If Cleveland is able to keep a core that includes James, Thomas and Kevin Love, and still has this pick, and Brooklyn is a bad enough team to net a top-two selection, this trade is an absolute steal.
There’s also the intrigue of adding a big like Mo Bamba or DeAndre Ayton. The former has unbelievable physical skills and could be one of the most defensively-dominant players in the league upon his arrival. Ayton is more polished — a legit 7-footer who can stretch his game behind the arc — but has to show a better motor and the willingness to stay engaged on every possession.
There are other options, too. The mysterious Luka Doncic of Slovenia has an NBA-ready body and a skillset that can rival any of the best foreign prospects of recent memory, but his physical limitations could scare teams away. If Thomas isn’t around, a player such as incoming Alabama ball-handler Colin Sexton could be an appealing option, too. There are names galore that dot the lottery who could provide either hope for the future or value for a contender, depending on where Cleveland sees itself. If the Cavaliers are still set to contend, they’ll look for a more pro-ready player. If not, they could take a project.
So there’s the eye on the future. If James and Thomas are gone in 10 months, Cleveland could be looking to build a brand new core. Listen, rebuilding is never fun, as Cleveland fans know full well. But at some point, it’s necessary. Cleveland might have gotten a head start on Tuesday night.
The eye on the now is obvious. Irving had made it perfectly clear that he didn’t want to stick around, and things certainly couldn’t continue the way they were if Cleveland wanted any chance of keeping James around beyond next season. Irving finished 14th in the NBA in offensive rating last season; Thomas was 17th. Both are below-average defenders, and their net ratings (5.1 for Irving and 5.0 for Thomas) were basically identical. Yes, there are some obvious things Cleveland is giving up. Irving is three years younger, and under contract for two more seasons. He proved a natural fit when he went off-ball and James acted as a point guard, and that’s not something to which one can seamlessly adjust.
But Thomas, on the other hand, posted higher True Shooting and Effective Field Goal percentage numbers, had a higher assist rate, and produced more win shares last year en route to a fifth-place finish in MVP voting. And don’t forget about Jae Crowder, either. The versatile forward can slot into any sort of lineup Cleveland wants to run, has a very cap-friendly contract, and is much better than the alternatives the Cavs ran out on the wing last year — players like Richard Jefferson, Channing Frye, James Jones and Derrick Williams. There’s a very real and legitimate argument to be made that this trade actually makes Cleveland better in the short term, too, depending on how Thomas fits. Even if the move doesn’t help the Cavs improve, it doesn’t make them significantly worse, either.
There’s a final kicker to this, too. The 2018 pick is looked as a part of the future. But it doesn’t have to be a part of Cleveland’s future. The Cavaliers could certainly dangle that pick, and perhaps an expiring contract or two, in a midseason deal. If the Nets are really struggling, so much the better for Cleveland when potentially trying to swing a deal this winter. If Thomas has acquitted himself well alongside James, Love continues to play at a high level and Cleveland is looking to zero in on a fourth-straight Eastern Conference crown, the front office has a new piece that allows it to be aggressive at the deadline. It’s the same organization (though not with the same GM) that’s swung significant deals with much less during its second James era. It’s easy to forget how much influence James can have when trying to recruit players.
There’s an obvious best-case scenario in which Cleveland is good enough with its current roster — plus or minus some pieces — to beat the Golden State Warriors. That seems unreasonable, though, so the best reasonable (and now feasible) scenario would be acquiring a star at the deadline and being in a position to top the Dubs, while also managing to keep James in town next summer. The worst-case scenario: Cleveland sends the Brooklyn pick away in a trade and still doesn’t have enough to beat Curry, Durant and Co.
But at least this trade gives the Cavaliers that flexibility. Before this trade, they seemed headed for second-best, at best, yet again.
Golden State remains far and away the best team in the league, and this trade does not appear to change that significantly. Yes, Thomas is an outstanding scorer and Crowder a terrific three-and-D piece. Both of them will contribute immediately; whether rookie center Ante Zizic will, too, remains to be seen. But while half of this deal (known NBA quantities Thomas and Crowder) is for the now, the other half (Zizic and the pick) is for the future. Perhaps Cleveland can’t compete with Golden State next year. But with this move, the Cavs have the arsenal — if they want — to improve their chances to compete with the Dubs. And if they don’t, well, at least the Cavaliers can take solace in the fact the foundation for a rebuilding project has already been laid.
Related coverage from Yahoo Sports:
This news has been published by title The Cavaliers’ Horrible Kyrie Irving Trade Never Looked Worse Than On Tuesday Night
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