The Boston Celtics were always a possible solution to the Cleveland Cavaliers' Kyrie Irving conundrum.
The question was whether the Eastern Conference's top two squads could sit at the same table and lend each other a hand.
The answer, as it turns out, was why not?
On Tuesday night, the two teams came to terms on a blockbuster deal, as the Cavaliers acquiesced to Irving's trade request and sent him to Boston in exchange for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the Brooklyn Nets' 2018 unprotected first-round pick.
This was the first major move from Koby Altman, the recently anointed 34-year-old Cavaliers general manager. It was a deal that could have ripple effects across the league.
So, who won the deal?
"Cleveland made out like bandits," said a Western Conference scout. "To get an All-Star, a starter and a good pick, come on."
This seemed to be the consensus among the NBA coaches and scouts who spoke with Bleacher Report following the deal Tuesday night. For one, it allows the Cavs to take another shot at the Golden State Warriors while also protecting their future. They're essentially swapping a score-first, no-defense stud point guard for another. Thomas also doesn't take issue with playing alongside LeBron James, which of course helped fuel Irving's trade request, according to ESPN's Brian Windhorst.
In addition, they're getting a championship-level starting wing and a likely lottery pick to act as insurance in case James—and Thomas, to a lesser extent—elect to bolt in unrestricted free agency next summer.
"They improved their depth and are in a position to win the East still, while also setting themselves up for the future," said an Eastern Conference scout. "I give lots of credit to Koby Altman. That's hard to do."
By injecting Crowder into the mix, Altman has delivered James an ideal sidekick. Crowder is the prototypical three-and-D guy, exactly the type of player the Cavaliers were missing last year. He can defend multiple positions on defense—a must for taking on the Warriors—and drilled 39.8 percent of his treys last season.
"Crowder really helps LeBron out," said an Eastern Conference assistant coach. "He can play 4 offensively, like [Shane] Battier did for him [with the Miami Heat], but guard the 3."
Most important, Crowder is content living outside the spotlight.
"It's a good situation for everyone. Jae's content, he has a chance to play with the best player in the world and compete for a championship," Crowder's father, Corey, told B/R in a phone interview Tuesday night. "Is he hurt that he's leaving Boston? You're in the NBA, trades happen, this is your job. But [Cleveland] is a good situation."
Thomas, meanwhile, can help carry the load on offense the way Irving did. Not being the primary ball-handler on every possession will require some adjustment, but his time in the motion offense of Celtics head coach Brad Stevens should ease that transition. Thomas connected on 39.9 percent of his catch-and-shoot triples last season, per NBA.com's tracking data, so the skill set is there. He also scored 28.9 points per game last season, which helped him earn the fifth-most Most Valuable Player votes.
"He's a good shooter. He's really improved from three," said another Eastern Conference coach. "He will definitely need a lot of pick-and-roll. He's not the isolation player [Irving] is, but I think it will be good offensively."
The issues will come on other end of the floor. Thomas' diminutive stature—he's listed generously as 5'9"—make him an easy and frequent target for opponents, especially come playoff time.
"Can Thomas even be on the floor for that series [against Golden State]?" asked the Eastern Conference assistant coach.
Still, for the Cavaliers, the deal was a no-brainer. Imagine if Crowder is just what they lacked defensively last season. Imagine if Thomas and LeBron jell in a hurry. Imagine if Cleveland's added depth gives James a prayer in the Finals—or, more realistically, imagine an injury break going its way.
Imagine if the Cavs win the 2018 NBA title, which causes both LeBron and Thomas to re-sign. Perhaps Altman uses that Nets pick to draft a future cornerstone.
It takes a shorter leap of faith to imagine the Cavs' worst-case scenario. The moves turn out being all for naught, as the Warriors remain invincible. LeBron leaves as a free agent, and Thomas decides to sign elsewhere too.
Sounds awful, right? Well, that scenario would have been Cleveland's fate regardless. The Cavaliers now have that Nets pick to build around.
Pinpointing Boston's motivations, however, is more difficult. The most obvious and interesting takeaway?
"The value that Ainge put on Irving," said the Eastern Conference scout. "That's what stands out here."
Earlier this summer, the Celtics decided neither Jimmy Butler nor Paul George merited their parting with some of their valuable assets. Perhaps this package wouldn't have landed Butler or George, but it seems like it would have, especially considering the paltry return the Indiana Pacers received.
If you look at Boston's offseason as a whole, the series of transactions becomes even more puzzling. The Celtics swapped Thomas, Crowder, Zizic, Avery Bradley, Markelle Fultz and a likely 2018 top-10 pick for Irving, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Morris. While they signed Hayward, Amir Johnson, Kelly Olynyk and Jonas Jerebko all left in free agency.
Are they better today than yesterday? Perhaps. But to what end?
"A Big Three of Al Horford, Kyrie and Hayward is very good," said the Eastern Conference assistant coach, "but is that a contender?"
"It's like they collected all this stuff at yard sales, and then decided to have a yard sale to afford some different stuff," added the Western Conference scout.
The offense should hum with Irving and Hayward now running things. However, losing Crowder and Bradley is going to significantly weaken the defense, which will put more pressure on youngsters like Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
That said, painting the deal as a whiff for the Celtics would be a mistake. For one, the team no longer has to worry about Thomas' upcoming free agency. The 28-year-old will likely be past his prime when Tatum and Brown come into theirs, and he plays a style that generally doesn't age well.
The 25-year-old Irving, on the other hand, fits Boston's timeline perfectly. No team in the NBA is better positioned to pounce on the Warriors' eventual demise.
It's not like the Celtics emptied the cupboard either. They still have another high lottery pick on the way (either from the Lakers in 2018 or the Kings in 2019) to go along with Irving, Hayward, Tatum, Brown and Horford. If we're going to give the Cavaliers credit for threading the needle of contending in the present and building for the future, then we should praise the Celtics for doing so too.
"And in Irving, they got the best player in this deal," said the Eastern Conference scout. "The team that gets that usually wins the trade."
Will this deal follow that rule or wind up being the exception? Without the benefit of hindsight, all we can do in the meantime is enjoy the nonstop ride that is the NBA.