision.
As he has repeatedly made clear, Thomas expects a max deal next summer as an unrestricted free agent. I'm not convinced such an offer is forthcoming given the limited number of teams who project to have cap space, but either way re-signing Thomas would mean handing a lucrative, long-term contract to a 5-foot-9 point guard heading into his 30s. (Thomas will turn 29 during the upcoming season.)
Re-signing Thomas would have pushed the Celtics deep into the luxury tax and meant tying up the vast majority of their payroll in two players (Thomas and Al Horford) in the back half of their careers. Boston might have been able to survive that with internal development from the numerous young prospects on the roster, but that would have been tricky to manage.
From an age standpoint, the 25-year-old Irving fits neatly between the Celtics' youngsters and fellow newcomer Gordon Hayward (age 27). As noted, his playoff track record suggests Boston has upgraded when it really counts for a team that should be favored to reach the Eastern Conference finals each of the next two seasons. So, overall, he's unquestionably an upgrade on Thomas despite the strong performance of the incumbent Celtics point guard.
The question, then, is whether Irving is enough of an upgrade to merit giving up so much else. And that's where my answer is less positive.
The loss of Crowder shouldn't be minimized. His RPM rating ranked him 20th in the league last season -- better than Irving or Thomas. That rating surely flatters Crowder's impact, but he's a versatile role player on one of the league's best contracts. Trading him simultaneously weakens Boston and strengthens the rival Cavaliers, a fascinating and unusual aspect of this trade between the top two teams in the East.
The loss of Crowder further compromises the Celtics' depth, a strength the past two-plus seasons since Thomas' arrival. Suddenly, Boston has lost five of the seven players who saw the most minutes for the team last season. (Only Horford and Marcus Smart remain.)
The Celtics are counting on recent lottery picks Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum to fill in those minutes, but neither figures to be nearly as effective in 2017-18 in terms of helping the team win as Crowder was. (I'd bet against them surpassing Crowder in 2018-19 too.) I think this trade makes Boston less likely to earn the East's No. 1 seed next season, and probably less likely to reach the NBA Finals.
Assuming the Celtics can re-sign Irving when he reaches unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2019 (he holds a 2019-20 player option), they've got enough time for the young guys to mature around him. And James' potential departure could clear a path to the NBA Finals for Boston. So I understand what the Celtics were thinking here. But ultimately I'm not sure I would have given up this much to get Irving.