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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Cavaliers Unload Disgruntled Irving, Position Themselves for Another Finals Run

When Kyrie Irving made it clear that he no longer wanted to be LeBron James' sidekick in Cleveland, it seemed that the Cavaliers would be forced to trade Irving for pennies on the dollar. Instead, the Cavaliers struck gold, shipping Irving to the Boston Celtics for All-NBA Second Team point guard Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and Brooklyn's 2018 first round draft pick.

The winner of an NBA trade is typically considered to be the team that received the best individual player. Irving and Thomas have similar skill sets--they are both dynamic scorers who are above average playmakers and below average defenders--but Irving is younger and bigger so it is reasonable to say that he is the better player. However, Cleveland received additional assets in the trade--Crowder is a solid, two-way rotation player, Zizic has good potential and the first round pick could potentially turn into another rotation player--and did not have much apparent leverage since Irving wanted out; weighing all of those factors, the Cavaliers did very well.

Thomas finished fifth in the 2017 NBA regular season MVP voting, trailing only Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James. He averaged a career-high 28.9 ppg and he set career-highs with his .463 field goal percentage and .909 free throw percentage while logging one of the best offensive seasons in the Celtics' rich history.

Irving has a better postseason resume than Thomas, including a Finals MVP caliber performance in 2016 as the Cavaliers captured their first NBA title. Like Thomas, Irving had a career year in the 2017 regular season, setting career highs in scoring (25.2 ppg), field goal percentage (.473) and free throw percentage (.905). However, while Irving has thrived as James' sidekick it is far from clear that he can be the face of the franchise for a contending team the way that Thomas was last season as Boston posted the best record in the Eastern Conference. Irving has never received a regular season MVP vote, the Cavaliers were lousy when he was the best player on the team and since James returned to Cleveland the Cavaliers have hardly won a game in James' absence even when Irving plays. Granted, the cupboard was rather bare when Irving was the team's best player and the sample size of games that James has missed is relatively small, but even though Irving appears to have a Kobe Bryant/Russell Westbrook killer mentality--exemplified by the series-clinching dagger he nailed in the 2016 NBA Finals--he may lack the size, leadership ability and two-way skill set necessary to carry a franchise to championship contention as the best player.

The bottom line is that head to head I would take Irving over Thomas, so I understand why the Celtics made this trade--but considering that Irving forced the Cavaliers' hand and they could have ended up with much less than they did, the Cavaliers did quite well and still must be ranked as the team most likely to win the Eastern Conference Finals in 2018.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:30 PM