Cleveland sets up for now, eyes future in Kyrie Irving-Isaiah Thomas swap

Zach Pereles

For sentimentality’s sake, this is a tough trade for Cleveland Cavaliers fans to swallow.

Logistically, though, it’s a move that very much makes sense.

With Kyrie Irving headed to Boston, Cleveland has broken up the tandem responsible for bringing the city its first title in 52 years. And now, with keeping one eye on the present, the Cavaliers are also able to look toward the future as owners of an unprotected first-round pick that could deliver another top-of-the-lottery talent to Northeast Ohio.

That pick stretches way back to June 2013, when the Celtics sent Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry to the Brooklyn Nets for first-rounders in 2014, 2016 and 2018, plus the rights to swap draft spots in 2017. That ’18 pick now belongs to Cleveland, and this much is clear: Brooklyn will be bad again this year. Will they be the worst team in the league? Perhaps not. But in all likelihood, Cleveland will now have a high pick in next summer’s NBA draft, and that adds just one more possibility to an offseason that is already very much up in the air.

The elephant in the room is LeBron James, who has been repeatedly linked to a move to Los Angeles. He can exercise a player option to enter unrestricted free agency next summer, and command a salary of more than $35 million. If he goes, Clevelanders could once again turn to burning jerseys and preparing for yet another rebuild; if he stays, there’ll be singing in the streets and wild celebrating. Or, the Cavs could wind up somewhere in between. That’s what makes the move so intriguing.

The Cavs traded Kyrie Irving (right) to Boston for Isaiah Thomas (left), Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and Brooklyn’s draft pick. (AP)

Isaiah Thomas also is a free agent following this season, and how the Cavaliers fare will also impact what Thomas — a two-time All-Star in his own right — does. Thomas will be 29 and has made it very clear that he’ll be looking for a maximum contract. There’s no arguing Thomas’ abilities on the offensive end as an aggressive creator and scorer, and he can absolutely be a secondary piece on a championship contender with a player like LeBron in place. But if James isn’t wearing wine-and-gold next season, will the Cavaliers want to give the max to a 5-foot-9, defensively challenged point guard?

That’s what makes the inclusion of the Brooklyn pick so intriguing. Cleveland in 10 months could look very different from Cleveland now, and with that, the Cavs’ priorities when looking to use a top pick could be very different, as well. So it’s worth looking at who might be available when (and if) Cleveland is on the clock in June.

Michael Porter Jr. has drawn comparisons to Kevin Durant with his size, athleticism and ability to score at all three levels. He’ll need to get stronger and diversify his game at Missouri, but he has the build and the skills to be a superstar at the next level. If the Cavaliers are starting over sans James and Thomas, Porter Jr. is an ideal candidate to lead an NBA team into a rebuilding era. If the Cavs are able to hold on to James, Porter Jr. adds firepower as a catch-and-shoot player and as an individual creator.

Marvin Bagley, who recently reclassified to the 2017 class and committed to Duke, is also regarded as one of the best players available in next year’s draft. An able scorer in the post and as a face-up four, Bagley has the length and skill to impact games on both ends. He’s an absolutely outstanding rebounder; imagine, for comparison’s sake, Tristan Thompson but with a far more diverse offensive repertoire. Bagley can put the ball on the floor and create. He’s even shown the ability to stretch out past the arc, and if that part of his game continues to develop, he’ll be a nightmare to deal with at the pro level. If Boston’s draft slot ends up at one or two, Cleveland can’t go wrong with either Porter Jr. or Bagley. If James stays, Bagley gives Cleveland an uber-flexible front court as a small-ball center with James at the four.

If Cleveland is able to keep a core that includes James, Thomas and Kevin Love, and still has this pick, and Brooklyn is a bad enough team to net a top-two selection, this trade is an absolute steal.

There’s also the intrigue of adding a big like Mo Bamba or DeAndre Ayton. The former has unbelievable physical skills and could be one of the most defensively-dominant players in the league upon his arrival. Ayton is more polished — a legit 7-footer who can stretch his game behind the arc — but has to show a better motor and the willingness to stay engaged on every possession.

There are other options, too. The mysterious Luka Doncic of Slovenia has an NBA-ready body and a skillset that can rival any of the best foreign prospects of recent memory, but his physical limitations could scare teams away. If Thomas isn’t around, a player such as incoming Alabama ball-handler Colin Sexton could be an appealing option, too. There are names galore that dot the lottery who could provide either hope for the future or value for a contender, depending on where Cleveland sees itself. If the Cavaliers are still set to contend, they’ll look for a more pro-ready player. If not, they could take a project.

So there’s the eye on the future. If James and Thomas are gone in 10 months, Cleveland could be looking to build a brand new core. Listen, rebuilding is never fun, as Cleveland fans know full well. But at some point, it’s necessary. Cleveland might have gotten a head start on Tuesday night.

The eye on the now is obvious. Irving had made it perfectly clear that he didn’t want to stick around, and things certainly couldn’t continue the way they were if Cleveland wanted any chance of keeping James around beyond next season. Irving finished 14th in the NBA in offensive rating last season; Thomas was 17th. Both are below-average defenders, and their net ratings (5.1 for Irving and 5.0 for Thomas) were basically identical. Yes, there are some obvious things Cleveland is giving up. Irving is three years younger, and under contract for two more seasons. He proved a natural fit when he went off-ball and James acted as a point guard, and that’s not something to which one can seamlessly adjust.

But Thomas, on the other hand, posted higher True Shooting and Effective Field Goal percentage numbers, had a higher assist rate, and produced more win shares last year en route to a fifth-place finish in MVP voting. And don’t forget about Jae Crowder, either. The versatile forward can slot into any sort of lineup Cleveland wants to run, has a very cap-friendly contract, and is much better than the alternatives the Cavs ran out on the wing last year — players like Richard Jefferson, Channing Frye, James Jones and Derrick Williams. There’s a very real and legitimate argument to be made that this trade actually makes Cleveland better in the short term, too, depending on how Thomas fits. Even if the move doesn’t help the Cavs improve, it doesn’t make them significantly worse, either.

There’s a final kicker to this, too. The 2018 pick is looked as a part of the future. But it doesn’t have to be a part of Cleveland’s future. The Cavaliers could certainly dangle that pick, and perhaps an expiring contract or two, in a midseason deal. If the Nets are really struggling, so much the better for Cleveland when potentially trying to swing a deal this winter. If Thomas has acquitted himself well alongside James, Love continues to play at a high level and Cleveland is looking to zero in on a fourth-straight Eastern Conference crown, the front office has a new piece that allows it to be aggressive at the deadline. It’s the same organization (though not with the same GM) that’s swung significant deals with much less during its second James era. It’s easy to forget how much influence James can have when trying to recruit players.

There’s an obvious best-case scenario in which Cleveland is good enough with its current roster — plus or minus some pieces — to beat the Golden State Warriors. That seems unreasonable, though, so the best reasonable (and now feasible) scenario would be acquiring a star at the deadline and being in a position to top the Dubs, while also managing to keep James in town next summer. The worst-case scenario: Cleveland sends the Brooklyn pick away in a trade and still doesn’t have enough to beat Curry, Durant and Co.

But at least this trade gives the Cavaliers that flexibility. Before this trade, they seemed headed for second-best, at best, yet again.

Golden State remains far and away the best team in the league, and this trade does not appear to change that significantly. Yes, Thomas is an outstanding scorer and Crowder a terrific three-and-D piece. Both of them will contribute immediately; whether rookie center Ante Zizic will, too, remains to be seen. But while half of this deal (known NBA quantities Thomas and Crowder) is for the now, the other half (Zizic and the pick) is for the future. Perhaps Cleveland can’t compete with Golden State next year. But with this move, the Cavs have the arsenal — if they want — to improve their chances to compete with the Dubs. And if they don’t, well, at least the Cavaliers can take solace in the fact the foundation for a rebuilding project has already been laid.

Related coverage from Yahoo Sports:
Dan Wetzel: What the blockbuster trade means for LeBron
How the Celtics granted Kyrie Irving’s wish
Kyrie’s trade fuels one of the NBA’s great feuds
LeBron’s Twitter farewell to Kyrie: ‘What a ride it was’