What the Kyrie Irving trade to Boston means for the future of LeBron, Cavaliers

It's impossible to nearly overstate the uphill climb faced by the Cleveland Cavaliers in efforts to trade All-Star Kyrie Irving this summer following his trade demand. 

They had: 

  • A player with two years left on his deal who had made it clear he intended to test free agency, who had outright demanded a trade -- a rarity in today's NBA.
  • A rookie general manager (Koby Altman) after David Griffin's contract was not renewed and Chauncey Billups turned down a job as head of basketball operations.
  • The shadow of LeBron James' possible departure in 2018 and the knowledge they needed to try and compete now while keeping an eye on the future.
  • A trade market that largely had run dry because most teams had settled plans for the upcoming season.

Yet they somehow walked away with a massive haul for Irving. The Cavs traded Irving to their biggest Eastern Conference rival, the Boston Celtics, in exchange for All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, highly-touted prospect Ante Zizic and the Brooklyn Nets' 2018 unprotected first-round pick. The deal was made official Tuesday night. 

So what does this mean for the Cavs? Let's look at the short and long-term impacts.

For starters, SportsLine projects the Cavaliers to win exactly as many games as they were slated to before the trade: 54.2, and they saw their championship odds drop slightly from 10 percent to 9.1 percent. 

Short-term ramifications

Adding Thomas for Irving in their current states is a very near identical swap. Consider this:

Per 100 possessionsPTSFGAFG%3P%ASTREBTOV

Player A

42.4

28.4

46.0

38.0

8.6

4.0

4.1

Player B

35.9

28.1

47.3

40.0

8.3

4.5

3.6

Those are pretty narrow gaps. Player A generated more points because he shoots more free throws, despite shooting only slightly worse from the field. 

Player A is Isaiah Thomas, and Player B is Kyrie Irving. 

The question will be if Thomas will thrive as an off-ball force, which will happen alongside LeBron James. The struggle with Irving always was his limitations as a playmaker, yet his assist numbers were nearly identical to IT4's, despite a higher usage rate for Thomas. Thomas' game seems to be capable of a greater adjustment to operating as a secondary playmaker, but this still will be a big challenge for him. Thomas has never played on a team with a teammate so far above him on the pecking order, nor one who would have the ball as often as James. 

If James were wisely to take a secondary role to preserve energy, the team could thrive. Thomas benefited from the small-ball approach the Celtics widely used last season, and with the shooters Cleveland has, he'll have constant spacing and weapons to find if the defense collapses. 

Defensively, it's a wash: Thomas is a significantly limited defender, but his effort level is greater than Irving's. Irving's capability defensively is far greater, but he simply has never committed on that end. Thomas gives up on plays often, especially if screened. 

The benefit for Cleveland defensively comes from Crowder. He is big, strong and mobile. He struggles to get around screens because of his size, but he'll give James some breaks in guarding the top assignment every night, and can play down to four or even five when called upon. He's an underrated rebounder. More importantly, he was 95th percentile via Synergy Sports defending spot-up plays, which was an issue for the Cavs. They badly needed defensive upgrades, and while Crowder doesn't fix all their problems, he helps. 

Long-term ramifications

There are two key questions to examine: 

  1. How will the performance of the Cavs this season impact James' free agency decision in 2018?
  2. How will James' decision impact what the Cavs do next? 

If the Cavaliers are just as good or the same after the trade ...

James will have a tough decision. This may not convince him to stay with the Cavaliers (as a lot of league personnel already believe he's gone, to Los Angeles), but it will make it tougher. It improves their chances of retaining the best player in franchise history, so it's already a win. 

Thomas' free agency is a complication. If James says he'll return, you go all in, retaining Thomas on a max deal. The objective then might be to turn around and deal that 2018 Brooklyn pick for an instant upgrade from any team looking to deal a superstar. That pick cannot be overlooked: it gives them a lot of options in most any scenario. Keeping Thomas would be expensive, but if they can get the same kind of deal that Kyle Lowry got this summer, at 3-years, $100 million, that gives them a set short-term future with long-term upside. 

This scenario, where James stays, effectively extends the Cavs' championship window by three years, no matter what they do with that pick. 

The most vital thing about the Brooklyn pick is that it provides an incentive for James to stay, installing another blue-chip prospect to come in and help on the cheap, and acts as insurance against James' departure. To wit:

If the Cavaliers aren't as good after the trade ...

Presumably, James would be gone -- and it gets complicated. Thomas' contract becomes a blessing and a curse. The temptation would be to retain him on a big deal, to stay relevant. But their best option in that situation would be a total reset. Let Thomas walk (or, preferably, sign-and-trade him to a team that needs the space), then clear out Kevin Love and the other veterans and commit to a hard rebuild. The Cavs would be ahead of the curve because of the Nets' pick. Even if it lands fifth, that's still getting an impact rookie in what is expected to be a strong draft class. 

Then they'd be able to tank the following season to add another top-five pick to whoever they'd get from the Brooklyn pick and any potentially additional picks from trading Kevin Love, and go forward with a young core. 

Given these potential outcomes, was it a good trade?

Absolutely. The worst-case scenario is they are in position to reshape their future, regardless of James. They already were looking at trading Irving, and no other scenario was going to provide them with a first-round draft pick and a instant star replacement like this deal. It's an incredible steal for the Cavaliers, who somehow emerged from an offseason of adversity with a roster that may be better than last season. And if they're not, they have far more flexibility regarding the future. 

The Cavaliers did not put themselves ahead of the Warriors, they have not secured their future with James -- and no asset landed here may be better than Irving in three to five years. But their hand was forced by Irving's demand, and this trade provides them with the most opportunity for short- and long-term gain that they could reasonably have expected.

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

Our Latest Stories
    24/7 Scores, News, Highlights
    FREE ON ALL YOUR DEVICES