Winners & losers: Kyrie Irving to Celtics; Cavaliers snag Isaiah Thomas, Nets pick
A look at who came out ahead after Tuesday's megadeal swaps the point guards on the East's two best teams
Kyrie Irving is headed to Boston in a blockbuster that sends Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and the Nets' 2018 first-round pick (along with prospect Ante Zizic) to Cleveland. The deal is a shocker and difficult to figure. Here are the winners and losers in another NBA summer stunner:
WINNER: Kyrie Irving
Irving's goals were clear; he wanted to be "The Man" and still win at a high level. If he went to the Spurs, he would take a back seat to Kawhi Leonard. If he went to the Knicks, it meant toiling for a bad team, maybe forever. Going to the Celtics accomplishes both goals. Thomas was a second-team All-NBA selection and MVP candidate last season in largely the same role Irving will occupy in Boston.
Irving has wanted to be a big scorer without the burden of carrying the team. Boston gives him just that. He has a top-end secondary weapon and defensive leader in Gordon Hayward. He has a high-IQ, brilliant-passing big man in Al Horford, who doesn't need touches. Nobody on Boston's roster will clash with Irving, who becomes the starting point guard for a historic franchise. This is about as good as it gets for Irving.
LOSER: Isaiah Thomas
Sure, he gets to go to a better team with (arguably, at this point) the best player on the planet. But he will enter a contract year while accepting a secondary role to James, who always handles the ball. Thomas could do what he wanted in Boston as the engine of the offense. In Cleveland, he has to fit with James, a job that's been difficult for everyone from Irving to Dwyane Wade to Chris Bosh to Kevin Love. Thomas has never been a spot-up shooter, though he's good in that capacity.
The contract year element is crucial because Thomas has worked for this payday his entire career. When it arrives, he will be coming off a hip injury to a join team with sky-high expectations while having to adjust his entire game to fit a new scheme and new teammates. And he no longer will be "The Man."
There are worse situations than playing next to LeBron James, to be sure. But bear in mind that James is a free agent next summer. Should he depart, that he leaves Thomas stranded on a team that may not want to pay him the money he wants. Boston seemed to give him a home, only to show him the door. His leverage took a hit with this move.
WINNER: LeBron James
His Irving problem is gone. So that's one less distraction in a season that figures to be full of them (by his own doing, by not squashing free agency rumors in the first place). He gets a second-team All-NBA teammate who's a wiser, more determined veteran, and one with a chip on his shoulder. The Cavaliers have struggled with creating a mental edge. They have always taken the approach that they'll be fine because they have James. And that's driven James crazy at times.
Crowder and Thomas bring a different level of intensity and fight. They have "that dog in them," as the saying goes, and that will help. Crowder provides a big forward who can allow James some rest on the defensive end, and a player who can hit spot-up jumpers. Thomas is at least the playmaker and scorer as Irving is, unless there are injury concerns because of his hip.
Should James stay, that 2018 Nets pick represents an opportunity to add a young star. Or, say the Cavs get close to the Warriors and need one more piece, James could petition the front office to trade that pick for a star.
James made out like a bandit. His options are still open, his team is still good.
WINNER: Cleveland Cavaliers
Had they had not gotten the pick, this is a lateral move. But as it stands, it's a massive win. They pulled a rabbit out of their hat at the last second.
They avoid a protracted daily trade-rumor circus while managing to. Adding Thomas and Crowder helps them stay near the top, and could make them better than the past two seasons. The Brooklyn pick gets them a future asset to use as trade bait or an insurance option should James leave. They navigated tough waters and still look most likely to win the Eastern Conference -- a huge win given the circumstances.
LOSER: Gordon Hayward
Thomas and Irving are volume scorers with playmaking as a secondary skill, and both are defensive liabilities. But replacing Thomas means adding another player who has to learn the system with him, and Irving's default in situations where he's unsure is to isolate and score. Thomas is as much of a scorer, but he's also more likely to involve others in the offense.
For example, Thomas ran isolation 248 times last season via Synergy Sports, including passes out. Irving ran ISO 409 times. Maybe Irving will adapt to Brad Stevens' system, but if he doesn't -- or if takes him a while -- it will take touches away from Hayward. Hayward also was being pitched as arguably the Celts' best player. Irving just became Boston's centerpiece.
Finally, there's maturity. Irving is an exceptionally smart player, but maturity and leadership questions have been there from the start. Hayward's situation isn't dramatically damaged, but it's not exactly ideal now.
LOSER: Spurs, Knicks, Wolves
The three teams most often mentioned in talks for Irving missed out, and missed out because the Celtics trumped them. The Spurs were supposed to make a play for Chris Paul, then were supposed to be in talks for Irving, and missed out on both. The Wolves were looking for a big upgrade, but wound up with Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, and appear headed toward giving Andrew Wiggins a max contract. The Knicks had a narrow window of opportunity to figure out a Carmelo Anthony deal, in order to get Irving, but instead still have the Melo situation to solve. Frustrating summer for San Antonio and New York.
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