The basketball world was prepared for one last surprise as the bombshell Cavaliers-Celtics trade was turned upside-down after Isaiah Thomas’s team physical raised concerns over his injured hip. Cleveland asked Boston for more compensation in the deal after examining Thomas, and after a few days of wild speculation, the Cavs ended up with simply an extra second–round pick, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
The final haul for Cleveland, in exchange for Krie Irving, now stands as Thomas, Jae Crowder, the Nets’ 2018 first-round pick, and the Heat’s 2020 second-round pick. It’s a solid return for the Cavs, though the initial excitement over the deal has tempered since the worries over Thomas’s hip have been made public. Cleveland may draw some criticism for not holding out for more—perhaps Jaylen Brown or another first-round pick. But Thomas, whether he is healthy or not, is not the most important part of the trade for the Cavs.
Any suggestion as to how Thomas will play this season is purely guesswork. At no point in the playoffs did it seem like Thomas’s hip injury would be a long-term issue, but trades are rarely held up in the fashion that this one was. Was Cleveland posturing, or were they really ready to call off the trade and prepare for some awkward conversations at training camp? Did Boston save face by calling Cleveland’s bluff and holding on to the best of its remaining assets? Frankly, I’m not sure any of these questions really matter.
To me, the most important part of this deal for Cleveland has always been the Brooklyn pick. Nothing has drastically changed from a week ago, when the popular consensus (myself included) seemed to be that the Cavs made a great deal for a star who wanted out. Irving will be under incredible pressure to turn into a franchise-carrying star in title-expectant Boston, while Cleveland has a chance to prepare for a post-LeBron future.
If James leaves next summer, the Cavs still hold the cards for a reasonable rebuild. They’ll draft in the lottery thanks to the Nets. And guys like Kevin Love and J.R. Smith can likely be moved to contenders for more picks or young pieces. Cleveland can also retain Love, sign Thomas long-term, and try to stay competitive with a new core.
Realistically, the Cavs’ best bet has always been to keep one eye on the future. Like most stories in the NBA, this one comes back to LeBron. As long as James refuses to commit, GM Koby Altman can’t be held hostage by James’s indecision. And it’s likely that this Cleveland team has hit its ceiling. Once the team missed out on Paul George and Jimmy Butler, there weren’t really any moves left to be made that would have drastically improved Cleveland’s title chances against the Warriors.
In that sense, Irving’s trade request was a little bit of a blessing-in-disguise for Altman, because it gave him the cover needed to make a forward-thinking move. The Heat and Cavs were both burned in the summers LeBron left because their cupboards were bare. The Irving situation gave Altman an opportunity to keep one foot in each door. (Dumping Kyrie instead of being forced to pay him as a No. 1 could also pay off, though that will take a long time to sort itself out.)
If Thomas never plays a single game for Cleveland (which seems extremely unlikely), well, LeBron was probably leaving anyway. The Cavs' front office, particularly Dan Gilbert, are already working under the premise that James will bolt, according to The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor. If that’s the case, picking up Crowder on a cheap contract and a potential top-five pick are ultimately more important than what Thomas can give the team.
The Cavs haven’t punted on a title chase. If Thomas comes back relatively early in the regular season and plays as well as he did last year, the dragged-out nature of this trade will have been much ado about nothing.
But ultimately, as hard as it may be to stomach, it’s time for the Cavs to start thinking about life after LeBron, who has done nothing to cool rumors that he could be on his way out. With that being said, Thomas was never the centerpiece of this deal. He’s a great addition, but like the second-round pick Cleveland picked up Wednesday, he may not matter in the long run. What’s most important is that the Cavs, like their star player, keep their options open for next summer.