Well, that was quick. The Cavs did not let Kyrie Irving’s trade request linger and the return was fairly significant. Let’s run down the trade…
Cavs trade Kyrie Irving to Celtics for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the Nets’ first round pick in 2018
From the Cavs’ perspective, trading Kyrie meant likely choosing between trying to go for a title in 2017-18 while LeBron James is in town (and also, perhaps, to convince him to stay longer) or getting future value for Irving in the event that LeBron bolts town. This trade return seems accomplish both goals. Cleveland replaces Kyrie with Thomas, a similar player, gets some depth in Crowder, AND has the Nets pick, which should be in the top four in 2018.
The first question for the Cavs is how much production is lost by replacing Irving with Thomas. Any analysis must start with health. Thomas is coming off of a hip tear and the Celts were warning just Tuesday morning that this injury could take some time to heal. Not being doctors and not having the medical results, we can’t really assess this issue. But let’s assume that Thomas will be healthy within the next few months, how would he compare with Irving? He are the side-by-side stats from last year:
-Thomas (age 27): 33.8 MPG, 28.9 PPG, .463 FG%, .379 3FG%, 8.5 FTPG, 5.9 APG, 0.9 SPG, 2.8 TOPG, 26.5 PER, 5.4 BPM (8.7 OPBM, -3.3 DPM), 4.8 VORP, 12.5 WS
-Irving (age 24): 35.1 MPG, 25.2 PPG, .473 FG%, .401 3FG%, 4.6 FTPG, 5.8 APG, 1.2 SPG, 2.5 TOPG, 23.0 PER, 2.5 BPM (4.8 OBPM, -2.3 DBPM), 2.9 VOP 8.9 WS
The numbers show that Thomas was a good deal better last season than Irving. This could be an aberration. Thomas was helped by a spike in field goal percentage in the midrange (he shot .500% on long twos and .516% from 10-16 feet, both well over his previous bests) and an excellent ability to get to the line. Assuming Thomas’ shooting regresses to the mean a little and he plays more like he did in 2015-16, he is still a really good player. In fact, Thomas in 2015-16 had about the same value as Kyrie (both could be described as a very good offensive scorer and a decent passer but with serious defensive issues). So, a conservative projection shows that Thomas should be able to replace most of Irving’s value with a good chance to exceed it if healthy.
Then Boston threw in Crowder, a solid starter with a below market contract, and the Nets pick and now this looks like a big win for the Cavs both short and long term. As mentioned above, the Thomas hip issue does bring some risk to the trade. If Thomas is healthy, the Cavs also have an issue too. He will be a free agent after the season and due for a huge raise, while Irving is locked in for 2018-19 at a good price ($20 millionish).
Now, let’s turn to Boston. It’s hard not to give some benefit of the doubt to Danny Ainge and the Celtics. They have been trading and draft pretty well for a while now. But what was their thought process? A few things come to mind. First, Boston gets certainty. They do not have to worry about Thomas’ hip or his contract. Instead, they get a very effective player and can try to compete the next two seasons. Even if Thomas ends up being healthy this season, Boston is probably also worried about the trend line for short guards like Thomas. Isaiah is a bit of a freak player. He actually had the most points of any NBA player ever under 6’0. But there are no short guards who stayed so effective very long. In short, they don’t tend to age well. Other smallish guards who could score (Michael Adams, Calvin Murphy, Damon Stoudamire) lost that ability pretty quickly.
Even so, none of these issues explain why Boston would also throw in the Nets pick. Objectively, Thomas and Crowder for Irving is fairly even deal. Yes, one could argue that Boston might throw in a pick but a likely top four pick just sounds a little steep. One has to assume that Ainge is putting the stats aside and views Irving as a superstar level talent. This is not a crazy assessment but it contradicts the numbers.