Trade talks had been ongoing for nearly a month, but yesterday’s Kyrie Irving-Isaiah Thomas deal seemingly came out of nowhere. Negotiations between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics escalated quickly in the late afternoon until terms were ultimately finalized. The Cavs superstar eventually landed in Beantown in exchange for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the Brooklyn Nets’ unprotected first round pick in 2018. The Celtics believe Irving is the superstar they’ve always needed to get over the hump, while the Cavaliers believe they improved in the short-term and long-term. Irving and Thomas will not be the only beneficiaries of the latest move in a summer filled with blockbuster trades.
Isaiah Thomas’ entire career has been about proving his critics wrong. He was the very last pick in the 2011 draft – the same draft that saw Kyrie Irving go first overall. At 5’9” everyone believed he was too small to succeed in the NBA. He showed flashes (20.3 PPG in ‘13-’14), but he didn’t come into his own until he was traded to the Celtics four years after he was passed over twice by nearly every team in the league.
Thomas led the Celtics to the top seed in the East this season while averaging a career-high 28.9 PPG. His season long efforts were enough to solidify him as an MVP candidate – he eventually finished 5th in voting. After proving he could be a star in the league, Thomas has set his sights on a max contract. Boston was unwilling to give him that max deal, deeming Irving the better long-term investment.
In Cleveland, he has a much better chance to land that max contract. With just one year remaining on his current deal which pays him $6.2 million annually, Thomas may never get the chance to test free agency. With a good showing this year, it seems likely that the Cavs will invest their future in him. LeBron James will leave the team after the year, freeing up $30 million-plus in cap space. Thomas just needs to ‘prove it’ for one more year and he could find himself in an elite class of max-players.
Golden State Warriors
It’s easy to make the case that both the Celtics and Cavaliers improved as a result of Tuesday’s mega-deal. At the same time, neither will pose a serious threat to the Warriors come playoff time. The Cavaliers would not have won the 2015-16 NBA title without Kyrie Irving. During Cleveland’s historic finals comeback, Irving averaged 30 PPG during the final three games – including the iconic three-pointer to win it all.
It’s obvious that the Cavaliers got deeper with the recent deal, but they did not add a player of Irving’s stature. The 25-year-old was un-guardable throughout the past two finals series. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where Thomas matches Irving’s performance in the clutch.
The Celtics rebuild is now complete, but is it enough to challenge the Warriors – or even unseat the Cavs in the East? Boston’s top two players this season will also be first-year players in their system. The two things the Celtics had going for them was depth and chemistry. With the Irving trade, they may have given up both those assets. Irving is by far the best player involved in the trade, but does he make them a better team right away? And most importantly, does he help them knock off the only team that matters – Golden State?
Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert seems like LeBron James’ puppet at times. When the King wants a playmaker, the King gets a playmaker. When James wants a star-filled bench, Gilbert willingly pays an absurd amount in luxury taxes to fund that bench. Gilbert is beholden to Cleveland’s favorite son. When LBJ left town the first time in 2010, Gilbert was furious. When he agreed to come back four years later, Gilbert promised to do whatever it took to keep James happy. But after the Cavs’ second loss in three years to the Warriors, it seems like a foregone conclusion that this is LeBron’s last year in Cleveland.
Although this was yet another moved forced upon him (Kyrie this time, not Bron), Gilbert is the clear winner here. Just two days ago, Gilbert and the Cavs faithful was staring at a future that included no James or Irving. So, Gilbert wisely reached out to the team with the biggest collection of assets. By all means, this is an overpay by the Celtics. But they were desperate to get a superstar and that superstar was desperate to leave “The Land.”
Gilbert could have done A LOT worse in this delicate Iriving deal. He could have gone all-in on the future and stockpiled prospects and picks. Or, he could have gone all-in on the present – one final championship run with James by his side. Instead, and wisely, he landed somewhere in between. This team will be a championship contender in 2017-18 with Thomas and Crowder in the mix. This team also has a very bright future with Zizic, a possible lottery pick, and a possible long-term deal with Thomas. Just like so many times in the past, Gilbert was in a no-win situation, but this time the owner took matters into his own hands.