An Analysis of the Celtics-Cavaliers Trade

Ron Schwane/Associated Press

The NBA has officially lost its mind.

Last month, Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving requested a trade out of Cleveland to play outside of LeBron James’ shadow. When he did so, he listed the Spurs, Knicks, Heat, and Timberwolves as his four preferred destinations in a future deal. Rumors had periodically appeared about the Phoenix Suns trying to work out a deal that would have centered around Irving and Suns point guard Eric Bledsoe. But other than those five teams, it didn’t sound like anyone else would be involved in the Irving proceedings.

So naturally, Irving eventually was shipped to none of those aforementioned teams:

Wow. If you think there’s a lot to digest here, you’re right. Let’s start with the trade’s headliners (Thomas and Irving) and then branch out from there.

Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas entered the league at the exact same time; in fact, Irving was the first pick in the 2011 Draft while Thomas was the last. This trade marks the first time in NBA history that the first pick in a draft has been swapped for the last pick in that same draft. Because they have played for the same amount of time, we can conveniently and easily compare their careers to this point.

Possibly the best NBA stat to encapsulate a player’s full value is VORP (Value Over Replacement Player). Since the 2011-12 season, Irving has a slightly higher VORP than Thomas (16.2 to 14.9). Thomas, though, started his career with the Sacramento Kings and was traded to the Celtics at the 2015 trade deadline after a brief layover in Phoenix. Starting with Thomas’ first full season in Boston, though, he has a far higher VORP than Irving (8.2 to 4.4). Thomas, in fact, finished fifth in NBA MVP voting last season and was incredibly valuable to the Celtics in their, at times, seemingly improbable run to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Where Thomas is docked by critics, and rightfully so, is for his defense. Among those who played at least 1,500 minutes last season, Thomas was tied for third-to-worst in Defensive Box Plus/Minus (DBPM), coming in ahead of only Shabazz Muhammad and Nick Young. DBPM measures a player’s contribution to his team in points per 100 possessions, and Offensive Box Plus/Minus (OBPM) does the same thing on the other end of the floor. Part of the problem is that, in case you haven’t heard, Thomas is all of 5’9″ and is the shortest point guard in the league. There are very few matchups, if any, that Thomas can possibly win at the defensive end with his height. What some may not tell you, though, is that Irving, standing at 6’3″, isn’t significantly better at the defensive end. Despite his six-inch height advantage, Irving finished just one point better in DBPM last season, which tied him for fourteenth-worst in the league. Offensively, both players have been pretty much even since coming into the league, with Thomas having a slight advantage in Offensive Box Plus/Minus. If this trade were simply player-for-player, I’d probably call it about even with (maybe) a very slight advantage for the Cavaliers.

The issue for the Celtics, though, is that they didn’t just give up Isaiah Thomas in the trade. Let’s move on from Thomas and Irving and look at the other cool toys the Celtics forked over to get Kyrie.

Crowder is an enticing sixth-year player and the advanced metrics are largely split on how good he actually is. While VORP has him as a slightly above average player, win shares (which is exactly what it sounds like) is very high on him. That statistic rates his value very highly and says that he contributed fourteen wins for the Celtics over the past two seasons, a number slightly better than Irving’s win shares (13.9) over the same period. Another figure that casts Crowder in a very positive light is True Shooting Percentage, which takes into account all of a player’s field goal and free throw attempts. Crowder pulled in the top 20 in TS% (61.3) last season, and both he and Thomas finished in the top 20 and ahead of, wait for it, Kyrie Irving.

While Crowder’s exact value seems to be kind of hard to peg, his presence gives the Cavaliers plenty of lineup opportunities. If the team wishes to go small to try to directly mirror a lineup like the Warriors’, they could start Crowder at small forward, LeBron James at power forward, and then have a choice between Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson as the team’s starting center. The other option for the Cavs is to leave their starting lineup as is, with both Love and Thompson starting, and have Crowder come off the bench to spell James. This choice may be more likely, as James played over 42 minutes per game in last year’s NBA Finals. Either way, the Cavaliers and coach Tyronn Lue have no shortage of options for using their new wing.

And don’t forget that the Celtics also included Croatian big man Ante Zizic in this deal. While Zizic probably isn’t NBA-ready just yet, he is an interesting big man who averaged a double-double per 36 minutes in the Turkish Euroleague last season. When he declared for the 2016 NBA Draft, I compared him to Nikola Vucevic and noted his 25.7 PER in the Adriatic League, a league that features teams from several countries, most notably those comprising the former Yugoslavia. Zizic could be an interesting piece for the Cavs’ future, and even though he struggled at times in the Summer League, he could be a fascinating component of the Cavaliers’ haul for Kyrie Irving. He’s expected to play in the United States this year and will likely spend most of his time in the G-League, formerly known as the NBA’s Developmental League.

Last, but most certainly not least, the Cavaliers received the Celtics’ all-important and unprotected 2018 first round pick from the Brooklyn Nets. The Nets were the worst team in the league a season ago and the Celtics received their first-round pick in the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce trade, otherwise known as the gift that keeps on giving the whole year round. The Nets are showing very few signs of improvement for next year, and if the team again has the worst record in the league, then the Cavaliers will have the best chance at acquiring the #1 overall pick in the 2018 Draft. Assuming owner Dan Gilbert and his son, Nick, can work their almost biennial draft lottery voodoo, the Cavs will have very good odds at reeling in the first pick.

While we’re likely a little ahead of ourselves with this one, if the Cavs have the first pick, they could choose from Missouri’s Michael Porter, Jr., Duke’s Marvin Bagley, Michigan State’s Miles Bridges, and a host of other intriguing prospects. Even if they don’t have the first selection, they could still get a very good player in the first few picks. This is all assuming that the Nets don’t somehow make a run to the eight-seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, which seems extremely unlikely with the state of their current roster.

Of course, this trade will lose value after next year if James leaves for greener pastures in free agency next summer; Thomas is also a free agent next year and may look to relocate if James leaves. Still, a superstar, a proven starter, a potentially solid international big man, and a potential #1 pick is just about as well as the Cavaliers could have possibly done.

The Cavs’ front office deserves all of the credit they could possibly get for pulling off this deal. When Irving’s trade demands became public knowledge, many assumed that Cleveland would get less than market value for him because Irving would be desperate to leave and the front office would be desperate to move him. Instead, the Cavs actually got above market value for him and the assets they received in the trade could appreciate over time. It is surprising, though, that Celtics GM Danny Ainge decided to pull the trigger on this move when he could have let the Cavaliers trade Irving elsewhere and take his chances going against a Cavs team likely led by James and Kevin Love. That being said, the Celtics still have a lot of assets in tow and Irving will give them valuable and significant contributions. But hats off to new and, until yesterday, relatively unproven Cavs GM Koby Altman for getting as much as he could for his disgruntled star point guard. And while this move probably isn’t enough to close the gap between Cleveland and the Warriors, it looks like the Cavs may have gotten better with yesterday’s trade.

The Cavaliers were in a situation with Kyrie Irving that could best be described as impossible. And yet, somehow, someway, they came out on top when they decided to deal him.

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