After the big trade, how do Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas fit Celtics and Cavaliers?

There are plenty of ramifications from the Kyrie Irving trade for Isaiah Thomas. From LeBron James to Danny Ainge to the San Antonio Spurs, you can read all about the winners and losers. But the biggest question is pretty simple. What does it mean for the two top teams in the East -- the Cavaliers and Celtics -- to swap point guards? 

When looking at their production last season, they were pretty identical. Irving shot better from the field, Thomas got to the line more. Both had a comparable number of assists per 100 possessions, though Thomas' percentage of assists was slightly higher. 

The big question is fit. There are subtle differences in their play. Let's examine how each works with his new team. 

Kyrie Irving on the Celtics

There are two key questions: 

  1. Will he adapt to Brad Stevens as he has never adapted to a coach?
  2. Can he make his teammates better for the first time? 

Since Stevens is a level-9 mage who creates wondrous basketball from thin air, the assumption is Irving will thrive under the Celtics coach like never before -- a fair argument. With all due respect to Byron Scott (don't forget, he took the Nets to back-to-back Finals in 2002 and 2003) and Tyronn Lue (NBA championship in 2016), Stevens is the best coach Irving has had. But to understand how the Irving-Stevens dynamic may work, we have to understand who Irving is as a player. 

Last season, Irving logged 419 isolation possessions, including passes out. Thomas, by comparison, had only 248 -- a stunning differential. While Irving was efficient in those situations (95th percentile in points per possession according to Synergy Sports), those plays are inherently inefficient, suppress ball movement -- the staple of the Celtics' offense -- and represent how the Cavs played.

Playing for Stevens, Irving's ISO numbers will go down because it's not what Boston runs. Most often, players make isolation decisions -- or go one on one -- after a set breaks down. Sometimes, teammates expect a player like Irving to ISO, so they don't move off the ball to create better spacing for open looks, and the player with the ball doesn't try to generate anything else because his teammates aren't moving without the ball. 

Will Irving adjust? Bear in mind that this player is so confident in his own abilities, he would rather leave James -- and a better title shot -- so he can play his game without criticism. Maybe Irving will adjust on his own, or maybe -- perhaps even probably -- Stevens' ability to communicate his philosophy will get through. It's an important factor because ball movement is central to Boston's success. The Celtics were second in passes per game last season per NBA.com (the Cavs were 26th), though Irving averaged only three fewer passes than Thomas. The Celtics' success was built on getting everyone involved. The Cavaliers' success was built on the individual brilliance of James and Irving, and passing to shooters. The point guard in Stevens' system bears way more responsibility.

If Irving buys in, look out. 

Putting Irving in combinations with Al Horford will result in a world of buckets. Horford's such a gifted passer that using him with Irving in hand-off situations, as a shooter or a cutter, will open up a ton of opportunities. In that situation, Horford may be a better passer than even Kevin Love, who's also very gifted. 

Horford also can dive to the rim to pull defenders with him:

Or he can pop to out as a shooter, dragging them. Either way, with appropriate spacing, it gives Irving a lane to the rim, and he doesn't need much room. 

Spacing will be key for the Celtics. They lost two key spot-up weapons in Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley, while adding a great one in Gordon Hayward. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum will get some of those shots. More important, if Irving is willing to make those passes and the shooters can step up, the Celtics will be fine. If not, plan on a lot of Irving going one on one. Even though he may be the best ISO scorer in the league, life will be more difficult -- especially with no James to draw attention from the defense. 

At the defensive end, if Irving is committed and demonstrates effort he has never consistently shown, the Celtics will be fine. He can be better than Thomas as a defender. But if he doesn't go all in, it's a wash. Irving is taller (6-foot-3) than Thomas (5-9), so there are natural advantages, but Irving has to be willing to fight over screens Thomas could (and would) not, has to battle more for rebounds, has to stay locked in off the ball more than he ever has. 

Isaiah Thomas on the Cavaliers

This is simple: If Thomas is healthy, the Cavs should be better offensively than with Irving. If Thomas is not healthy, they will be considerably worse. Thomas' hip flexor injury may be a huge red flag. It's the kind of injury that limits mobility and burst, and can last for years. If his isn't as severe and he's OK, then it's a different ball game. 

Thomas is a master of the pick and roll. He was third among all players in pick-and-roll scoring with a minimum of 300 possessions last season. He is simply masterful shooting while coming off the pick, with a 58 percent effective field goal percentage in such situations. He's not the finisher Irving is because of his size. To compensate for that, the Cavs will need guys like Tristan Thompson to be better finishers. 

Thomas largely has the same instincts as Irving, related to taking over games as a scorer. But late last season and into the playoffs, when faced with increasing double and triple teams, Thomas improved as a playmaker and punished teams for collapsing. That could open up even more 3-point shots for Cleveland, a scary proposition for the opposition. 

It'll be key for Thomas and Love to establish chemistry. If they do, you're going to see a lot of buckets for Love like this, on plays where Irving may have opted for the tougher finish: 

How Thomas and James work together will be fascinating. The Cavs were killer when Irving and James collaborated in the pick and roll, but Thomas' experience is different. He hardly passed out of the pick and roll to the screen man with the Celtics, unless it was Horford. 

More than likely it will be more of the same in Cleveland, where James and Irving worked independently. Thomas is just as good a spot-up shooter as Irving, and better in transition. There should be little change there, unless Lue dramatically alters the offense. 

The defense likely will get worse, which is frightening -- considering how bad the Cavs were last season. Thomas "dies" on screens about as badly as any player in the league. It's not only his size, he just surrenders when trying to recover. He's prone to leaking out as well. While that may help the offense, it will make controlling defensive rebounds tougher. 

Irving gave poor effort, but he's athletic, fast and tall. Thomas is short, older and his effort isn't always great. When he's locked in, he can be pesky, and he learned a lot last season about how to fight off teams that try to target him (as the Wizards constantly did). But overall, the best Cleveland can hope for is that it's a wash, and that the addition of Crowder helps on that end.

Overall

This is largely a wash. The Cavs will need to move off the ball more to make best use of Thomas in the pick and roll, and Thomas can fill in as an off-ball weapon about as well as Irving. The Celtics need Irving to adapt to their motion offense, but he still will get buckets. There's a reason that SportsLine only projected only minimal change for both teams next year. What will be interesting to watch is whether both the games and identities of their new point guards fundamentally change these teams. 

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Moore's colleagues have been known to describe him as a "maniac" in terms of his approach to covering the NBA, which he has done for CBS Sports since 2010. Moore prides himself on melding reporting,... Full Bio

Show Comments Hide Comments
Our Latest Stories
    CBS Sports Shop