On a quiet Tuesday afternoon, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics quickly put together a trade revolving around the swap of their two All-Star point guards. Ultimately, the Cavaliers gave up Kyrie Irving to Boston for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the Brooklyn Nets’ unprotected 2018 first round draft pick.
There’s a lot going on here between the two best teams in the Eastern Conference, so let’s break down the trade piece by piece.
Kyrie Irving vs. Isaiah Thomas
For almost a year now, Celtics fans and Cavaliers fans have been arguing over which of their point guards was better. They’re all going to be sheepish now that their teams have swapped them!
On a more serious note, the reason why these two players are compared so often is that they’re pretty similar players. Generally, they’re score-first point guards who are liabilities on the defensive end. But there are a few crucial differences:
- Kyrie Irving is 25, and Isaiah Thomas is 28. Given Thomas’ recent hip injury and advancing age, there’s real concern that his play will drop off soon. If he loses any athleticism, he’ll have trouble driving and scoring because he’s so small. Also, Irving is young enough to improve his weaknesses.
- Isaiah Thomas is a better distributor and passer. Irving will have to improve at involving his teammates with the Celtics substantially, especially without LeBron to run the offense.
- Both point guards are poor defenders, but Kyrie Irving has shown a higher ceiling. Within a good defensive system, Irving could be an average defender given consistent effort. Conversely, Thomas will likely always be a very poor defender given his poor fundamentals and small stature.
- Irving is under contract for two years, while Thomas is under contract for only one. Thomas is reportedly looking for a max contract, but I doubt he’ll be able to find one with his age, injury, and defensive concerns.
Given these differences, I think Kyrie has a bit more value than Isaiah, though Isaiah very well might have a better 2017-2018 season. Kyrie’s age, higher defensive ceiling, and contract are the deciding factors here.
Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the Brooklyn pick
Because Irving’s contract is quite a larger more than Thomas’, Boston had to give Cleveland more salary to make the salaries match. Jae Crowder is an awesome acquisition for the Cavaliers: he’s a versatile defender who can stretch the floor and play smart. He immediately becomes the Cavs’ second best wing player, after LeBron James. He’s also under one of the most team-friendly contracts in the league, making only around $21 million over the next three years.
Ante Zizic is a rookie who probably won’t contribute this year, but could develop into a tough, mean starter at center down the road.
Personally, I think a trade consisting of Irving for Thomas, Crowder, and Zizic would have been fair to both sides, with a slight edge to the Cavaliers. But the Celtics threw in the Nets’ unprotected 2018 first rounder, and that changes everything.
The Nets are bad, and will probably finish with a bottom-five record in the league. With the draft next year already looking to be top-heavy, their first round pick next year is one of the most valuable non-player assets in the league.
With the inclusion of this pick, the trade becomes lopsided. The Cavaliers won this trade.
What does this mean for the Celtics?
Other than signing Gordon Hayward, the Celtics spent the entire offseason preparing for the future: they traded down from the first overall pick to acquire a future first-rounder, and did not snag either Paul George or Butler to protect future assets.
But looking back at the George and Butler trades, the Celtics gave up far more than either the Timberwolves or Thunder did, and for a worse player. Both Butler and George are elite on both ends of the court, unlike Irving.
So why did the Celtics decide to cash in their chips now for Irving? It makes little sense. Of course, they have quite a few assets left in their stockpile, and Irving could bring more top-end talent to Boston with his star power. But the Celtics may have mismanaged the most crucial offseason in their development.
Losing both Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder this offseason will hurt the Celtics’ defense considerably. They also don’t have a consistent player to play power forward; Marcus Morris might be that guy, but he and Horford would make up the worst rebounding frontcourt in the league. It’s a roster that looks like it’s still in a transition period.
The Warriors don’t have to worry about this team this year, but there’s still a decent chance the Celtics become scary in years to come.
What does this mean for the Cavaliers?
The value of obtaining Jae Crowder cannot be overstated for the Cavaliers. He’s one of the few players on the team who can switch onto multiple positions, hit threes, and not get exposed by Kevin Durant.
Isaiah Thomas will be an interesting fit next to LeBron James. He’ll likely be able to run an offense better than Irving did, especially when LeBron is resting. But especially against the Warriors, his defense will be exposed even worse than Irving’s. Stephen Curry will destroy him on that end, and that may be enough to secure a potential series in the Warriors’ favor.
The Brooklyn pick could be used in another trade for a veteran, or used on a young prospect to add young talent to an old Cleveland team.
Ultimately, this trade will be judged by whether LeBron James leaves next offseason. The Cavs will have to decide soon whether to go all-in this season, or hedge their bets and start preparing for a LeBron-less future.
I personally think that LeBron probably will leave town, and there’s a good chance Thomas does as well. In this case, the Celtics are the clear favorites in the East, despite losing this trade. If I’m the Cavs, I’d keep the Brooklyn pick just in case a total rebuild is necessary.
For the Warriors, not much has changed in the short term. Boston remains quite far away from challenging them, and the fits of Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder in Cleveland are yet to be seen. One oddsmaker, BookMaker.edu, has already lowered the chances of both a Boston and a Cleveland championship after the trade. As always, the most important thing to watch is whether LeBron will leave Cleveland next July.