The Kyrie Blockbuster: Five Burning Questions
- Will the Kyrie Irving trade convince LeBron to stay? Will it open the door for anyone in the East? And how will it impact the Warriors? We unpack the NBA's latest blockbuster deal.
Even Kyrie Irving would agree that the NBA offseason hasn't been flat this summer (sorry). With superstars changing teams and multiple blockbuster trades going down, it's felt like non-stop action since the Warriors were crowned champions in June.
Tuesday's trade gave us the biggest shellshock of all: After weeks of rumors and reports, the Cavaliers shipped Kyrie Irving to the Celtics for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and Brooklyn's 2018 first-round pick. It was a trade that will undoubtedly take the Cavs-Celtics rivalry to new heights and likely send ripple effects around the NBA as a whole.
The Crossover has busted out the full-court press for Kyrie trade coverage. We've written about trade grades, the Cavaliers' savvy mode, the Celtics' all-in gamble, LeBron's new rivalry and a host of other storylines. But there's still much to unpack from this week's event, so we decided to enlist five NBA writers to answer one question each about the Kyrie Irving megadeal.
Will this trade ultimately convince LeBron to stay?
Rohan Nadkarni: No. If LeBron leaves Cleveland next summer, it will have been in the works for a good amount of time. Though the Cavs hauled in a great package for Kyrie, the trade doesn’t make them radically better in the short term. The Jae Crowder addition is certainly nice, but I’m not sure it’s enough to convince LeBron to stay when he can form practically any kind of team he wants next summer.
What could convince LeBron to stay? If Cleveland trades the unprotected Nets pick for another star, then the Cavs’ case for keeping James becomes much more compelling. Basically, the Kyrie trade is a great first step in showing LeBron why he should remain in Cleveland. But this one move alone won’t be enough to stop him from leaving. A few more shrewd transactions and a competitive Finals showing would go a much longer way in stopping LeBron's departure than the Irving trade.
Who wins if the Cavs and Celtics play today?
Jeremy Woo: Let’s make a big executive decision and magically heal Isaiah Thomas’s hip issue, and then let’s say Cleveland. It’s not a simple question, even for a game played on paper in this case, but you can argue that the deal strengthens the Cavs in the short-term while creating new wrinkles that will take longer for the Celtics to iron out. Thomas is a stylistically a different player than Irving, but brings the same ability to fill up the scoring column, function on and off the ball, and take pressure of LeBron. Throw in Jae Crowder, the extra forward the Cavs have longed for, and Ante Zizic, a large, live human under the age of 30, and Cleveland’s rotation is instantly improved. LeBron’s teams in recent years have generally played a certain way, one that enables him to dictate a ton of the offense and freelance when he needs to. Thomas and Crowder should be even better playing off of him. If the Cavs get anything out of Derrick Rose and/or Jeff Green to support Thomas, LeBron and Kevin Love, this isn’t a bad rotation at all.
As for Boston, their long-term picture is rosy, but incorporating Irving won’t be quite as easy as telling Isaiah Thomas to come play off of James. When Kyrie flies solo, it’s not always efficient. He and Gordon Hayward will have to figure out what works best between them, not to mention the trigger-happy Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, who are becoming good players but aren’t ready for primetime quite yet. Marcus Smart is a great backcourt-mate for Irving in theory and Al Horford will be an excellent supporting player as he ages, but the Celtics still haven’t addressed their rebounding woes. Marcus Morris will help their spacing, but can’t anchor a frontline. Boston would be smart to play small, fast and fluid with this group, lest they rely on Aron Baynes and German import Daniel Theis for important minutes.
Even then, if both teams are best served playing small, history goes to show that the team that has LeBron tends to win in those situations (the Warriors are an anomaly). The Cavs have succeeded in multiplying their lineup permutations this summer, adding fresher legs and shaking things up. The Celtics need to show us how they fit together (not that they won’t), but if we’re talking right now, I give Cleveland an edge. Luckily, we’ll find out if I'm right on opening night.
Does the trade open the door for anyone in the East?
Ben Golliver: This blockbuster deal, as unprecedented and exhilarating as it was, should really be a reminder that the door was already open for the East’s second-tier teams. Despite reaching the conference finals and receiving some memorable postseason performances from Isaiah Thomas, Boston struggled in the first round against Chicago, who was terrible, and only barely squeaked by a thin Washington team in the second round thanks to an out-of-nowhere showing from Kelly Olynyk in Game 7. Once they hit the East finals, of course, they were badly embarrassed by the Cavaliers. During the regular season, the Celtics actually had a worse point differential than the Raptors and Cavaliers and barely topped the Wizards, a fact that should put their No. 1 seed status in a soft conference into better perspective.
Boston’s overachieving last season and its numerous key summer departures—including Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson and—make Brad Stevens’s squad a prime candidate for stagnation or regression this season even though Danny Ainge added two stars in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. The Celtics’ top-end talent has clearly improved, but their depth and cohesion have taken meaningful hits this summer, and youngsters like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum will be stripped of their training wheels and asked to play major roles. The 2018 Celtics are more susceptible to a single injury killing their momentum, and they will be much more reliant on unproven bench players. Washington and Toronto both had forgettable offseasons, but neither team should enter 2017-18 fearing Boston at this point.
Meanwhile, the Cavaliers will enter next season as the East’s favorites, the same position they’ve been in since LeBron James’s 2014 return. Thomas’s hip injury is a real concern, especially because Kevin Love and J.R. Smith both missed significant time last season due to injury. That said, Boston, Toronto and Washington all lack good defensive options for James, meaning that Cleveland is probably still in position to repeat its 2015 postseason run if injuries strike again. Would you really bet against James, who just averaged a triple-double in the Finals against perhaps the most dominant team in postseason history, smashing through the conference again if two or three of his sidekicks go down in the playoffs?
Ultimately, this trade seems to set up Boston for greater command over the conference in the future rather than specifically during the 2017-18 season. The Raptors, Wizards, Bucks and others should be nervous that the Celtics will be able to use Irving and Hayward as lures for an additional superstar like Anthony Davis down the road. Fast-forward to 2019, and Boston could be in position to have a core group of three All-Star starters, all in their respective primes, supported by Brown and Tatum, who will still be on rookie deals. That sounds like an awfully high bar for the rest of the conference to clear. In the immediate future, though, don’t expect a two-team runaway at the top of the conference just yet.
Will the Cavs sign Isaiah Thomas to a max deal?
DeAntae Prince: Well, like most things, it all depends on LeBron James. Keen on maintaining leverage over the Cavs' front office at all times, James signs short-term deals and hits the market every few years. This summer, James and Thomas will both become free agents at the same time. So what needs to happen for Thomas to return to Cleveland? LeBron must stay. And if he does, Koby Altman and Co. will be more inclined to back up that Brink's truck for Thomas, stay the course and continue their rivalry with the Warriors.
Now, there are a few other things that can affect Thomas's value to the Cavs. Since he was traded, Thomas was called a bad teammate in one report and had his hip injury magnified in another. Kyrie Irving demanded a trade and gave up money on the way to Boston, so Cleveland obviously had chemistry issues. Adding another strong personality to a locker room with LeBron James and J.R. Smith might not go over well. Then there's Thomas's hip injury, which ended his postseason early. We have no way to know how either element will play out, but if LeBron doesn't bolt to the Lakers and the Cavs don't rebuild, only injury or chemistry should keep Thomas off a team that gave up Irving, one of the league's best young stars, and came out better on the other end.
Does any of this matter in regards to the Warriors?
Matt Dollinger: Every NBA move over the last three years has been made with the Warriors in mind. It doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to catch them or giving up because of them—the other 29 NBA teams are always worried about the Warriors.
For the Cavaliers, this has been an ongoing chess match, tinkering and toying with the roster to fortify it against the latest adaptation of the Warriors. Last year’s squad with Kevin Durant proved insurmountable, which is why it was back to the drawing board for Cleveland this offseason despite a third consecutive Finals trip.
Moving Kyrie Irving was drastic, albeit necessary due to his demand, but the move could prove fruitful. Isaiah Thomas is 90 cents on the dollar to Irving: an All-Star point guard with incredible offensive skills, playmaking ability, and a deficiency on defense. Whatever production is lost at the one will more than be made up for by the rest of Cleveland’s haul. This isn’t hyperbole: Jae Crowder is the best defender the Cavs could have added outside of Kawhi Leonard. He’s versatile enough to guard almost all of the Warriors’ best players and he’ll enable LeBron to go back into free-safety mode against Golden State, wreaking havoc while roaming instead of being glued to Durant. The deal also gives Cleveland a fail-safe switch—if the Warriors cruise and the Cavs stumble, Brooklyn’s 2018 pick offers the Cavs a chance to take cover and rebuild until the Warriors dynasty blows over.
As for Boston, my read is not a popular one in the New England area. To me, this trade for the Celtics acknowledges the Warriors are an unstoppable force as currently constructed. Rather than make a run at the 2017-18 title, the Celtics are gearing up to try and contend for rings 2-3 years from now. With Kyrie and Gordon Hayward just entering their primes, and youngsters Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum just coming on, the Celtics have arguably the best young nucleus in the league—but not one that’s quite ready for playoff battles with the Warriors and Cavs.