By Connor Pignatello
The Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers shocked the NBA world on August 22nd when Cleveland sent wantaway All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving to their biggest competition, the Boston Celtics. In return, the Cavaliers received All-Star Isaiah Thomas, defensive-minded wing Jae Crowder, European import Ante Zizic, and Brooklyn’s unprotected pick in next year’s draft.
At the surface, this trade looks like a fair swap, with both teams receiving upgrades to their respective squads. But both teams mortgaged their present and future in this trade, creating an enormous range of outcomes. This article will explore each team’s best and worst case scenarios after the blockbuster deal.
What if Jae Crowder is the final piece of the defensive puzzle that Cleveland desperately needs to defeat Golden State?
What if Kyrie, now the best player on his team, transforms into a different beast, and leads the Celtics to the Finals?
These are just some of the questions that will be answered before the NBA season concludes next June.
Cavaliers best-case scenario
Isaiah Thomas accepts a secondary role to Lebron James in Cleveland’s system. He becomes more efficient, and his percentages rise across the board, thanks to Lebron’s pinpoint passes. While James is resting, Isaiah transforms back into his Boston ways, dominating the ball and drilling shots from all over the court. Thomas turns 29 in February, and as his body starts to break down, a secondary role on the Cavs will help him play for many more years.
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Jae Crowder returns to the team that drafted him in 2012 after multiple trades and demotions to the D-League. With the help of Lebron’s excellent passing, Crowder improves his three-point percentage, transforming himself into a sniper on the wing. Crowder’s defensive versatility enables the Cavaliers to defend the wing-heavy lineups that are now prevalent in today’s NBA.
Ante Zizic takes a reserve role on the Cavs, but is a much-needed source of bench rebounding.
Brooklyn’s draft pick lands at number one for the second year in a row. The Cavaliers draft a young star like forward Michael Porter Jr. or guard Luka Doncic. The promise of a great young player compels Thomas and James to resign, continuing Cleveland’s dominance in the East.
Cavaliers worst-case scenario
Thomas’s hip, which he injured in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, never heals correctly and he is unable to return to his 2016 self. He can’t mesh with Lebron James, as he needs to be the primary ball handler to be effective. Unsatisfied with his secondary role on the Cavs, Thomas leaves the team in free agency after just one year in Cleveland.
Jae Crowder can’t rectify Cleveland’s mediocre defense all by himself. He is also unable to produce off the bench, a place he hasn’t played from since 2014. He sees the Cavaliers as an offense-only team, and notices that they don’t play with the kind of defensive grit that his Celtic teammates played with.
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Ante Zizic’s zero career three-point makes hinder him in today’s pace-and-space game. Zizic is labeled as a bust.
Brooklyn, with the additions of D’Angelo Russell, Allen Crabbe, and DeMarre Carroll, becomes semi-competitive. They almost reach the Playoffs in an extremely weak Eastern Conference and their pick falls out of the top ten.
Lebron James realizes that Thomas is no better than his old teammate Irving, and after losing to the Warriors in the Finals for the third time in four years, he decides to call it quits in Cleveland and head for the golden hills of Hollywood.
As you can see, there is an enormous range of outcomes that could occur. If the Cavs mesh well together, they will have a great chance of dethroning the Warriors. They will be able to persuade Lebron James and Isaiah Thomas to resign, as well as having a top draft pick.
However, if the Cavs don’t develop good chemistry, they stand no chance of beating the Celtics, let alone the Warriors. Cleveland faces the distinct possibility that both James and Thomas leave in free agency next summer.
Celtics best-case scenario
Kyrie blossoms in Boston and shows his ability to lead a team where he is the primary star. Now in the spotlight, he transforms into a different beast, and leads the Celtics to the Finals. His passing improves as he leaves the confines of Cleveland’s Lebron-dominated offense. He finds Gordon Hayward on the wing for three point bombs, Al Horford in the post for layups, and Jaylen Brown streaking down the court for fastbreak dunks.
Irving flourishes in Boston, leading the Celtics to a win in the Eastern Conference Finals over his former team, the Cavaliers. He shows that, yes, he can be the best player on a contending team.
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With Irving, the Celtics now have the star they’ve been searching for for years. Boston also has great talent surrounding Irving. They have veteran talent like All-Stars Gordon Hayward and Al Horford. And they have young, athletic wings like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.
The Cavaliers are a much older team than the Celtics. Their two best players, Thomas and James, are free agents next summer. The Celtics are better equipped than the Cavs to contend with the Warriors in the years to come. They have lots of young talent, in addition to one of the top selections in next year’s draft, courtesy of the Lakers.
Celtics worst-case scenario
Kyrie struggles without Lebron, and the Celtics realize that, although Irving is a great sidekick, he’s not good enough to be the best player on a championship team. Kyrie finds it’s extremely difficult to be a team’s primary star. The fulltime ball handling duties, the sensational Boston media, the new leadership expectations, and all of the pressure of being the Celtics best player get to him.
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Now out of Lebron’s shadow, people realize Kyrie’s weaknesses. His passing, defense, and leadership abilities are scrutinized, and he’s unable to get past Lebron James in the Eastern Conference Finals.
After trading away their best scorer in Thomas and their best defender in Crowder, the Celtics aren’t able to pass the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference. Even after adding Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, the Celtics still don’t have enough firepower to beat the immovable force in the East: Lebron James.
After completely remodeling their team this offseason, the Celtics could either fly to the top of the Eastern Conference, or flop and flame out in the second round of the playoffs.
The combination of young players, veteran players, superstars, and role players that the Celtics have make them a great pick to emerge out of the Eastern Conference.
But the Celtics have lost a great deal of their identity this offseason, bidding farewell to 4/5ths of their starting lineup. If the Celtics can’t come together and form chemistry, they’ll be just another team with loads of potential but no results.
The Cavaliers will host the Celtics on the opening night of the NBA season, October 17th. The teams also figure to meet in the Eastern Conference Finals, where the winner of this blockbuster trade will be decided. Because of this trade and many others, the NBA will be a very interesting place next year.
Special thanks to Basketball Reference for these helpful stats.
Kyrie Irving picture credit: By Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA – Kyrie Irving, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36918818