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NBA Daily: The Kyrie Trade One Year Later

One year following its completion, the Kyrie Irving trade still has so many loose ends that it’s hard to figure out exactly who won.

Matt John

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Around this time a year ago, the Boston Celtics agreed to trade Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and Brooklyn’s unprotected first-rounder to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving.

When this trade was announced, the first word that came to mind was rare.

First, it was rare to see such a significant move made that late in the off-season. August is usually the most boring month for the NBA because teams are usually set around that time and hence, no big-time moves are made. This trade made for quite the shuffle at the most unexpected time.

Second, it was rare to see a trade like this drag on as much as it did before completion. After the trade was initially reported, concern from Cleveland’s side over Thomas’ injured hip delayed the swap from being finalized for a week. Until Boston added a conditional second-rounder, there was legitimate concern that the deal was going to be nixed.

Third, and most importantly, it was rare to see two conference powers who had just faced off in the conference finals agree to exchange some of their best players when both were expected to be among the conference’s best for the upcoming season.

Since this trade became official, the public opinion has swayed back and forth on who won. Early on, Cleveland was believed to be the winner because of the haul they got for Kyrie. Taking two of Boston’s best players along with arguably its best asset for their disgruntled star impressed the masses since many believed Indiana and Chicago got a much weaker return for their disgruntled stars a few months earlier.

That all changed when Thomas and Crowder flopped badly in Cleveland, leading to them getting traded mid-season, along with the Nets pick not paying off as well as the Cavaliers had hoped. Kyrie, on the other hand, was doing Kyrie things in Boston. He razzled, he dazzled and proved he could be the leading man on a contender. That was until complications from his previous knee surgeries prematurely ended his season in March.

Strangely enough, when Cleveland and Boston faced off in the conference finals back in May, none of the players involved in the trade had any influence on the series.

Things have changed a lot since the season ended. Both Cleveland and Boston are now in very different situations. Boston is expected to be one of the league’s best teams behind a healthy Kyrie next season while Cleveland is expected to pick up the pieces following LeBron’s second departure.

So that leads to the oft-asked question as to who won this trade. Believe it or not, it’s actually more complicated than it may look, so it’s only fair to look at these teams’ current situations individually in the year since this deal was finalized.

Boston Celtics

On paper, this trade appears to be yet another in a long line of Danny Ainge fleece jobs. While Thomas and Crowder were shockingly awful fits in Cleveland, Kyrie put up his usual Kyrie-like statistics for Boston: 24.4 points, 5.2 assists, and 3.8 rebounds on a career-high 49 percent shooting from the field including 41 percent from distance are pretty much the numbers anyone would expect from Irving.

Sure his season ended much earlier than anyone in Boston would have wanted, but Kyrie performed admirably as the lead banana in Boston. He has both the talent and the experience to take Boston the distance. As exciting as it is to think of how far Irving can take the Celtics for the next decade, there are two lingering uncertainties that Boston will have to face in regards to Kyrie long-term.

A. His health: This season, Kyrie took time off to tend to a tension wire in his knee that was believed to keep him out for a few weeks. Tragedy struck a short while after when it was revealed he would go under a second procedure to remove the screws in his knee that he received after fracturing his kneecap in the 2015 NBA finals, ended his season. Boston management has assured that he should be ready to go and shouldn’t suffer any lingering effects. Still, Kyrie has shown himself to be injury-prone and even if the Celtics promise that his knee is fine, we don’t know how true that is until we see how he does this season.

B. His contract status: Kyrie seemed to be a happy man in Boston last season, but looks can be deceiving. If there’s some truth to these rumors that he wants to join forces with Jimmy Butler, then it won’t matter how happy he is in Boston. Kyrie smartly turned down the Celtics’ extension offer, given that he can make so much more next summer on the open market. The Celtics can offer him the most long-term security, which they might hesitate to do given his injury history.

What’s more telling is that the Clippers were in the same boat with Chris Paul in 2017, as were the Jazz with Gordon Hayward. It didn’t matter. The Celtics arguably offer a better winning situation than the former two did for their stars, but we’re in an age now where players are much more calculating about where they play than ever before. In the end, it may not matter what the Celtics can provide for Irving.

If Irving proves to be healthy and stays long-term, then the Celtics got what they wanted out of the Kyrie deal. That’s a big if, though.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Losing Kyrie is tough. Losing LeBron is tougher.

It’s true that the return that Cleveland got for Kyrie turned out to mostly be a bust, at least in regards to their veterans. Neither Thomas nor Crowder panned out, and George Hill, Larry Nance Jr. Rodney Hood and Jordan Clarkson weren’t much better. Still, Koby Altman deserves props for acquiring players that helped them in LeBron’s last year while also preparing themselves for the possibility of the King leaving, which is now a reality. The Cavs made the most out of a hazy situation between Kyrie’s trade demands and LeBron’s inevitable exit.

Not all is lost in Cleveland either. They have positioned themselves well financially now that they’re out of salary cap hell. They may still have to overpay players for the next two years like Clarkson and Tristan Thompson, but Hill, J.R. Smith, and Kyle Korver are all on partially guaranteed deals after this season. Should they waive them, then a lot of cap room opens up.

The X Factor to their future is Collin Sexton, who was most definitely the end game in the Kyrie Irving deal as the eventual selection with their valuable Nets pick. Sexton will have huge shoes to fill now that he enters the Land, but the returns so far are promising. Sexton looked every bit like the player the Cavs saw him when they took him in the draft, and his skills showed both on the court. Sexton’s athleticism, speed, and court vision made him a fantastic one-man show, as he averaged 19.6 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 3.4 assists on 43 percent shooting from the field.

Remember that Summer League performances should always be taken with a grain of salt. There have been players who have looked phenomenal in the Summer League that never made much of themselves in the pros, just like there have been legendary NBA players who struggled in Summer League. Still, Sexton’s performance should inspire some hope, which is hard to come by when you lose an all-timer like LeBron.

What matters most here is that unlike the first time LeBron left, Cleveland at least has some direction. No one knows whether Sexton is ready to contribute now or if that will come later, but at the very least, the Cavs have some young talent to build on.

If Sexton pans out the way Cleveland hopes he does, then they got what they wanted out of the Kyrie deal. That is also a big if.

For now, the question of who won the Kyrie Irving trade shall remain rhetorical. There’s no guarantee that Kyrie will be a long-term fixture in Boston just as there’s no guarantee that Sexton will live up to expectations in Cleveland.

When everything is written in stone, this trade may be the most comparable to the Pau Gasol trade to the Lakers in 2008. Many believed the Lakers practically stole Pau away from Memphis when they acquired him for Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie, two first-round picks, and the rights to Marc Gasol. However, while Pau helped the Lakers win two championships, a few years down the line, Marc became the centerpiece of the most glorious era of Grizzlies’ basketball.

What originally appeared to be a total rip-off eventually became a pretty even deal. That could be what the Irving for Sexton deal turns out to be, but only time will tell.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA Daily: Ujiri Leading Golden Era of Raptors Basketball

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri has taken big risks in going all in for the 2019 season and – with a potentially shortened window – it’s the right move, writes Lang Greene.

Lang Greene

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The Toronto Raptors (43-16) are on pace for their fourth consecutive 50-plus win season and barring a collapse of epic proportions will shortly secure their sixth straight trip to the playoffs.

Make no mistake, this is the golden era of Raptors basketball. Period.

The easiest thing in the world to do is play a situation safe. Minimize risk and accept the near certain outcome. Heading into the season, as previously constructed, the Raptors were already on a trajectory to reach 50 wins and secure a playoff berth. However, Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri made the risky decision to turn off cruise control and go all in on a championship this season.

The reason was simple – five straight trips to the Eastern Conference playoffs netted only one trip past the second round and some seriously embarrassing postseason eliminations. So sure, the franchise could have stayed the course with the previous roster framework, but realistic title aspirations were a stretch at best.

To begin the roster reconstruction, the Raptors traded All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan, big man Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first round pick to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for 2014 NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and veteran guard Danny Green.

Green and Leonard immediately provided Toronto with championship heart and grit, something lacking from the team in year’s past. The trade was a huge risk for Ujiri with free agency looming this summer for Leonard (and Green) and having to say goodbye to DeRozan, a homegrown talent and the franchise’s all-time leading scorer.

Toronto rolled early this season and have remained near the top of the Eastern Conference standings, but Ujiri doubled down at the trade deadline by acquiring former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol in exchange for Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles and a 2024 second-round draft pick.

In just over six months, Ujiri was able to acquire two former Defensive Player of the Year award winners while gutting his roster of familiar faces fans came to know during the team’s recent run to prominence.

The Raptors currently sit one game out of the top spot in the Eastern Conference. The moves are driving results and most believe the Raptors are legitimate title contenders. But the risk for the franchise is most definitely real. Gasol, Leonard and Green are all expected to hit the unrestricted free agency market this summer which could leave the franchise facing a real possibility of losing all for nothing in return.

The prospect of losing Leonard and Gasol would undoubtedly take Toronto from the top of the East to a club scrapping to even make a playoff run in 2020. Ujiri went all in for a title this season. Leonard’s future is uncertain and so is Gasol’s. But the prospect of truly competing for a title was too tantalizing to pass up after years of setbacks around playoff time.

Inevitably all teams must go through a time of rebuilding or reloading. Despite Toronto’s previous success, their window was limited in nature and closing rapidly, so you have to admire Ujiri’s daring to be great mindset.

For reference, the Atlanta Hawks reached the postseason 10 consecutive times from 2008-2017 but the franchise’s front office played it relatively safe during their run devoid of any major moves. The Hawks watched All-Star performers Al Horford and Paul Millsap ultimately leave for nothing in return. Atlanta’s rebuild is in good shape with guard Trae Young, big man John Collins and an additional lottery pick this season.

However, the team never swung for the fences during their run – something Ujiri wouldn’t let happen – despite the huge risks needed to be potentially a champ.

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NBA Daily: Turner’s Elite Defense Crucial To Pacers Playoff Push

The Pacers are 6-1 in February, and Myles Turner’s outstanding work on the defensive end is a huge reason why, Spencer Davies writes.

Spencer Davies

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When a star player sustains a serious injury, it’s a gut-wrenching blow to any type of momentum his team has established.

Let’s rewind to about a month ago. The Indiana Pacers were rolling right along on January 23 with a 31-15 record. Among the top teams in the NBA, they were engaged in an entertaining battle with the Toronto Raptors that night. The Pacers ended up winning the game, but it cost them an unexpected, steep price.

Hustling down the floor to get back in transition, Oladipo’s leg gave out at the 4:07 mark of the second quarter. Just like that, the All-Star guard had ruptured the quadriceps tendon in his right knee. His year was finished.

While earning an emotional victory over the best squad in the Eastern Conference at home was a commendable response to such devastation, it was one game. Many predicted Indiana would have a significant drop due to the loss of Oladipo. After all, this was their leader on the court and in the locker room. They did drop four consecutive games afterward, too.

What people were quick to forget, though, is the resilience Nate McMillan had instilled in this group—and it continues to show. Sure, they lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in the first-half season finale before the All-Star break, but they were on a six-game spree going into it.

In February, the Pacers are 6-1 with an average margin of victory of 12.8 points. As evidenced by 27.4 assists per game, the ball is moving as it should be and they’re getting results because of it (congratulations on Player of the Week honors, Bojan Bogdanovic).

Remember: Good offense comes from great defense, which is exactly why it’s been such a productive stretch. This month, Indiana is holding opponents to a lowly 28.2 three-point percentage and boasting the No. 1 defensive rating in the league at 98.1 opponent points per 100 possessions.

Although the physicality and technique of his teammates are a big help, Myles Turner is the true anchor of this stout Pacers’ defense. Is it fair to say that the blossoming fourth-year center isn’t getting nearly enough love from the masses as he should be?

This man is an absolute force underneath. The easiest way to put it is by using his league-high 2.7 blocks per game average as proof. In addition, Turner has recorded 81.6 percent of Indiana’s rejections since the beginning of the month. He had 10 swats against both Los Angeles teams at home.

Don’t get it twisted—the impact goes beyond blocks. Turner is simply dominating whoever tries him on the floor.

Per Cleaning The Glass, the Pacers’ defensive rating is 103.8 with him playing, a figure that ranks in the 93rd percentile among every talent in the NBA.

Up against guys who have averaged at least 20 minutes in a minimum of 25 games, Turner places fourth in the league overall in DRTG. Coincidentally, teammate Cory Joseph is right there with him.

Consider the elite competition he has faced. Looking at NBA.com’s matchups page, Turner has done fine work of holding highly-regarded big men in check. In two games, for example, the 22-year-old has stymied Rudy Gobert for just 10 points in 72 head-to-head possessions.

Citing more familiar assignments in the East, All-Star Nikola Vucevic has been a net 4.8 points per 100 possessions worse when facing off against Turner. Joel Embiid is a net minus-1.2 using the same scale. It’s also of note that Brook Lopez, a more spaced out center, has also had his struggles with Indiana’s fast-rising man in the middle, shooting just 33.3 percent from the field.

If you want to really tie a bow around these figures, see how consistent the numbers are. ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus system has Turner ranked third, just behind Gobert and Hassan Whiteside as the top defenders in that category regarding starters. Basketball Reference’s version of this statistic also has him in the top three, trailing Giannis Antetokounmpo and Gobert in Defensive Box Plus-Minus.

Throw in the fact that Turner is knocking down a career-best 40.7 percent of his triples on the offensive end and the Pacers have really benefited from the Texas product’s development as one of the most promising two-way centers in the NBA.

It’d be remiss of us to forget mentioning Thaddeus Young, who has been a headache for almost every player he bodies up on a nightly basis with his in-your-grill style on defense. He forces the opposition to make costly decisions often, which in turn helps Turner and Indiana create momentum with either stops or steals.

In all honesty, you could pick a name on the Pacers and that person will have contributed in some way, shape or form. That’s just the way McMillan has run things since taking over the club in 2016.

Indiana isn’t only in this thing to get into the playoffs. At 38-20 seeded third in the East, they’re set on making plenty of noise to avenge the loss of their superstar and doing something special.

And Turner just may be the man to ensure the Pacers get their wish.

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NBA Daily: The Impact of the Buyout Guys

With buyout season in full effect, Matt John takes a look at who among newly signed players will make the biggest impact for their new team.

Matt John

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If there’s a holiday to compare this year’s trading season, it’s Thanksgiving. We had a lot of juicy trades leading up to the deadline, so many in fact that it may have been a little too much to digest. To make a long story short, we got our money’s worth on Feb. 7. (especially if you are betting on basketball)

If Thanksgiving is the only apt comparison for the trade deadline, then buyout season so far has been like Black Friday. We’re seeing quite a few productive players get picked off the market for discount prices. That happens every year, but not at this volume, and not with players as good as this year’s class was.

Wesley Matthews, Enes Kanter, Markieff Morris, Jeremy Lin, Wayne Ellington, Marcin Gortat and Zach Randolph is kind of a loaded class for buyout season. Those guys are slated to be paid almost $100 million combined, and they either have been or will be added for the veteran’s minimum.

Now usually when players get bought out, where they go is usually get dictated by what their motive is. There are only three motives for why a player signs with a team after getting bought out.

A. His next payday
B. Getting a ring
C. Both

The players who opt for option A usually do because they believe they’ll get the most touches, which in turn will make them look better for interested parties this summer. The players who opt for option B are usually at the end of their days in the NBA so they want one last shot at success before they call it a career. Option C pretty much explains itself.

So far, the majority of the players who have latched on to new teams after being bought out have opted for option A. Some have already played a few games with their new team, while others are eagerly awaiting to start a new chapter with their new squad – even if it’s likely to be pretty brief.

As we wait for the NBA season to resume days from now, it’s time to look over what we should expect from the guys who have joined their new teams via buyout season. None of the players mentioned are stars, but they could play a part in their team’s playoff success this season.

Wesley Matthews – Indiana Pacers

This couldn’t have worked out any better than it has for Matthews.

He got traded by the team that he had no future with, and now he gets to play for a team that had a void that he fills at shooting guard and has a chance to make things interesting in the postseason.

Matthews’ role on the team is pretty clear. He’s a 3-and-D swingman who should fit snugly into the Pacers’ roster of high-end role players who know exactly what their role is. Now, Matthews doesn’t boast efficiency – he’s currently shooting 40 percent from the field this season – but his 37.1 percent  shooting rate from distance this season should be perfect for Indy since they shoot the exact same percentage as a team – good for sixth overall in the league.

Since Wes shoots almost six threes a game on average, and Indiana currently ranks 28th in three-point attempts per game (25.4), his presence could also boost the Pacers’ offense, which currently is rated 17th-highest in the league (109.9).

Matthews hasn’t exactly had a brilliant start in his first two games – eight points, four rebounds, 2.5 assists on 23.5 percent shooting from the field and 30 percent from three. In his defense, he’s been on three teams in the past couple of weeks. Going through that much change of scenery is bound to lead some to jetlag.

When he gets past said jetlag, Indiana going to be an even tougher out for whoever faces them in the playoffs and eases the presumed death blow that was Victor Oladipo’s knee injury.

Enes Kanter – Portland Trail Blazers

Remember when the Blazers gave Kanter that four-year/$70 million offer sheet back in the summer of 2015? Looks like this was a pairing that was truly meant to be.

And why shouldn’t it? According to NBA.com, Portland’s bench averages 35.4 points a game, which ranks 19th in the league. Kanter eats second units for breakfast thanks to both his elite low-post scoring and rebounding. Averaging just 25.6 minutes per game this season, Enes is recording 14 points and 10.5 rebounds a night.

Now, some regression is due in Rip City since the Blazers have understandably better offensive options than the Knicks did this season. Still, Kanter is more likely than not going to help what is already the fifth-highest rated offense in the league. He’s also probably going to make Portland’s rebounding, which already ranks third in total rebounds on average (47.6), better. Especially since their bench ranks ninth in rebounding average (17.9).

So, to sum it up, Enes will probably make Portland’s strengths all the stronger on offense. The question is, will he hurt them on defense?

Anyone who’s anyone knows Kanter’s shortcomings on D. The man definitely tries but he’s a liability on that end of the floor which makes him perfect against second units. Portland currently has the 16th-highest rated offense in the league (110.2), so he’s probably not going to make that better.

This season, the Knicks’ defense was plus-3.9 with Kanter on the floor. That’s not good. It’s not dreadfully bad either. It’s not bad enough that Kanter would be an overall liability. It may help Enes to not have to play in the 26th-highest rated defense in the league like he did in the Big Apple.

It’s not picture perfect, but Enes Kanter brings another dimension to Portland. Even if it’s not a dimension that’s as desired around the league as it once was.

Markieff Morris – Oklahoma City Thunder

The one resource that OKC needed in this stretch run was a knockdown shooter. In ‘Kieff, they got a shooter that fits the label of “eh.”

Morris’ 33.3 percent shooting from deep this season – and 33.8 percent for his career – isn’t going to intimidate anyone. It feels as though that’s not why the Thunder brought him aboard. They brought him aboard for one reason above all else: Be better than Patrick Patterson.

Patterson has been a colossal disappointment in Oklahoma City. Originally brought on to be the designated stretch big, Patterson’s percentages have gone down the drain, shooting 37.8 from the field and 33.8 percent from three. To make matters worse, the Thunder are minus-14.7 with him on the floor.

If Morris proves to be just a reasonable upgrade over Patterson, then that can make a world of difference for Oklahoma City’s second unit, who currently ranks 26th in points per game with 31.2 points a game. Markieff doesn’t have to be a knockdown shooter in order to do that. He just has to continue to be the guy he’s been since 2013.

Markieff can also spell minutes for both Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel at center. This season, he’s played 64 percent of his minutes at the five according to Basketball-Reference. That percentage is definitely going to take a dive with the Thunder, but it gives them another option. A team that already thrived on its versatility found yet another facet to make it stronger.

Morris also adds a little sizzle to the Thunder. His brash attitude on the court could make what’s already been the league’s stingiest defense all the more unforgiving. For a team that needed as much help as it can get as entering the toughest part of the schedule, getting Morris should prove to be a no-brainer.

Jeremy Lin – Toronto Raptors

This will be the first playoff-caliber team than Jeremy Lin has been on since his time in Charlotte in 2016, and it is the best team Lin’s been on since his days with Houston Rockets. If all goes well, things could get Lin-sane in Toronto.

All puns aside, adding Lin was a must for the Raptors after trading Delon Wright in the Marc Gasol deal and losing Fred VanVleet for the next month or so. Even with VanVleet, the Raptors needed a playmaker in that second unit. Granted, Gasol probably helps a lot with that. Lin just adds to it.

This season, Toronto’s bench is currently ranked 20th in scoring with 35.2 points a game and is ranked 26th in assists with seven per game. Adding a veteran like Lin won’t magically change all of that, but he’s an improvement over what they had.

Jeremy has also proven to be an overall plus this season. Keep in mind, he played half the season in Atlanta, but the Hawks were a plus-4.1 with Lin on the floor. It primarily came from his defense, where the Hawks were minus-6.3 with him on the floor. Toronto has the seventh-highest rated defense in the league, so he should help in that regard.

Running the second unit isn’t the biggest task, but it’s consequential enough that it needs a man who can be up for the job. Getting a virtuoso in that department like Jeremy Lin should Toronto’s hopes of getting past their playoff demons.

There are others as well, such as Shelvin Mack going to Charlotte and Wayne Ellington going to Detroit, but those moves likely won’t be as impactful.

Who’s to say we’re even finished yet? There are rumblings of a Robin Lopez buyout in Chicago. Ditto for Frank Kaminsky. Several of these buyout guys still remain unsigned. Who knows who else might be finding a new team in the next week or so? Oh, and there’s a certain Carmelo Anthony lurking in the distance.

That last line was only partially a joke.

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