In the end, Cleveland could not find a better deal for Kyrie Irving than Boston's offer of Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the Brooklyn Nets' unprotected 2018 first-round pick -- and that 2020 Miami second-rounder added at the last minute. Irving's shocking July 7 trade request put Cleveland in an impossible position: find a return that satisfied both LeBron James' unrelenting mandate to win now and Cleveland's organizational mandate to fortify itself for his potential departure in free agency next summer.
The Cavs, of course, wanted everything: veterans to help James, and a blue-chip prospect to guide the post-LeBron era. But sometimes when teams try to harvest every sort of asset at once, they end up with a B-minus version of each type -- and no A-plus. Those packages destroy franchises in the long run. The Cavs' revamped front office, under new general manager Koby Altman, understood that from the beginning, and smartly pursued a single A-plus asset above all else: a blue-chip prospect, or the rare pick almost guaranteed to net a chance at one.
The Nets pick is an A-plus asset, even with the Bulls, Pacers, and Hawks jostling with them at the bottom of the tankeriffic standings in the enduringly pathetic East.
Whether LeBron's people like it or not, the Cavs erred on the side of their organization's future over LeBron's present. What that says about LeBron's future, or the Cavaliers' perception of it, is uncertain. That alone is worrisome for Cleveland. If LeBron gives the Cavs a concrete reason for hope by midseason -- never his M.O. -- they could package that Nets pick in search of veteran help at the trade deadline.
If Thomas can get healthy in time for meaningful games -- i.e., the playoffs -- this deal was always their best shot at threading the present-versus-future needle. If he can't, the Cavs have no shot against the Warriors, and maybe even a fight on their hands in the Eastern Conference finals.
Peak Thomas can replicate Irving's secondary scoring and playmaking, though he is an even dicier matchup against the Warriors -- the only team LeBron cares about at this point. Crowder immediately becomes Cleveland's best two-way wing by a wide margin, someone who can chase Kevin Durant in the Finals so LeBron doesn't (always) have to. Zizic is an interesting prospect.
No rival bidder came close. Bad teams, like the Suns, recoiled at coughing up their best assets to chase a superstar who would only nudge them toward .500 before bolting in free agency in two years. Middling teams with a need at the position feared Irving would leave at the first chance. They either offered inferior packages, or bowed out in July without really diving into the bidding.
Milwaukee was willing to flip Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton, sources say, but balked at committing beyond that. It wasn't enough. It is unclear whether the Cavs and Wolves ever seriously discussed any package centered around old Cleveland friend Andrew Wiggins.
The Cavs didn't have many options. Bringing Irving back into the fold was not one of them. Our Dave McMenamin has reported that Irving may have sat out training camp. Either way, rest assured: Irving was prepared to make things unpleasant had Cleveland retained him.
This is why the critical consensus pricked Danny Ainge, Boston's GM, in the wake of the trade. The same team that pussy-footed around Paul George and Jimmy Butler blew away the market for Irving. One GM told me Irving would have to become a top-10 player to equal the value of what Boston sent out.
But how are the Celtics getting Irving without including the Nets pick or the Lakers/Kings pick it snagged from the Sixers? Their own picks are too low to matter in deals of this magnitude. They weren't trading Jayson Tatum. They own nice protected 2019 first-rounders from the Clippers and Grizzlies, but there is too much uncertainty about where they might land -- and when they might change hands -- for Cleveland to value them as blue-chip material.
There is no Irving in Boston without the Nets pick. Any criticism of Ainge for overpaying amounts to this: Did he fight hard enough to slap top-two or just top-one protection on the Nets pick? If he didn't, it's likely because both teams understood the severity of Thomas' injury.
Haggling can also be risky in time-sensitive auction-style deals. Trade talks aren't as clean or predictable as we imagine. Personality clashes cloud things. Rivals miscommunicate, or misunderstand each other in the heat of the moment. Pull back one part of your offer, and another team might bump theirs up and steal the player you covet. Teams sometimes accept a little less from one suitor to avoid trading a valuable player to a top rival bidding more.
The "why not Butler and George?" questions are dicier. Timing played a part. Boston wanted two All-Star-level building blocks. They feared flipping their golden trade chip for the first one, whiffing on the second, and ending up having squandered their best asset to build a team that wasn't appreciably better than their previous iteration of LeBron roadkill.
They preferred signing the first one -- Gordon Hayward -- in free agency, and then jumping headlong into the trade market. They may well have George now had the Pacers waited another 10 days, but Boston was concerned George would leave for the Lakers in a year. Irving's deal runs one season longer, and he has already relayed an enthusiasm for playing in Boston.
The Celtics had some concerns over how Hayward and Butler would mesh, both on the court and as personalities, sources say.
And then there is perhaps the most important variable: Irving is just 25, two years younger than George, and two and a half years younger than Butler. When you're building around Tatum and Jaylen Brown, those two-plus years are crucial. Irving is just entering his prime. Boston wants to push LeBron now, and maybe make the NBA Finals if he goes west, but they really want to be the team of 2020 and beyond. Irving fits that timetable better, provided he can stay healthy.
We all know the warts: Irving plays no defense, he's a chucker, and Cleveland has been a disaster whenever Irving has had to play without James. As our Adrian Wojnarowski reported, teams have long had concerns about his night life. He does not profile as the best player on a championship team.
That was the bigger-picture concern among Boston pessimists in the wake of the Irving deal: If all the hoarding and dealing in the end nets Al Horford, Hayward, Irving, Tatum, Brown, and one more interesting prospect, did Boston accomplish enough with those picks? Where is the no-brainer franchise superstar -- the best player on a title team?
Here are the Best Players On Title Teams since 1991: Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, Pick-A-Piston, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, LeBron James, maybe Kawhi Leonard (2014 Spurs), Stephen Curry, and maybe Kevin Durant.
Exactly one of those non-Pistons was traded in the prime of his career, and played the role of best guy on a championship team after the trade: Garnett. Even with Ainge's borderline unprecedented trove, meeting that standard in a trade was a long shot.
Even after this deal, Boston still may have the most trade equity in the league: two recent top-three picks, a potential top-five pick from the Lakers or Kings, and the 2019 picks from the Clippers and Grizzlies. (That Memphis pick, just top-eight protected in 2019 and top-six protected the next year, is really spicy.) Who can compete with that? The Sixers could, but they should chase a playoff spot this season, potentially devaluing their own picks. The Suns could, but they're so far away that packaging a ton of future assets for one superstar doesn't make as much sense as it does for Philly or Boston.
If Anthony Davis becomes available -- and the Celtics' eyes are very much trained on him -- Boston could throw together a package more compelling than just about anyone else's. Irving would be an indirect part of that package. The NBA's superstar class respects his ballsy showman's game. (Ainge has long liked Irving more than most of his peers for some of the same reasons, sources say.) Beyond Davis, it's hard to pinpoint the next star players who might become available at Irving's age and merit a motherlode offer -- another reason to target Irving now.
More to the point, Irving has a chance to become a foundational offensive superstar. Boston went as far as it could with a crew of gritty, unheralded players with chips on their shoulders. It was time to search for greater upside. Irving can hit pull-up 3s off the pick-and-roll, and Brad Stevens would encourage him to shoot more of them; he launched "just" 3.5 of those suckers per game last season, a hair below Mike Conley and Chris Paul. That number should be higher, even though Irving's accuracy on those shots -- the toughest shots in basketball -- has fluctuated wildly year-to-year.
Those shots draw double-teams, and those double-teams unlock everything else. If Irving trades in two or three shots like this every night for 3s and kickout passes, he immediately becomes a different player:
(As an aside, watching a reel of basically any other player run pick-and-roll makes you appreciate the uniqueness of Stephen Curry. For Curry, that play above is a no-brainer triple. Other players, even superstars like Irving, listen for the defender trailing behind them, or worry the big man might leap out. They fret about open space closing. Curry's mind is clear.)
Some of that is system. The Cavs don't have one. LeBron is the system, until he lends it to Irving. Some within the Cavs thought that crippled Irving-helmed bench units. They had nothing to fall back on without LeBron, save for Irving bailout shots.
The your-turn, my-turn vibe created awkward little buffering hiccups when Irving would wait, and wait, and wait for a pick to come as the defense girded itself:
There is not a lot of waiting in Stevens' flowing, side-to-side system, heavy on semi-scripted reads and whizzy handoffs. It has made lesser players better. It will make Irving better.
Irving will have to do his part, too. His default mode is "get buckets," even when shooters are open everywhere. He over-dribbles like a snooty stylist, and heaves bad midrange shots. When LeBron hits the bench, Irving has responded mostly by upping his shot attempts to an almost absurd degree instead of running a normal NBA offense.
He is smart enough to improve his playmaking. Irving sees the floor well. For a hoggy showman, he can make quick decisions when the moment demands speed: touch passes around the perimeter, those Curry-esque lefty behind-the-back bouncers to Kevin Love on the pick-and-pop, and laser hook passes with both hands:
He is more of a chess player -- a manipulator -- than you might expect. He uses one pick-and-roll as bait to get the defense to reveal itself. If he sees a weakness, Irving exploits it. If he doesn't, he will go back the other way, knowing how the defense will respond -- and what seams that response will open for him:
He is a wizard at disguising which way he wants to go on a pick-and-roll, to the point that he would often confuse his screeners. He's going to be lethal with Horford, one of the savviest screeners alive:
He made huge strides last season finding Tristan Thompson on lobs. Cleveland officials liked to joke that on some nights, Irving was the only player on the team who would pass to poor Thompson.
He probably passed to Thompson too often, at the expense of shooters dotting the perimeter. If there's one pass Irving doesn't have in his bag, it's the crosscourt pass to an open shooter -- the John Wall/LeBron/James Harden special. His average assist traveled 19.1 feet, 31st among 52 players who averaged at least four dimes per game last season, per SportVU data provided by Stats LLC.
Part of that is size. The crosscourt wizards are bigger than Irving, with longer wingspans. They can throw over forests of arms. Part of it is choice. Once Irving punctures the first line of defense, he starts drooling about one of those twisty, spinning, heavy-on-the-English finishes. He has a bad habit of doing that Chris Paul classic, where he gets his defender on his butt, only to surrender the advantage by stepping back for a fadeaway:
He does that a lot. Imagine if he pressed the issue on those plays?
Tilt his game a bit toward pull-up 3s and playmaking, and Irving could be special.
It's a little surprising no team was willing to bet on its ability to coax a 25-year-old with Irving's pedigree toward the next and best version of himself. He's still young; he will mature. I keep coming back to Denver: a rising team getting by with Jamal Murray, Jameer Nelson, and the demoted Emmanuel Mudiay at point guard. They could have made a competitive offer -- something like Wilson Chandler, Murray, and an unprotected first-round pick.
You can understand their hesitancy: Irving is a flight risk the moment he gets in the door. It might be hard to build even an average defense with Irving and Nikola Jokic as bookends, though Jokic's limitations on that end have been overstated; he's smart, and huge. Irving and Jokic would have to figure out how to split facilitator duties. Murray is going to be good, and has three years left on a cheapo rookie deal. Even after splurging on Paul Millsap, the Nuggets -- like everyone else -- really are aiming for the years when the Golden State dynasty begins to crumble, whenever that is. A core of Irving, Jokic, and Gary Harris will get very expensive once all three are on new contracts in a couple of years.
But Irving will still be a star when the Warriors ease into the gentle downslope. Playing with Jokic and Millsap, two ace passers who take real joy in sharing, might nudge Irving's game the right way. The Nuggets will be good enough, even in the loaded West, that they are at almost no risk of accidentally dealing away a top-10 pick.
They preferred the slow build. They are probably right to without any assurances from Irving that he would consider signing there long term. But, man, I'd have been tempted.
Boston has those assurances, and they are on a different level above Denver. Stevens is a genius. Horford is one of the game's best passing big men, and the Celtics empower him in ways the Cavs rarely afforded Love.
They will likely start Horford at center, opening up the floor for Irving's drive-and-kick game. He and Hayward might form a fun pick-and-roll combination after Irving put in some reps with LeBron. (Hayward posting up mismatches on switches is one of the final frontiers in his game.)
And when a playoff defense is strangling Boston as the shot clock dwindles, they now have one of the league's greatest one-on-one scorers to conjure something from nothing. That skill matters so much more in the playoffs. Boston's offense fell to around league average during the last seven seconds of the shot clock last season, per NBA.com.
Boston paid a lot to get Irving -- in theory too much, considering rival offers. Irving isn't worth it right now. Boston isn't crazy to think he will be soon.