The two best teams in the Eastern Conference swapped All-Star point guards Tuesday night in a move that sent shockwaves throughout the NBA.
The Boston Celtics added the biggest piece in four-time All-Star and 2016 NBA Finals hero Kyrie Irving. But the Cleveland Cavaliers come away with the best package: two-time All-Star Isaiah Thomas, premier wing defender Jae Crowder, rookie center Ante Zizic and the Brooklyn Nets' 2018 unprotected first-round pick, as Shams Charania of The Vertical first reported.
Irving, who reportedly requested a trade from Cleveland last month, according to ESPN's Brian Windhorst, will now get to be the face of a franchise that serves as the Cavaliers' primary roadblock to a fourth straight Finals trip.
The Cavs get a replacement for Irving with Thomas, as well as a package of players and a future pick that makes them deeper and potentially sets them up for another big deal down the road.
Is adding Irving enough to consider the Celtics the favorites in the East, or do LeBron James' Cavaliers still come out on top?
What's In It for the Cavs?
With Derrick Rose, Jose Calderon and Kay Felder as the only other point guards on the roster, it was important for Cleveland to get a starting floor general back in any Irving trade. While Thomas has his defensive weaknesses, he's one of the best offensive guards in the game today.
Thomas is 28 and in the prime of his career. He averaged 28.9 points per game last season, good for third in the NBA, while shooting 46.3 percent from the field and 37.9 percent from three-point range. Per 100 possessions, only 2016-17 MVP Russell Westbrook scored at a greater rate than Thomas last season (42.6 points to 41.1, per NBA.com).
Thomas can play on or off the ball. He shot nearly 40 percent on catch-and-shoot three-pointers last season, a figure that should rise when receiving passes from James.
Thomas is just 5'9" and 185 pounds, and he's recovering from a hip injury that sidelined him throughout the last three games of the Eastern Conference Finals this past season. According to ESPN's Jeff Goodman, that hip issue played into Boston's decision to trade him. With Irving gone, though, the Cavs need Thomas to be a big-time offensive threat to remain atop the East.
Crowder is a huge addition to Cleveland's roster, too. His above-average wing defense should help combat the Golden State Warriors' firepower, though Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala are far from a one-man fix. Boston was 11.5 points per 100 possessions better with Crowder on the floor last season, as he made both the offense and defense noticeably better. He gives the Cavs a toughness they lacked and can play multiple positions as needed.
Adding Zizic is a bonus. The 20-year-old gives Cleveland insurance in the paint or a potential trade piece to flip later. He could even emerge as a building block in the post-James era if James skips town after this season. In 20 games playing for former Cavaliers head coach David Blatt with Darussafaka Dogus of the EuroLeague, Zizic averaged 14.8 points, 11.0 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per 36 minutes of play, according to RealGM.
The true kicker in this deal is the inclusion of the Nets' unproteced 2018 first-round pick. Boston also owned Brooklyn's pick in this past June's draft, a selection that wound up first overall. The Nets look like one of the NBA's worst teams yet again, so they could wind up sending the Cavs a top-five pick.
Money was also a factor here, as this deal dramatically cuts Cleveland's sky-high luxury-tax bill, as ESPN.com's Bobby Marks noted on Twitter.
Bobby Marks @BobbyMarks42
IT/Crowder/Zizic combination would save the Cavaliers $19M in taxes. Tax bill goes from $78.4M to $59.2M.2017-8-22 22:47:03
What's In It for the Celtics?
Even after signing Gordon Hayward in free agency and drafting Duke forward Jayson Tatum No. 3 overall, Boston was still a step behind the Cavaliers in the East.
Irving has the potential to change that. Thomas did not.
Still only 25, Irving has the best handles in the league and could explode offensively with an increase in touches. The Celtics gave Thomas a green light at all times, which Irving didn't have while playing alongside James and Love.
Even though they're both poor defenders and have similar games, Irving is better, younger and possibly healthier than Thomas. He's a better three-point shooter who's hit shots on the biggest of stages, where the Celtics could soon find themselves. Irving also puts the Celtics' future in a better position, along with Hayward (27), Tatum (19) and Jaylen Brown (20).
Irving is also under a team-friendly $39 million deal over the next two years. It's no secret Thomas is expecting to get paid handsomely next summer when he hits unrestricted free agency. About to turn 29 and coming off a major hip injury, giving someone of Thomas' size $30 million or more per year is a major gamble. With Irving under contract until 2019, Boston is now free from worrying about that.
This trade is all about improving Boston's ceiling now while laying the groundwork for the next five to 10 years of East supremacy, especially if James leaves Cleveland in free agency next summer.
Who Has the Edge?
While Boston got the best player in the deal, Cleveland's filling of multiple needs keeps it cemented atop the conference.
The Cavs will miss Irving's ability to carry an offense and his unknowable upside, but Thomas' scoring, Crowder's defense and the Brooklyn pick more than compensate.
"[I was] very impressed with Cleveland's haul they got from Boston," said an anonymous NBA scout. "I think Kyrie is better than Thomas, but I don't think it's by a wide margin. With what looked to be not much leverage to get fair value for Kyrie, I think Cleveland wins this deal easily."
Having already lost Avery Bradley to a trade, moving on from Crowder has to hurt the Celtics' wing defense, as it gives them few options left to guard James. Cleveland can also dangle the Nets pick at the deadline to land an additional player if needed.
This trade brilliantly set up Boston's future, but the East still belongs to the Cavaliers in 2017-18.