The trade that sent Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics in exchange for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, Brooklyn’s 2018 first-round draft pick and a 2020 second-round pick was finalized on Wednesday.
While much of the recent media attention was placed on the status of Thomas’ injured hip, Cleveland’s focus throughout the entire process might have been on someone else: LeBron James.
Since James is fully expected to test free agency next summer, thus making the threat of him leaving Cleveland for the second time very realistic, the organization apparently attempted to plan for a future without him in the Irving trade.
According to Jason Lloyd of The Athletic, Thomas was surprisingly not a major priority for Cleveland in the blockbuster deal.
“Thomas was never the focal point of these negotiations from the Cavs’ perspective, one source with knowledge of the talks told The Athletic,” wrote Lloyd. “From the start, the Cavs made clear to the Celtics that James’ uncertain status beyond this season left them prioritizing restocking the cupboards in the event he leaves again. Cavs owner Dan Gilbert remains fixated on James’ future, one source told The Athletic. Had he gotten James to commit beyond this season, this Irving trade might have looked drastically different.”
Since Irving might miss most of the upcoming regular season due to the severity of his injury, the deal did not seem to be made in order to make the team better on paper, at least to start the season. If and when he returns, there might be a very realistic possibility that the 5'9" point guard doesn't return to the level of production that he enjoyed last season or might not fit in alongside his new teammates.
The two key pieces of the trade could absolutely end up being the unproven 20-year-old center Zizic, who showed off some impressive skills in the Summer League, as well as the 2018 first-round pick of the Nets, which has the possibility of being the No. 1 selection yet again. Both of those assets, especially the pick, would allow the team to re-stock immediately if LeBron bolts.
If LeBron had committed to the Cavaliers in a long-term extension, the trade might have ended up looking very different, with the focus then being on making the roster significantly better in the upcoming season in order to compete with the Golden State Warriors. While this trade certainly set the organization up for the future, it arguably didn't make them much more of a threat in the short-term, especially if Thomas' hip presents an issue throughout the season.