In a surprise trade that can only be described as a blockbuster, the Cavaliers sent venerable point guard Kyrie Irving to the Celtics in exchange for venerable point guard Isaiah Thomas, one of the best bench players in the league (Jae Crowder), an intriguing foreign prospect (Ante Zizic), and maybe the best draft pick to have entering the 2017-18 season (the Nets’ first-rounder).
As with all trades, the focus quickly becomes who “won.” In this case, however, it’s very difficult to understand the trade as a zero-sum affair, because both teams have very different needs.
The Cavaliers are torn between preparing for a world without LeBron James and winning in a world with LeBron James. They were also put in a difficult position by Kyrie agitating for a trade and knowledge of that being made public. In exchange for a trade that the Cavs were (probably) going to have to make anyway, they returned a lot more than others found in the offseason. (Cheers to you, Pacers.)
Isaiah Thomas is one of the most exciting players in the Eastern conference, and isn’t far off Kyrie Irving as a point guard. Jae Crowder is the kind of 3-and-D player GM’s covet, and has produced 14 PPG in his last two years in Boston. Ante Zizic is an interesting prospect, who may not contribute greatly in the next year but will be the foundation of a minor youth movement in Cleveland. That Brooklyn Nets’ first-round pick is one of the best assets in basketball, and while the Nets might not be that bad this year, the pick should fall somewhere in the top five. If the Cavaliers want to acquire more weapons heading into the 2018 postseason, they have a great bargaining chip. If they want to (potentially) position themselves to grab a future superstar in the 2018 draft, they can sit on it.
The Celtics were in a much different position this offseason. Danny Ainge had built a team capable of reaching the Eastern Conference Finals and nothing more. Irving is undoubtedly an upgrade over Thomas, and while his defense is horrendous, it isn’t quite as limiting as IT’s. The Celtics certainly gave up a lot in order to land Kyrie, but they retained Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and have backed up their Gordon Hayward trade by adding another true difference-maker. They now find themselves with a plausible route to the NBA Finals … where they’ll be rolled by the Golden State Warriors.
In terms of odds, this trade does not significantly alter the prospects for either team in terms of win totals or the 2018 NBA title. Last year, both teams left a lot of wins on the table by resting starters and getting ready for the playoffs. Cleveland won 51 games, and the Celtics won 53. Those numbers don’t pop off the page like the gaudy totals out West, but that’s because the Cavs and Celtics didn’t need to win any more. They won exactly as many games as they needed to, finishing #1 and #2 in the conference and ensuring home-court advantage until at least the conference finals. LeBron doesn’t particularly care about the regular season beyond that. There’s no glory in posting gaudy win totals — the 73-9 Golden State Warriors will happily tell you that — and these two teams are only interested in making the playoffs in those top two spots while remaining as healthy as possible. Kevin Durant could join the Cleveland Cavaliers and they wouldn’t have any need to win more than 60 games.
Speaking of Kevin Durant, neither team has a significant, or significantly changed, chance of beating the Golden State Warriors. In Vegas, the Cavaliers are listed at +450 to win the NBA championship, the Celtics at +750, and the Warriors at -160.
It’s crazy that in the preseason, in a 30-team league, one team is an odds-on favorite to win the championship; it’s even crazier that those odds might offer good value. The Warriors simply have too many weapons for either Cleveland or Boston to handle, despite their new looks: if KD gets hurt, you still have to face the same core of players that went 73-9. If Steph gets hurt, you still have to face Kevin Durant and two other top-20 players. There’s redundancy in this team, redundancy that makes it resistant to injury or other catastrophe.
This trade isn’t about 2017, though. This trade is about building a future for the Celtics, who now have a 25-year-old livewire point guard on a longish contract that they can build around. It’s about keeping the Cavaliers at the top of the conference while getting insurance for a post-LeBron era that may be just one year away. The Cavs can deal that pick and get more support for LeBron James if he stays, or they can take it to the draft and get a young star to build around.
Who won this trade? It’s possible that both teams did, considering that they have different goals.
Celtics/Cavaliers Odds: Post Irving/Thomas Trade
O/U regular-season wins (2017-18):
- Boston Celtics: 53.5
- Cleveland Cavaliers: 52.5
Could both these teams reach 60 wins in an Eastern Conference that features a handful of squads gunning for the most lottery balls? You bet. Will they bother? No. The value of resting stars is only becoming clearer with time. The older Cavaliers will value it a little more than the younger Celtics, though, while the Celtics will place increased importance on having home-court advantage over Cleveland in the playoffs.
O/U years until Cavaliers win their next NBA title: 3.5
This is a tough one to set odds for. If the Cavs don’t win in the LeBron era — which could be over as soon as next year — it might be 2050 before the small-market team lucks into the requisite talent again.
O/U years until Celtics win their next NBA title: 4.5
The Celtics have positioned themselves pretty damn well to be competitive for the next five years or so. Now they just need LeBron to keep getting older (which should happen) and the Warriors’ stars to start valuing money over rings.