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.

An Appreciation of the Boston Celtics and Danny Ainge

Matthew Lee/Boston Globe

On May 3, 2013, the current state of the Boston Celtics would have seemed unimaginable to even the team’s most ardent fans.

That night, the Celtics lost Game 6 of their first-round series against the New York Knicks and were eliminated from the playoffs. Two-thirds of Boston’s so-called “Big Three” (Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett) were still with the organization while the other member (Ray Allen) had left before the start of the season to join the Miami Heat. Pierce was under contract for one more year while Garnett was locked up for another two; however, with the team’s decline from championship contender to fringe playoff team, Celtics’ GM and President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge would have a decision to make: ride out the length of their contracts or deal them to a team crazy enough to give up key assets for their services. At the same time, the front office needed to figure out what to do with coach Doc Rivers, who would have been less than willing to endure a rebuild and wanted more organizational influence; Boston later responded by dealing Rivers to the Los Angeles Clippers for a 2015 protected first round pick. Still, the situation remained with Pierce and Garnett.

As it turns out, the Brooklyn Nets were willing to help out the Celtics with their dilemma.

On June 28 of that year, the Nets acquired Pierce, Garnett, and Jason Terry in exchange for several role players, the most notable of whom being Kris Humphries and Gerald Wallace. Here’s the kicker: the Nets also sent their first-round picks for 2014, 2016, and 2018 to Boston, as well as the right to swap picks this year, something the Celtics are going to take advantage of in the draft lottery. However, both sides were happy: the Celtics got a truckload of draft picks while the Nets got three additional pieces they thought could help them win a championship; Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov proclaimed shortly after the trade that “the basketball gods smiled on the Nets”. Little did he know just how wrong he would be; Pierce and Garnett played just one season together in Brooklyn before the former signed with the Wizards in the summer of 2014 and the latter was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves at the 2015 trade deadline. Terry left the Nets and signed with the Rockets the next year.

The C’s predictably struggled in the 2013-14 season, winning just 25 games under first-time NBA head coach Brad Stevens. With just 23 games gone by in the next season and with the team sitting at 9-14, Ainge decided to trade star point guard Rajon Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks for three players, including Jae Crowder. Crowder is currently a significant contributor to the Celtics’ success, as he has started all of the team’s playoff games in the last two seasons. At the time, the deal looked like a classic sell move from a team looking to slowly work back towards contention. In hindsight, it looks like a steal for Boston; Rondo played just 46 games in a Maverick uniform before signing with the Kings after the end of the season.

The move, though, didn’t pay off right away: the Celtics slumped to a 20-31 mark at the All-Star break and did not appear to be in playoff contention heading into the trade deadline. One team that was looking at self-improvement for a playoff push was the Phoenix Suns; the Suns had already dealt guard Goran Dragic to the Miami Heat after he demanded a trade because of disagreements with the front office and then-head coach Jeff Hornacek. The Dragic deal necessitated the team’s acquisition of Bucks shooting guard Brandon Knight. With Knight’s acquisition, Phoenix and general manager Ryan McDonough looked to remedy the team’s crowded backcourt situation, as the Suns had played with three starting-caliber guards in the rotation for the first half of the year. That led the organization to ship Isaiah Thomas to Boston in a three-team deal that spawned the Suns….. Marcus Thornton and Boston’s 2016 first round draft pick. Whoops.

The rest is more or less history; the Celtics went 20-11 to close out that season and went to the playoffs where they were quickly dispatched by the Cleveland Cavaliers in four games. You may remember that series for this play but not much else. Ainge laid low over the summer of 2015 and over the remainder of the next season, as Boston’s most significant transaction was acquiring forward Amir Johnson in free agency. The Celtics continued to improve, and Thomas took over as the team’s starting point guard and undisputed face of the franchise. While the C’s lost in six games to the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the 2016 playoffs, the team was clearly ahead of schedule in their rebuilding process.

Last summer, Ainge and the Celtics front office made their biggest splash yet, signing star center Al Horford to a four-year, $113 million contract; Horford was part of the Atlanta team that defeated Boston the year prior. With Horford in the fold and the rest of the core together for another year, the Celtics took another leap, finishing with 53 wins and, in a down year for the Eastern Conference, the number one seed in the playoffs. While some posited that they were the worst one-seed the league has ever seen (wonder who that could be), the accomplishment was still noteworthy for a team that looked to be locked in a long-term rebuild at this same time just three years ago.

Now, the Boston Celtics find themselves in the Eastern Conference Finals after defeating the Washington Wizards in a deciding game 7. Kelly Olynyk, a forgotten piece of the Celtics’ resurgence, went for a playoff-career-high 26 points, Thomas went for 29, and the Celtics moved on after a series in which the home team won every single game. This comes on the heels of Boston being down two games to none to the Rajon Rondo-led Chicago Bulls (yes, him again). Rondo missed the last four games of that series, all of which went to the Celtics.

It’s fair to argue that the Boston Celtics had lots and lots of luck in getting to this point. The Thomas trade, the Nets giving them most of their draft picks for half of a decade, the Bulls losing Rondo, etc. But it is impressive that Ainge and the Boston front office was able to rebuild the roster so quickly after having very little to work from not long ago.

Also, consider this: the Celtics could get the number one overall pick in tonight’s NBA draft lottery. Because the Nets (very dumbly) allowed Boston to swap picks this year and the Nets had the worst record in the NBA, the Celtics have a one-in-four chance to earn the top pick. And, because they have the most ping-pong balls in the lottery, Boston cannot pick any lower than fourth overall. Then, think about how loaded this year’s draft is; with the Celtics’ standing, they could end up with any one of Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson, DeAaron Fox, Malik Monk, or Jayson Tatum, all of whom could help the team from day one. And if they want to make a run at a championship for next year, they could draft any one of those players and trade him to a rebuilding team for a more established player or players, such as the Bulls’ Jimmy Butler or the Pacers’ Paul George. I’m not suggesting this would definitely happen, but it should be on the table when Boston makes their selection.

Also, this is not meant to suggest that Boston will defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers in this year’s Eastern Conference Finals. Cleveland has shown itself to be the far superior team over the course of the season and so far in these playoffs, so it would be a major shock to see Boston come out on top in the series.

Nevertheless, it is an incredibly impressive achievement for a team that will earn a top-four pick in the draft tonight and open the Eastern Conference Finals at home tomorrow.