Well, if there was any doubt remaining, it has now vanished -- the Kyrie Irving-for-Isaiah Thomas swap was a catastrophic disaster for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Thomas' tenure with the Cavs came to an end on Thursday afternoon when Cleveland traded the point guard, along with Channing Frye and a first-round pick, to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. Thomas, who was the centerpiece of Cleveland's haul in this summer's blockbuster deal that sent Irving to Boston, played just 15 games for the Cavs.
And while Thomas' stay in Cleveland was short, it was, undeniably, a massive failure. It started out with so much promise, too.
After Irving requested a trade to escape LeBron James' shadow in Cleveland, the Cavs were in a bit of a hole. They either had to trade a supremely talented player in Irving or risk holding onto him and heading into this season having to navigate discontent or, possibly, a holdout.
At that point, Cleveland was just months removed from an NBA Finals appearance and, with Lebron James heading into the final year of his current contract, they weren't looking to move backwards. But the Cavaliers thought they found a solution in their deal with the Celtics -- they got Thomas, another All-Star point guard, plus a value contract with Jae Crowder, a young project in Ante Zizic, and a projected top pick from Brooklyn.
Given the circumstances, that deal may have given Cleveland their best shot to remain contenders while subtracting Irving. There was still plenty of promise for the upcoming season.
Thomas made it clear that he was hurt by the Celtics trading him away, but he expressed his excitement about going to Cleveland in a piece published by The Players' Tribune in September:
One, as my oldest said it: "LeBron James." Or put another way — I get to come over and join the best team in the East, and try to win a championship alongside the best basketball player in the world.
I'mma just say this here, point-blank, to get it over with — and then you can go ahead and post it on whatever bulletin boards you want to: You are not going to want to mess with the Cavs this year. This is going to be a great year to be a Cavs fan, a great year. And I'm excited.
From a basketball perspective, me on the Cavs is a match made in heaven. If you've watched any Celtics games last year, then you know how many times I would have to go through double and even triple teams, just to get my shot off. It ended up working fine for us — guys played great, and my shot was falling. But this year … man, it's not even going to be a thing. You really going to throw three guys on me, when I'm sharing a court with the best basketball player on the planet? Nah, I don't think so.
But things quickly soured on that outlook. Thomas was forced to deal with a lingering hip issue and missed the first half of the season in Cleveland. By the time he debuted on January 1, the Cavs had already been dealing with inconsistencies and a rollercoaster first half.
If they were hoping that Thomas' presence in the lineup would right the ship, the ensuing reality was a brutally harsh one.
Over his 15 games with the Cavs, Thomas' play was uninspiring. He averaged under 15 points per game on 36-percent shooting (25-percent from beyond the arc), under five assists per and was one of the worst defensive players not only in the league, but in the history of the league.
In addition to the underwhelming numbers on the floor, Thomas was seemingly a toxic presence and a distraction in a Cleveland locker room full of unrest. There was Kevin Love. In late January, Frank Isola reported that Thomas "led the charge against Love" in a players only meeting in which Love was reportedly questioned for exiting a loss early.that seemed to go on for weeks and weeks. Then, Thomas reportedly clashed with several Cavaliers teammates, most notably
With the Feb. 8 trading deadline looming the next three weeks will be fascinating, starting with the dead-man-walking Cavs, who were described by one person close to the team as being in "utter chaos." ESPN reported that during a team meeting Kevin Love became yet again the convenient scapegoat. A source told The News that Isaiah Thomas led the charge against Love, who turned up ill for Saturday's embarrassing loss to Oklahoma City and went home after playing just three minutes.
Soon enough, the criticisms transitioned out from behind closed doors and straight to the media. After the Cavs blew a 21-point first half lead and lost to the Orlando Magic this week, Thomas had plenty of critiques regarding, well, pretty much everything. He questioned their unity, saying "when adversity hits, we go our separate ways." He questioned their hustle and commitment to defensive play.
Isaiah Thomas questioned the Cavs' effort after the game: "I don't know the last time we got on the floor for a loose ball. I know that teams I've been on, defense is determined on deflections, steals, loose balls, who's the hardest working team." #Cavs pic.twitter.com/3eR9uAhuGs— clevelanddotcom Cavs (@PDcavsinsider) February 4, 2018
(Again, Thomas has been the worst defensive player in the league this season.)
But the point guard also made a point to question Cleveland's coaching. Specifically, he claimed that the Cavs have been plagued by their refusal to make mid-game adjustments.
"We got to do better," Thomas said after the loss to the Magic. "We got to adjust throughout the game. They made adjustments, and it worked, and we just kept getting hit with the same thing, and we made no adjustments. And that's been one of our biggest problems all year, is adjusting. Teams are not just going to allow us to continue to score and continue to do things at a high level. They're going to make adjustments, and we have to do the same thing, too, and we're not that good at that right now."
That claim was quickly refuted by Cavs head coach Ty Lue.
Ty Lue when informed of Isaiah Thomas’ critique of the Cavs coaching staff’s inability to make in-game adjustments: “That’s not true”— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) February 7, 2018
So, not only was Thomas apparently at the center of player feuds in Cleveland's locker room, but he also sparked a player-coach feud in his final week in Cleveland. Not ideal.
It seems fair to assume that not all of the Cavs' problems center around Thomas, but his premature exit solidifies that his time in Cleveland will be known more for his toxicity in the locker room than his play on the floor. In hindsight, his final moment in a Cavaliers uniform seems somewhat fitting -- being ignored by teammates following a LeBron James game-winner.
For Thomas, it's been an incredibly steep fall from grace at the worst possible time. In less than a year, he went from a beloved All-Star who led the Celtics to a conference finals berth to a locker-room malcontent with a modest stat line. That max contract that he was hoping to sign this summer looks like nothing but a lofty dream at this point.
And while the Cavaliers were able to ship Thomas to the West Coast for two fine young players that might make them a little better this year, it likely doesn't make the initial swap with Boston hurt any less. As it stands, the Cavs traded Kyrie for Clarkson, Nance, Crowder (traded to Utah on Thursday), Zizic and swapped first rounders with the Nets.
It's worth noting that this whole debacle probably doesn't help their chances of keeping LeBron beyond this season, either. LeBron's roller coaster relationship with Cavs owner Dan Gilbert has been well-documented throughout history (and especially recently), and this season's circus, which is reaching peak clown show at the trade deadline, certainly isn't making him sink his roots any deeper.
Plus, the Thomas trade actually helped Los Angeles shed cap space, which in turn could be used to help them offer a couple of max deals this summer...possibly to one LeBron James. Yikes.
Meanwhile, Irving is thriving in Boston, inserting himself in the MVP race while the Celtics sit atop the East and position themselves to contend for years to come. For Danny Ainge, notorious for wheeling and dealing, the Thomas-for-Irving deal could go down as his greatest, most unbelievable single piece of work.
Even Boston couldn't have imagined the trade winding up this lopsided. As trade chatter heated up over the summer, some wondered whether the Celtics should even trade Thomas, who was considered to be the franchise's heart and soul, for player like Irving, who was asking out of a seemingly good situation on one of the league's top teams. Some argued it was a minor upgrade not worth the additional cost of sending away Crowder and a first-round pick, especially to a conference rival.
But Irving has solidified his status as a superstar capable of carrying a team, and the Celtics have successfully avoided the headache of negotiating a new contract with Thomas this summer. All the while, Thomas has done his part to turn Cleveland into a complete mess.
For the Celtics, the trade found its greatest possible return. For the Cavaliers, it was a nightmare that couldn't have gone any worse, and one that could haunt the franchise for years to come.