The general consensus among NBA observers regarding the Celtics-Cavaliers blockbuster trade is that Boston got the best player in the deal in Kyrie Irving but Cleveland got an impressive return. There’s some temptation to say the Brooklyn Nets’ unprotected 2018 pick is a consolation because — at worst — it sets up the Cavaliers to jump start a rebuild if LeBron James departs next summer. However, it seems unlikely that Cavs owner Dan Gilbert is thinking about a rebuild. The more likely scenario is that Gilbert and Cleveland GM Koby Altman will use every tool at their disposal — including the Brooklyn pick — to improve the team’s chances of competing for a championship this season and convincing James to stay.
In NBA lore, the team that gets the most talented player in a trade almost always ends up the winner in retrospect, once enough years have passed to evaluate the impact. In this case, the Cavaliers could be vindicated by history due to both the quantity and quality of assets returned from Boston. Basketball Insiders’ Jesse Blancarte has already penned a must-read missive on the undersold impact of Jae Crowder. While Irving and former Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas are similar — both are among the game’s best isolation scorers and both are a liability on defense — Crowder’s two-way game will lighten LeBron’s defensive burden while opening driving lanes with nearly 40 percent three-point shooting.
The Golden State Warriors prevailed in the NBA Finals largely on the strength of superior wing depth. The season before, Kevin Love played the best basketball of his life, even guarding Stephen Curry at the three-point line on one decisive possession. But in the 2017 Finals, Golden State clearly had a game plan to neutralize the effectiveness of Love and Tristan Thompson. Love was unable to punch above his weight as a defender as he did in 2016 and Thompson proved too one-dimensional to change the outcome. From a net rating perspective, Love and Thompson were Cleveland’s least impactful players in the Finals. Thompson is an elite rebounder, but that’s less of an advantage against a team like Golden State that rarely misses.
Thus, losing the star power of Irving is a blow to Cleveland, but Crowder’s arrival could transform the Cavaliers into a team better equipped to challenge the Warriors. And chances are that transformation didn’t end with Thomas, Crowder and Ante Zizic arriving in Cleveland. The Brooklyn pick is a massive trade asset that could return another front line starter and further equip the Cavaliers to match the Warriors — and show James that Cleveland offers the best long-term opportunity to win.
With Thomas expected to miss part of the regular season, Cleveland will be able to evaluate Derrick Rose’s fit. If Gilbert and Altman aren’t convinced that Rose can keep the team at a high level — or that Thomas can become a difference-maker on a contending team post-injury — the Cavaliers could dangle the Brooklyn pick for a starting point guard.
The most obvious target would be Phoenix point guard Eric Bledsoe, a fellow Klutch Sports client with James. If Rose is not seen as the answer and too many questions surround Thomas, Bledsoe could be the solution. He’ll have one season remaining on his contract after this season, which could at least entice James to stay on for another two-year contract with a second-year player option.
However, Bledsoe has had his own injury issues throughout his career and would not represent value equal to the Brooklyn pick. It makes sense for Phoenix to trade for the pick since Bledsoe is a veteran and the Suns are building around younger players like Devin Booker. What is not clear is what additional assets and cap relief Phoenix might add to make the deal less lopsided from Cleveland’s perspective.
On the other hand, if Rose impresses in training camp and point guard is not the position of greatest need, it opens Cleveland up to any number of trade possibilities. And, as Blancarte mentioned, Love could also be in play ahead of the trade deadline. Moving Love during the offseason after his disappointing Finals showing was always going to be problematic. But once the season starts, Love could be in line for an expanded offensive role with Irving out of the picture. With his value rehabilitated, Love could be moved in a separate trade or packaged for a max-level player with the Brooklyn pick as the sweetener to get a deal done.
Theoretically, the Brooklyn pick acts as a form of insurance in the event James departs Cleveland next summer. In the worst-case scenario, the Cavs could have a shot at another generational talent in next summer’s draft. But if you’re Dan Gilbert, could you look your fan base in the eye if you didn’t do everything in your power to convince James to stay? To make that case, the Cavaliers will need to marshal every asset at its disposal.
The Cavaliers organization — through no fault of its own — endured one of the most unpredictable offseasons on record. It emerged with an impressive haul of assets but a slew of unanswered questions. As long as those remain unaddressed — and until the Brooklyn pick is either packaged in a trade or used to select a player next summer — look for Cleveland to remain in the eye of a whirlwind of trade rumors. Given the choice between a short-term gamble that might convince James to extend his stay and resigning itself to a long-term rebuild, the odds favor another blockbuster deal for the Cavaliers.
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