Whether the five days of limbo the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics went through since Friday when the Cavs put their agreed-upon deal on life support because of Isaiah Thomas‘ health was worth it or not is secondary at this point.
Sure, all that dance got Cleveland was Miami’s 2020 second-round pick added to the deal and it might have compromised the working relationship between new general manager Koby Altman and Boston’s Danny Ainge in the process.
But forget about that for a moment. That’s another story for another day.
What the Cavs accomplished late Wednesday night was officially turning the page from the Kyrie Irving era in Cleveland and gave the franchise options in both the short and long term.
“We’re just really excited about the possibilities of this deal for us,” a Cavs decision-maker told ESPN after the Miami pick was included to finally put the trade to bed.
As tantalizing a talent Irving is — and his 29.4 points, 4.4 assists and 4.0 rebounds on 47 FG/42 3PT/90 FT percentages in the 2017 Finals is tangible evidence of just how much Cleveland was giving up — he was done with the Cavs.
Could the relationship have been saved had Altman never secured a deal that included an asset like Brooklyn’s unprotected 2018 first-round pick? Maybe. However, in the wake of David Griffin’s dismissal as GM, the Cavs didn’t really have the right guy on the payroll to mend the bridge between Irving and the rest of the team.
And as the summer wore on and rumblings became louder and louder that Irving would rather sit out training camp than put on a Cavs uniform again, a trade became a necessity for the three-time reigning Eastern Conference champions.
Cleveland must now focus on what it has — how best to utilize it — and what it needs — how best to acquire it — in order to get back to the Finals for a fourth straight year and be able to beat the Golden State Warriors should it match up with The Beast from The Bay once again.
While Thomas told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski this week, “I’ll be back, and I’ll be the same player,” he offered no timetable as to when that would be.
That means Cleveland had better hope Derrick Rose truly will have onlookers saying that “he can still play,” as he vowed to the Associated Press this week, when he is the Cavs’ presumptive starting point guard to begin the season, or else their team will have a major hole to fill.
Considering LeBron James’ ability on the ball as a distributer, Cleveland might not be losing too much sleep on the point guard situation, actually.
Where the Cavs should be entering the season with a degree of concern is on the defensive end. Cleveland ranked just 22nd in defensive efficiency last year, allowing 108.0 points per 100 possessions. Enter Jae Crowder, a sturdy perimeter defender who will be able to play backup minutes for both James and Kevin Love and take James’ spot on the 8-10 nights when James will likely be pulled from the lineup for a DNP-Rest.
Cleveland can’t have enough defenders if it has to face the four-headed monster of Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green in a seven-game series again, and being able to put James, Crowder, J.R. Smith and some combination of Tristan Thompson, Cedi Osman and/or Iman Shumpert on the court at the same time to be able to switch screens and lock up on the perimeter at least theoretically makes for a fair matchup. (And, small sample size of course, but the Warriors had a net rating of 100.0 when Crowder was on the floor last season against them as opposed to 115.6 for the season, according to BasketballReference.com).
Having a defensive identity from the start of the season and being able to fall back on those habits when the going gets tough in a playoff series is as important as anything the Cavs could have done personnel-wise this offseason to get back to a championship level, after all.
The addition of Crowder could also make Love expendable, allowing Cleveland to dangle either the All-Star stretch forward, the Brooklyn pick — or both — on the market in February to make a push to revamp the roster before the postseason.
And of course, the Brooklyn pick gives Cleveland a potential lottery selection — or even in the top five range should the Nets really struggle — next season to restart the franchise should James opt out of his contract in the summer of 2018 and bolt as a free agent. Plus, Ante Zizic and the Miami pick could bear fruit in the future (before you scoff at the value of a second rounder, remember that both Thomas and Crowder were second-round selections). But again, that’s a story for a another day.
Seeing Irving go out the door is jarring, but ever since he requested a trade on July 7, this was the inevitable outcome. Cavs fans will always have the memories of Irving’s pull-up 3 in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals, capturing the city its first professional sports championship in 52 years.
Now, the only thing the Cavs should be lasered in on is how to get that second championship — this season — before things could fall apart next summer. They need only look across the table to their trade partner in Ainge and the Celtics, who thought they had a core back in 2008 that would net multiple rings, that one trophy doesn’t guarantee another.
The question to be answered is, with Irving being so instrumental in the first one for Cleveland, does this move actually help or hurt their pursuit of the second?