Making sense of the Kyrie Irving trade

By: Drew King (@drewking0222)

Rumors became reality on Tuesday as Kyrie Irving finally got his wish. The NBA champion point guard shed the shadow of LeBron James in Cleveland, getting dealt to a Boston squad that’s anxious to claim the top spot in the East. 

Initial Reaction

The Celtics finally reached into their seemingly bottomless bag of assets and shelled out an all-star point guard of their own to acquire the 25-year-old. Here’s how the trade shakes out, according to Shams Charania.

Cleveland Cavaliers get: Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and Brooklyn’s 2018 first-round pick

Boston Celtics get: Kyrie Irving

It’s ironic that this trade is a result of both teams losing out on the Paul George sweepstakes. Boston was reluctant to swing for the fences on George (or Jimmy Butler), and this was its last chance to add another elite player. Cleveland actually had a deal in place for George, but the Pacers backed out at the last second in favor of the Thunder’s proposal. Three weeks later, Irving made his trade request.

The point guard shuffle impacts both teams in a major way, both short and long term. However, on paper, it appears one team got the better of the trade in both respects.

Cleveland Cavaliers

As a whole, the Cavaliers had a terrible offseason. They moved on from their championship-winning general manager David Griffin, and their biggest free agent additions were Derrick Rose and Jeff Green. 

But this trade turns things around immensely.

Thomas makes up about 92 percent of what they lost in Irving…literally (Thomas is 69 inches tall, Irving is 75 inches…do the math). Height aside, Thomas’ play style is very similar to Irving’s. He’s got the speed and handles to slice through defenses with ease, he can finish with either hand, he knocks down triples and, unfortunately, he holds on to the ball a bit too long and is completely cumbersome on defense.

Therefore, it’s not surprising that the pair’s stat lines from last season look remarkably similar. Thomas averaged 28.9 points, 5.9 assists, 0.9 steals and shot .379 percent from downtown, while Irving posted 25.2 points, 5.8 assists, 1.2 steals and made .401 percent from three.

The chief difference between the two is Thomas’ ability to get to the free throw line. Thomas took 8.5 free throws per game, nearly four more than Irving, and the extra trips were likely the reason he scored more points. If Thomas can continue that trend in Cleveland, he’ll be a fine replacement.

Crowder and Zizic were really the only other players on the Celtics’ roster that the team didn’t deem untouchable. Letms face it, Cleveland never had a shot at getting Jayson Tatum in the deal. Crowder becomes a new Sixth Man of the Year contender as one of the better “3-and-D” forwards in the league. He’ll likely spend a lot of time as a small-ball four, allowing LeBron James to stay on the wing. Crowder also has one of the best contracts in the league, and his bargain salary will reportedly save the team $29.1 million in tax savings.

Zizic, the 23rd pick in the 2016 draft, spent last year with Turkish club Darussafaka Dogus, playing under former Cleveland head coach David Blatt (THE IRONY!!!). At 7’0″, 240 pounds, he’s an absolute bruiser, yet his soft touch and impressive insticts give him a chance to be a quality playmaker in the league, not unlike Jusuf Nurkic.

But the real prize of the deal was securing the Brooklyn pick. The last chip that was thrown willy-nilly into the Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett deal from 2013 has long been regarded as the very tip of Boston’s asset iceberg. The value of the pick has often left Danny Ainge looking like Sméagol and Gollum from Lord of the Rings, unwilling to part with it, regardless of reason.

And yet the Cavaliers’ new GM Koby Altman managed to pry it loose. The pick has lost some of it’s worth, as the Nets should be better than they were last year, and more teams plan on tanking. Still, the pick will be near the bottom, and Cleveland has a legendary track record in the lottery.

It’ll take time for the pieces to come together. Chemistry will be an issue early in the season. But as long as James is still on the team, the Cavs will be a threat to win the championship. And if/when James leaves, Cleveland will have a top prospect to help them rebuild. Again.

Grade: A-

Boston Celtics

Unlike the Cavs, Boston had a busy summer, drafting Jayson Tatum, swapping Avery Bradley for Marcus Morris and reeling in a top free agent in Gordon Hayward. The move for Irving is, more or less, the icing on the cake.

Prior to selecting Tatum, the Celtics swapped picks with the Philadelphia 76ers in this year’s draft, moving from the No. 1 pick to the No. 3. In the process, Boston picked up either the Lakers’ pick next year (if it fall in the 2-5 range) or the better of the Sacramento Kings or Sixers pick in 2019 (unless it’s the No. 1 pick, in which case the Celtics get the less favorable pick).

The trade made the Brooklyn pick expendable, and Ainge decided now was the time to cash in. Thomas is in the last year of his contract, and the Celtics were unsure whether they wanted to commit to him long-term. Aside from his defensive issues, Thomas suffered a hip injury during the playoffs. While it’s unclear if Thomas’ play will suffer due to that, it’s obvious Boston felt uneasy about it.

Irving represents everything the Celtics wished Thomas was. He’s just as potent on offense, and while he’s just as much of a defensive liability, he’s young enough to grow out of his poor instincts and develop in other areas as well. And, most importantly, he’s healthy.

The Celtics weren’t on Irving’s shortlist of teams, but he’s still got the opportunity to be “the man” in Beantown. In fact, Irving is said to be “thrilled” to wear the green and white, and there’s a good chance he’ll re-sign with the team in two years. Hayward and Al Horford don’t need the ball in their hands nearly as much as James and Kevin Love do to be effective on offense, which should mean more touches for Irving.

Boston made this formula work last season, and there’s a real chance they end up with the one seed over Cleveland again this season. However, the concerns on defense are legitimate. Bradley and Crowder were two of the Celtics’ best perimeter defenders last season, and they helped make up for Thomas’ limitations. Marcus Smart is still around, but the team will have to rely heavily on the trio of Hayward, Tatum and Jaylen Brown, none of whom have the same defensive prowess (yet).

It seems like an overpay for a ball hog who’ll need a lot of help guarding any above-average perimeter player. But when you consider that Kyrie could be the piece that eventually brings Boston another championship, it’s difficult to truly know.

Grade: B-

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