Consider the returns that NBA teams have recently gotten for disgruntled superstars who wanted out of town. DeMarcus Cousins was traded for a bag of pine nuts. Jimmy Butler went for a nice steak dinner. Paul George was swapped for an old bowling trophy. Last night, the Cavs managed to turn Kyrie Irving into an All-Star point guard, a valuable 3-and-D guy, and one of the most prized draft picks in the NBA.
Yes, the situation the Cavs found themselves in, even with Irving publicly agitating for a trade, was more advantageous than what teams in similar spots have enjoyed. Irving is young, still has two years left on his deal, and doesn’t have a no-trade clause. Trade targets don’t get much more valuable than that, and the Cavs were entitled to ask for full value. But there’s a big difference between asking for a fair swap and actually getting one.
When is the last time a GM that was forced to trade a foundational player could look in the mirror and actually convince himself that his team would be better next season? The Nuggets may have felt this way after the the Carmelo Anthony trade (they were right to), but deals like this are few and far between.
You don’t even need to be much of a Cavs optimist to talk yourself into the idea of them actually being stronger title contenders now than they were a season ago. Isaiah Thomas is short as hell and possibly has a bad hip, but if he stays healthy the Cavs will get a point guard who is just a notch below Irving on defense and about even with him as a scoring threat.
Thomas scored 28 damn points per game and would have been a real MVP candidate in a season that wasn’t overrun by demigods. He shot 37 percent from behind the arc despite not having any playmakers capable of creating the kind of space for him that LeBron James and Kevin Love will. Irving is often talked about as the most dangerous isolation player in the league, but Thomas can do plenty of damage off the dribble, too. He scored 1.12 points per possession on 2.3 isolation plays per game last year (Irving scored 1.12 points per on 6.8 plays per), and led the league in drives per game at 12.7, shooting 51.2 percent on those plays.
Jae Crowder isn’t nothing, either. Remember all those playoff minutes that the Cavs were forced to feed to Iman Shumpert and Richard Jefferson? Now it will be Crowder, who defends like mad and shot 39 percent from three last year, on the floor in their place. His presence will also take James off defensive stopper duty, giving him even more opportunity to rest and stay fresh throughout the season.
And then there’s the unprotected Nets 2018 first-round pick, which gives the Cavs something that teams staring at the end of a competitive run rarely have: options. If James decides to leave next summer, the Cavs can also allow Thomas to walk and let some other team overpay him. Then they can start a rebuild with cap space, Kevin Love, and what will likely be a top-five pick, which is a better situation than a lot of teams that have been rebuilding for years will find themselves in. Or! Or! Maybe LeBron will commit to stay for the rest of his career. Suddenly, the Cavs have a prized draft pick that can be flipped to bring in even more reinforcements at the trade deadline or before the next draft.
A week ago, the Cavs were in crisis. They went into the offseason without a GM, whiffed on chances to land Paul George and Jimmy Butler, got kicked in the dick by their star point guard, and were looking at a future in which Dan Gilbert was going to fuck it all up again and drive LeBron James away a second time. Now they’ve got a squad that should be just as competitive as it was last year and a decently bright future ahead of them, regardless of whether or not James leaves. They couldn’t have asked for anything better.