The Cavaliers aren’t necessarily better, at least right now, after trading Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and a first-round draft pick in 2018.
The important part for Cleveland fans to remember, though, is twofold: One, the Cavs aren’t a whole lot worse at this moment; and, two, they have some assets that could help them be better this season or in 2018-19.
So, all in all, first-year general manager Koby Altman did as well as could be expected — and maybe even better — in granting the disgruntled Irving’s still incomprehensible trade request.
The 5-foot-9 Thomas is three years older, 6 inches shorter and not as talented as Irving, but he’s still pretty darn good.
With LeBron James still undisputedly “The Man” in Cleveland, Thomas will have to adjust from being the No. 1 option on offense to No. 2 (and sometimes No. 3 behind Kevin Love). That, as Irving discovered, isn’t always easy for guys who are accustomed to having the ball in their hands the majority of the time.
Thomas’ recovery from a hip injury also is at least a slight cause for concern, but he’s tough, so if the Cavs had to trade a four-time All-Star — and they had to, given the circumstances — getting a two-time All-Star in return isn’t too shabby.
The fact Cleveland also got Crowder, Zizic and, above all else, an unprotected pick that could be very high in the draft makes the deal even better.
Crowder is athletic, strong and has a bit of a mean streak, three qualities Tyronn Lue’s club did not have an abundance of last season. He will be an ideal backup to four-time league MVP James, and at times the two will also be on the floor together.
The 7-foot Zizic is only 20 years old and hails from Croatia, so it’s probably unfair to expect much — if anything — from him this season. Still, talented 7-footers don’t grow on trees, so there’s always the chance he could develop into a decent player.
The draft pick Altman shrewdly acquired is even more intriguing. It originally belonged to Brooklyn, but the Nets unwisely traded it in 2013 as part of the infamous deal that helped them acquire aging Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce from the Celtics.
Brooklyn had the worst record in the league last season and would have had the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. Instead, that pick belonged to Boston, which in turn traded it to Philadelphia and moved down to No. 3.
More importantly for the Cavs, the Nets don’t figure to be a whole lot better this season, meaning it’s extremely possible Cleveland could be picking very high in the June draft.
That’s important in another way as well. Say, for instance, the Cavs reach the NBA Finals for the fourth straight year — they’re still the Las Vegas favorite to do just that — and lose to Golden State for the third time in four tries.
James and Thomas, who will make $6.26 million in the final year of his contract and will likely want a maximum deal next summer, could bolt as free agents. But it should make Cavs fans a bit more comfortable knowing Cleveland has a very good chance of adding a quality rookie through the draft just days before free agency will start.
More importantly, the addition of that player could intrigue James and Thomas, which might swing things in the Cavs’ favor when it comes to re-signing them.
Of course, there’s also a possibility that pick could be dealt long before the draft, which is another bonus included in the Irving trade.
The 34-year-old Altman is not going to deal a potential No. 1 overall pick for just anyone, so if he makes a move it will bring significantly more help to James, Thomas and Love during the 2017-18 season.
Also of note, the Cavs currently have 17 players under contract for next season, including four point guards in Thomas, Derrick Rose, Jose Calderon and Kay Felder. That means Calderon or Felder will be headed elsewhere soon, with the former the heavy favorite to go because the latter will bring absolutely nothing in return (and might have to be waived if no takers for Calderon are found).
There’s also a serious glut at shooting guard/small forward, where J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Richard Jefferson, Cedi Osman, Crowder and James reside. At least one and probably two — it would be great if someone took Shumpert off Cleveland’s hands — will have to go, preferably in a two-for-one deal that brings a power forward/center in return.
There are other concerns as well.
Irving and fellow All-Star Gordon Hayward will help make the Celtics a more serious challenger to the Cavs in the Eastern Conference, though James and Co. remain the favorite to advance.
Should Cleveland fall short of reaching the NBA Finals, or even should it lose once there, there’s also the possibility James and/or Thomas could depart via free agency.
Only time will tell when it comes to all that. For now, the Cavs are still in position to contend this season, and they’ve put themselves in position to do so while also keeping an eye on the future. That means the Irving trade gets two thumbs up.
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