Welcome to the league, Koby Altman! A man with a Wikipedia page shorter than Isaiah Thomas himself, the Cavs’ freshman GM was faced with the incredibly tall task of keeping the team a championship contender in the wake of David Griffin’s departure in June. His job didn’t get much easier when it became apparent that Kyrie was looking to force his way out of town in an attempt to step out of LeBron’s shadow. Less than a month into his new gig, Altman pulled the trigger on an incredibly unprecedented deal, or what we like to call in the 2017 NBA offseason “Tuesday,” that sent Kyrie Irving to Boston. Here’s how it played out.
1st Round Pick in the 2018 NBA Draft via Brooklyn
(PG) Isaiah Thomas – 1 year / $6m
(F) Jae Crowder – 3 year / $20m
(C) Ante Zizic – 4 year / $10m
Kyrie Irving – 3 year / $60m (3rd year player option)
Putting aside my Cleveland homerism for a second, I really like the trade for both sides. Boston seemed hesitant to offer a max deal to a 5’9″ defensive liability, and as I wrote at the deadline last year, the team is still playing with house money from one of the most lopsided trades in NBA history. While it may sting to give up that first round pick, the team has already more than reaped the rewards from its haul in an amazingly quick rebuild.
I don’t think Kyrie is a substantial upgrade for the Celtics, but he’s an upgrade nonetheless. Not only that, but he’s on a very team friendly contract for the next couple of years, which should give Boston a bit of flexibility they wouldn’t have otherwise had. It also, perhaps more importantly, allows the team to avoid facing an incredibly difficult decision on Isaiah’s future. Kyrie has also stated his intent to sign a long term deal with the team, much to the delight of Danny Ainge. I still think Cleveland is the team to beat in the East, but that window is closing fast. Kyrie, Al Horford, and Gordon Hayward will provide plenty of talent for the team to compete immediately, and the development of Jaylen Brown and rookie Jason Taytum should help get them over the hump in the coming years.
As for the Cavaliers, I think it’s safe to say Koby Altman passed his first test as the team’s general manager. Kyrie Irving put a proverbial gun to the team’s head by demanding a trade, especially doing so incredibly late in the offseason. Most star players on the market had already settled in with their new teams by the time Kyrie’s unrest became public, and I thought I’d hate whatever return the team would be able to muster up this late in the game. Out of nowhere comes the notoriously stingy Ainge with a fantastic haul of assets that not only keep the Cavaliers competitive, but also provide them with an exit strategy if LeBron decides to take his talents elsewhere next summer.
Most of the talking heads in the media will focus on the Isaiah Thomas aspect of the trade, and rightfully so. It’s not every day that two teams who just battled in the conference finals swap all stars. Yet with only one year on his deal, I’d be a bit surprised if he was part of the team’s long term plans.
Thomas is an absolute liability on the defensive end, and I think Cleveland will be less equipped to deal with that than Boston was. The Celtics didn’t have a problem hiding him on defense by placing Avery Bradley or Marcus Smart on the toughest backcourt assignment. I just don’t see J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, or Kyle Korver filling that defensive specialist role any time soon. It’s an issue that could become very apparent against the Warriors in another potential NBA Finals showdown. Per ESPN Stats & Info, in the past three seasons, the Warriors scored 108.6 points per 100 plays against the Celtics with Thomas on the court, and only 87.2 points per 100 plays with him on the bench. Additionally, Thomas is dealing with a lingering hip injury suffered in the Eastern Conference Finals against these very Cavaliers. It’s not expected to be serious, and hopefully that’s the case, but it’s something to at least keep an eye on.
All negatives aside, Thomas should have no problem filling Kyrie’s shoes on the offensive end. Both players are ball dominant guards capable of scoring at will coming off of virtually identical seasons. I think he’ll be plugged in to the Cleveland offense fairly easily and mesh well with Lebron James and the team as a whole. I also think he will be absolutely adored by this fan base. If your Average Joe Cleveland sports fan loves anything, it’s a scrappy underdog working hard to defy expectations at all costs. Is there any player in the NBA who fits this description better than Isaiah Thomas? An unheralded 5’9″ player out of Washington picked last in the very draft Kyrie Irving was picked first, working on his game to become a two time NBA All Star, now vying for an NBA title next to LeBron James. As Ian Darke would say, “YOU COULD NOT WRITE A SCRIPT LIKE THIS!”
Next up, the Brooklyn Nets 2018 first round pick. Since the Nets being terrible is more of a sure fire bet than death and taxes, you could reasonably expect this will be the top pick in the draft, and probably no worse than third overall. Some are pretty high on this young squad, and I suppose the likelihood of the Nets winning the draft lottery in back to back seasons is pretty slim. But hey, we’ve seen the ping pong balls take some very Cleveland friendly bounces in the wake of the departure of a certain so called king, so who knows.
Speaking of which, I’ve heard some in the #FakeNewsMedia suggest this is the part of the trade that could keep LeBron in Cleveland beyond 2018. Let me be the first to tell you, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard, and in fact, I fear it’s exactly the opposite. How quickly folks forget about the letter LeBron wrote in the summer of 2014 declaring his return to Cleveland. Right from the start, there was a very obvious exclusion of 18-year-old Phenom and recent first overall draft pick Andrew Wiggins. Fast forward to today, LeBron James is a 33-year-old superstar on a fast track to his twilight years. There’s a zero percent chance he’s going to sit around and wait 3 or 4 years for a rookie to develop into an all star. It’s just not happening. This move is 100% about the future of the team without LeBron James, and I have no idea how to feel about that.
On one hand, I think the team should push all it’s chips in the middle of the table and try to send this pick off for another star. We’re talking about a franchise (hell, a city) that hadn’t tasted that championship glory in a little over a half of a century. You’re telling me you’re willing to punt on one last shot at winning it all with an all time great, just for the potential of being below average instead of awful 3 years down the road? On the other hand, I’ve lived through the 2011 Cavaliers. Nobody wants to be the 2011 Cavaliers, believe me. Koby Altman still has the chance to take this thing in either direction by making another deal at the deadline or standing pat, something that really wasn’t an option a few days ago. Still, the acquisition of the pick makes me fearful that LeBron’s departure is something that this front office is taking more seriously than I originally hoped.
Getting away from Decision 2.0 fear mongering, the impact of adding Jae Crowder to this team is incredibly understated. Many pundits and fans alike have been complaining about LeBron’s playing time since his return from Miami, and the team FINALLY has someone to reliably eat some of those minutes. I’m sorry, I absolutely love Richard Jefferson, but watching his corpse try to chase around Kevin Durant and Paul George during crunch time while LeBron struggles to catch his breath on the sideline for 12 seconds is something I don’t think I can handle anymore. Crowder provides a huge upgrade at the small forward position in just about every way. He averaged 14 points and 6 boards in Boston last year, and I’m really excited about what he can bring to the team defensively. The first time Crowder and J.R. Smith link up in practice might be a little awkward, but there isn’t a whole lot about this trade that won’t.
Finally, Ante Zizic probably won’t move the needle for most people, but I think this could be a great addition to the team. I’m not saying this guy is going to jump in and be the next Bill Walton, but he’s a 20-year-old 7 footer at a position where the Cavs definitely need help. They’ve been trying to get some backup for Tristan Thompson for the last few seasons, bringing in Edy Taveres, Larry Sanders, and Andrew Bogut, none of whom were able to make much of an impact. If this kid can manage to be half competent and log 10 to 15 minutes a game without issue, that’s going to be a massive win in what was otherwise a throwaway add-on for salary purposes.
Overall, the Celtics were able to solve their riddle at the point guard position while managing to upgrade in the process, and Cleveland stays competitive while adding depth as well as an asset that can be incredibly useful either as trade bait, or to avoid hitting rock bottom in another potential post LeBron era. As Michael Scott would say, that’s a win-win-win.
Now that the impartial trade analysis is out of the way, allow me to put my Cleveland Cavalier hat back on and drop some seriously hot sports opinions.
OH MY GOD!!!! THIS IS THE WEIRDEST THING I CAN REMEMBER HAPPENING AS A SPORTS FAN. SERIOUSLY.
Let’s set aside the fact that I share the same roof with a die hard Boston Celtics fan and huge Isaiah Thomas fan. Look, players come and go in free agency all the time. No one knows that harsh reality better than a Cavalier fan who had to watch LeBron dominate the NBA as a member of the Miami Heat, or a Red Sox fan in the early 2000’s who had to watch beloved goofball Johnny Damon don Yankee pinstripes shortly after winning a title in Boston. But this? I’m still kind of at a loss.
I’ll always be a die hard Kyrie Irving fan, not only for The Shot, but for being that glimmer of hope that always made me think The Shot was possible. I watched a lot of very bad basketball featuring Kyrie, Dion Waiters, and Byron Scott, and although an NBA Championship seemed light years away, the young Cavaliers made us believe in a time where there wasn’t a whole lot worth believing in. And on October 17th, he’ll be walking into Quicken Loans Arena wearing Celtic freaking green. What a sick, cruel world we live in.
I should also probably take this opportunity to walk back some of my “you can’t win in the playoffs with a 5’9” point guard who can’t play defense” takes, right? Don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved Isaiah’s game since he was traded to Boston, and have the tweets to prove it, but I’m sure I’ve spewed some absolutely fuego takes about every member of the Boston Celtics in the past 3 years. The ones about Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder I obviously didn’t mean, but everything else is still valid. Especially the ones about Kelly Olynyk. That guy sucks.
Hey Jae crowder, how about you try getting out of the first round first before talking about competing for titles?
— Ethan Miller (@EMiller518) July 21, 2016
The most important thing is that the Cleveland Cavaliers are in a better place than they were yesterday. Maybe Kyrie Irving will find that the grass is greener in Boston, or maybe not. Maybe I’ll begrudgingly stop hating the Boston Celtics, and maybe two fan bases that genuinely don’t like each other will find some common ground and stop hating each other too. Maybe this trade will be the catalyst for world peace, who knows. For now, I’ll be counting down the days until the awkward reunion on October 17th, trying to figure out the current state of my Isaiah Thomas & Jae Crowder fandom, and my apparent new Boston Celtics fandom too. Nothing makes sense anymore.