After years of making win-now moves, the Cleveland Cavaliers began straddling the line between immediate contention and considering the future — a must, given Irving’s messy trade request last month and the threat of LeBron James’s pending free agency. In beginning to walk that tightrope, the Cavs effectively switched places with the Boston Celtics, who, until now, had been stingy with future assets, wanting to win the East while also playing the long game.
At its core, this all-star point-guard swap was one of survival for the Cavs, even if it did net them a sizable haul. Irving made it known he wanted out, limiting any sort of leverage for the team. And Cleveland had to thread the needle here by not only getting a good, if not great, player to replace a chunk of Irving’s impact, but also landing something for the future in case James bolts next summer.
Thomas, who averaged almost 29 points per game last season, and Brooklyn’s 2018 first-round pick clearly checked off those two boxes. But for all the similarities Irving and Thomas share — they’re both undersized, top-flight scorers who struggle on defense — the way they go about generating offense is a bit different. Thomas should be able to shoulder just as much ball-handling responsibility as Irving did. But he played in a free-flowing offense with the Celtics, who boasted the league’s second-best assist percentage. Boston utilized handoffs more than any NBA team — about seven a game, according to Synergy Sports Technology — seeking to take advantage of Thomas’s quickness off the dribble.
By contrast, James and the Cavs — 20th in assist percentage — used the second-fewest handoffs in the NBA, with fewer than three per night. Only 22 percent of Irving’s 2-pointers were assisted last year, which suggests that he’s a bit more more self-sufficient from close range than Thomas (34 percent) is.
Picking up Ante Zizic and Jae Crowder, a solid wing player who can both defend and shoot, should be viewed as icing on the cake for the Cavaliers.1 Probably not championship-level icing, though.
Yes, Crowder gives Cleveland an additional perimeter defender, something the club badly needed in last year’s finals against the Warriors. That’s paramount, since Golden State might be more difficult to guard than any team in league history, given all the weapons they boast, and the highly unusual way they use off-ball screens to spring shooters open. But for all the ability Thomas possesses as a scorer — including the disappearing acts he performs around the basket — he stands 6 inches shorter than Irving, and, thus, is even less capable than Irving of stopping anyone on defense. A troubling omen: The Warriors feasted on Thomas’s lack of defense the past three seasons, scoring 108.6 points per 100 plays against the Celtics with Thomas on the court. For context, they only managed 87.2 points per 100 plays against Boston with Thomas on the bench, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group.2
Besides being a liability on one end of the floor, Thomas, a 28-year-old who figures to want a max contract next summer, is still slowly working through the hip injury that sidelined him for the final three games of the Eastern Conference finals last postseason. If he isn’t right physically, and can’t get there next season, that figures to leave James overburdened offensively in a year when the Cavs are hoping to leave a positive lasting impression ahead of their superstar’s foray into unrestricted free agency.
Should the Cavaliers get out to a hot start amid these changes, they could opt to go all-in to take greater aim at the Warriors by dangling the Nets’ pick in hopes of landing a player like DeMarcus Cousins. That would carry an absolute ton of inherent risk, though, given James’s status.
The safer choice, of course, would be to hold onto the pick in case James decides to walk. If and when that happened, Cleveland — in hopes of bottoming out and rebuilding through the draft — might decide it makes sense to let Thomas do the same as opposed to signing him to a rich, long-term contract.
For the Celtics, who got the best player in this deal, the calculus is more clear-cut: They got a better, younger and taller version of what Thomas was, and one who’s under contract at a reasonable dollar figure for a longer time. (The Celtics — who traded stud defender Avery Bradley to shed salary for Gordon Hayward’s max deal — were already facing cap challenges. Trading for Irving eliminates the max-or-no-max decision on Thomas and gives the Celtics an extra year to take stock of where they are before Irving hits the market.)3
It’s fair to wonder whether Boston may have handed over a future No. 1 overall pick in this deal for Irving, though that seems a bit more unlikely this season, given that the Nets have a halfway respectable roster, albeit a young one.4
But beyond the players who were dealt, the teams seemingly swapped their long-term outlooks. The Celtics have reached a new stage — one where they finally felt they were within striking distance of LeBron. Only time will tell whether the gamble works out in their favor. The Cavaliers, showing Celtic-like prudence, found a way to replace their disgruntled No. 2 star — while also building an escape hatch should they lose their biggest star.