The Cavs-Celtics Trade Widens the Gap In the East

Opening Night in the NBA just became a lot more interesting, as the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers have agreed to a monster trade that could drastically alter the future of the Eastern Conference.

The trade comes about a month after Kyrie Irving requested to be traded, and the return—Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizić, and the Brooklyn Nets’ unprotected 2018 pick—was about as good as Cleveland could have hoped.

For the Cavs and rookie GM Koby Altman, this deal is a home run. Cleveland got exactly what it was looking for in a return package for Irving: a starting point guard, an impact wing, and future assets, the best return for any star player traded this offseason. The Cavs will save around $20 million in tax money by shedding Irving’s hefty contract for players making well below their market value.

In doing so, the Cavs accomplished three crucial tasks: they improved their outlook for the future, showed LeBron James they’re serious about challenging Golden State, and created even more separation between themselves and the rest of the East.

In many ways, Boston and Cleveland swapped different versions of the same player. Thomas and Irving are two of the most efficient scoring guards in the league, and both possess supernatural offensive skill sets. In a vacuum, the two provide virtually equal value.

Thomas is one of the few point guards in the league who approaches Irving’s prowess as a shot creator and finisher. He outpaced Irving last season in scoring, assists, and efficiency, as well as every advanced metric. Part of that is because Thomas was the Celtics’ offense. Boston scored 14.4 points per 100 possessions less with Thomas off the floor than with him on and had no one else that could reliably generate good shots.

He should mesh nicely with LeBron and the rest of the Cavs’ roster. Thomas wasn’t quite as good as Irving off the ball or from beyond the arc last season, but he’s still an excellent in those areas and capable of lifting some of the offensive burden from James’ shoulders.

His overall production will diminish, due in equal parts to natural regression and playing alongside James, but we could see Thomas become even more efficient as a Cavalier. Thomas averaged 1.22 points per possession on spot-ups last season, which put him in the 92nd percentile on such plays, and shot just a tick under 40 percent on catch-and-shoot threes. LeBron’s greatest skill might be his ability to generate great looks for his teammates, and with some defensive attention taken away from Thomas, his overall shot quality should improve.

Irving can readily and capably step into the role of number one option, even if he still won’t be the best player on his team. Gordon Hayward will get his touches, but he’s a versatile and adaptable player who should play off of Irving nicely. Hayward ranked in the 84th percentile leaguewide as both a spot-up player and as a cutter. He isn’t nearly as ball-dominant as LeBron, which will give Irving more leeway to commandeer even more possessions.

Kyrie is most dynamic with the ball in his hands, but also extremely valuable without it. He shot over 48 percent on catch-and-shoot threes last year, and while that figure should drop slightly now that he’s not playing with LeBron, he can, and should, be utilized in that role.

Irving is probably a marginally better overall player than Thomas, and his experience in pressurized playoff moments is extremely valuable for a team with championship aspirations. If Danny Ainge views him as the type of player that can get Boston over the hump, it’s hard to fault him for making this deal.

It remains to be seen whether Irving can actually do that, at least in the near-term. Irving fits both of Boston’s timelines—he’s already a world-class scorer with significant room to grow—but, right now, isn’t the type of transcendent player around which a true contender can be built, even with Boston’s existing nucleus. It’s easier to stomach handing out a massive contract to Irving than to Thomas because of the three-year age difference, and the Celtics have to believe they have better than a 50 percent chance of keeping Irving around long-term. That is the only conceivable case that would make him worth what Boston gave up.

Crowder is a crucial and probably underrated piece of this deal. He’s less valuable to Boston than he is to Cleveland because of the Celtics’ army of versatile wings, but was still a key part of the Celtics’ operation and arguably their best option against LeBron. His absence will shift a greater responsibility to Jaylen Brown, who figures to fill Crowder’s spot in the rotation, and it’s unclear if he’s ready for such a role. Hayward, Marcus Morris, Marcus Smart, and perhaps Semi Ojeleye will also have to play major defensive roles.

He might end up a sixth man for Cleveland, but Crowder is an invaluable piece against the Warriors. The Cavaliers’ lack of two-way wings was its most glaring weakness in the Finals, and Crowder is one of the few players in the NBA who credibly shoots threes and guards top-level wings. He’s on a cheap contract and can defend three or four positions. That versatility will both spare LeBron the responsibility of guarding the opponent’s best wing and allow Tyronn Lue to configure viable small lineups against Golden State, something he wasn’t able to do last year.

Over all of this looms the strong possibility that the Cavs fall short of a title once again and LeBron bolts in the summer of 2018.

But Cleveland is far better prepared for that scenario now than it was before. Thomas, currently playing on one of the most team-friendly contracts in the league, will be a free agent next summer, and Cleveland can let him walk if their title window slams shut. Most of the Cavs’ rotation players have reasonably tradable contracts. Crowder, Tristan Thompson, and whatever the Nets’ pick turns into is a stronger foundation for a rebuild than a roster full of aging role players and no stars.

Brooklyn’s pick may not be as juicy as it’s been in the past, but it can still net an opportunity to get a franchise building block in a loaded draft. Strike gold in the draft, and Cleveland has the pieces in place for a rebuild. They can also flip the pick for another win-now player this year. If things sputter out in Oklahoma City or Minnesota, the Cavaliers could dangle that pick in a potential Jimmy Butler or Paul George deal.

Cleveland is swinging for the fences. You have to when LeBron James is on your team. But with the Cavs’ future uncertain, Altman not only laid the groundwork for a worst-case scenario, but used his biggest in-conference threat to separate Cleveland even further from the rest of the East.

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