Koby Altman had his hands tied behind his back, but that was only one of his problems.
The rookie GM found himself in a nightmare scenario last month, when word first leaked that All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving, a centerpiece of Cleveland’s 2016 title team, had requested a trade. A superstar’s trade request invariably leads to negative headlines, distractions and finger-pointing, and it often depresses the player’s return value.
But Altman’s dilemma was even more complicated because he was backed into a corner by LeBron James’s impending free agency in 2018 and he was dealing with a caved-in ceiling after owner Dan Gilbert badly misplayed his summer by letting go of GM David Griffin and failing to hire top replacement target Chauncey Billups. Here was Altman sitting in the big chair for the first time, simultaneously facing questions about his organization’s dysfunction, his franchise player’s wandering eye and his superstar point guard’s unhappiness.
The trade that came down on Tuesday, then, feels like something from a Harry Houdini or David Blaine magic act. Altman slipped out of the wrist restraints, wiggled out of the tight corner and ducked away from a potential catastrophe, shipping Irving to Boston in exchange for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and Brooklyn’s 2018 unprotected first-round pick.
With that package, Altman got far more than the Bulls got for Jimmy Butler,far more than the Pacers got for Paul George, and far more than the Clippers got for Chris Paul. More importantly, though, Altman managed to perfectly thread the needle by sending the correct short-term message to James without compromising the Cavaliers’ long-term flexibility.
Cleveland’s top priority—always—is to build a bona fide title contender around James. Its second priority is to construct a roster that can continue competing for championships over the next 3-5 years. The NBA’s top player, at age 32, has no time to waste, and he possesses both a keen understanding of the league’s power balance and an aggressive, proactive mentality when it comes to managing his career. Basketball writers everywhere were ready to grade Altman’s first major move, and James surely had his red pen at the ready too. All the young assets and draft picks in the world wouldn’t have earned an “A” from James, not with now the 2017 Finals defeat fresh in his mind and not with Golden State breezing through a very strong summer.
By acquiring Thomas, a 28-year-old two-time All-Star who is entering a contract year in search of his first big pay day, Altman addressed what would have been his roster’s major weakness. Remember how predictable, choppy and James-centric Cleveland’s offense got during the 2015 playoffs when Irving was injured? Without bringing back a capable secondary ball-handler to replace Irving, that would have been the Cavaliers’ story for 82 games next season. Thomas has his faults—size, defense, injury concerns—but he can light it up at a moment’s notice, he can play on or off the ball, he can get to the free-throw line, he can collapse a defense, and he can shoot from beyond the arc. Cleveland desperately needs all of those things given that so much of its depth chart is filled by guards who are role players, wings who are primarily catch-and-shoot threats, and bigs who are reliant upon consistent help to set up their offense.
What’s remarkable about snaring Thomas is just how difficult it is to add an elite prime point guard. In addition to Irving, seven point guards made the 2017 All-Star Game: Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, Kyle Lowry, Kemba Walker and Thomas. Let’s throw in Chris Paul, who was injured, and Damian Lillard, a perennial snub, to fill out this discussion. How many of those players were reasonable targets for Altman? Not many at all. Curry was untouchable and he received a massive new max deal this summer. Harden and Wall received massive extensions this summer, and Westbrook is eligible for one too, in addition to being an untouchable icon in Oklahoma City. Lowry pulled down a new nine-figure deal this summer. Lillard is firmly entrenched on a max deal in Portland. Paul had already orchestrated a trade to Houston.
That left only Thomas and Walker on Altman’s potential point guard shopping list, along with other non-All-Stars like Eric Bledsoe or Mike Conley. Thomas had the best 2016-17 season of that group, he has the most Irving-like game in that group, and his sweetheart $6.3 million salary makes him the most affordable of that group. While he’s only available as a target because of his need for a lucrative new contract next summer and his dreadful defensive impact, Thomas is a logical, tidy and cost-effective successor to Irving.
Crowder was an obvious target too. Had Irving remained in the fold, Cleveland’s biggest need was a perimeter defender who could alleviate some of the pressure from James to defend Kevin Durant in the Finals. The Crossover argued back in June that the Cavaliers should trade Kevin Love for George for precisely that reason, but those trade talks ultimately fell through. While Crowder is no George or Butler, he represents a major upgrade for Cleveland’s wing corps. He’s in his prime at 27, he’s physical, competitive, and chippy while also being a competent outside shooter.
In the 2018 playoffs, Crowder will be a useful matchup piece against the likes of Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, Boston’s Gordon Hayward, and Golden State’s Durant and Klay Thompson. One could even argue that having James, Love, Thomas and Crowder in a match-up with the Warriors is preferable to having James, George and Irving but no Love.
Back in July, The Crossover proposed that Cleveland move Irving for Thomas, Crowder and a lottery-protected pick. Remarkably, Altman beat that forecast by snagging Zizic, a 20-year-old center who was selected in the first round of the 2016 draft, and ensuring that the incoming pick has no protections. Unless Altman opts to flip that pick in a midseason deal, those add-ons might not matter all that much this season. However, they should prove crucial to the Cavaliers’ rebuilding efforts if James leaves in 2018. The Cavaliers drafted Irving with the No. 1 pick in 2011 with help from an unprotected first-rounder they received from the Clippers. That kind of lottery drawing lightning may or may not strike twice for Cleveland, but regardless Brooklyn’s is more likely than not to land in the top 10. That’s a heck of a sweetener to find in a deal for a player whose desire to leave is well-known.
In the end, that’s what makes this deal so impressive: James is happy because Cleveland hasn’t ceded any ground in the East and because his individual load should be the same or slightly less than last season, Gilbert is happy because this trade helps him save more than $29 million this season in luxury payments and it helps him save face after a brutal summer, and Altman himself can be happy knowing that he has an array of good options heading into next summer.
Best case: The Cavaliers cruise to the Finals with Thomas so James decides to re-sign and Thomas cashes in. Worse case: James leaves so Altman pays Thomas to form a superstar duo with Love and explores trades for a third star with his lottery pick. Worst case: James leaves, Altman opts not to pay Thomas and then dangles Love in trade talks for more picks to piece together a full-scale rebuild. Sure, it would have been preferable to have Irving rather than Thomas if James leaves because he’s better, younger, and more marketable, but that scenario was taken off the table once Irving forced Cleveland’s hand. Now Cleveland has given itself clear paths forward regardless of how 2017-18 and James’ latest decision play out.
When Altman took the stage for his first press conference as GM last month, he had the awkward task of introducing himself to a global audience while doing damage control over Griffin’s departure, tap-dancing around the specifics of Irving’s trade request and setting the terms for his public relationship with James. He succeeded that afternoon in striking the right notes, stressing his “commitment” to James and their “shared vision.” He proved Tuesday that he had meant what he said, and his first major move demonstrated his clear eyes and ingenuity.