“This thing is not broken.”
New Cavaliers GM Koby Altman said that at his introductory press conference to a round of derision from social media pundits, including myself.
“This thing is not broken” seemed to indicate that the Cavaliers would be able to recover from the Kyrie Irving trade demand and rediscover their mojo. In the wake of Irving officially being dealt, it could end up meaning something different.
For a team that was bereft of assets, capped out and old, Altman suddenly faced to a chance to overhaul the Cleveland Cavaliers in the wake of Kyrie Irving’s trade request.
To be sure, Irving’s request wasn’t ideal, depressing his value and breaking up the top two players on a championship team, but if it had to happen, it did offer Altman an opportunity.
He could chase youth, adding secondary playmakers in Denver by attempting to wrangle Jamal Murray and Gary Harris. He could’ve brought back a familiar face and traded for Andrew Wiggins, adding top-shelf athleticism, but leaving the team without a starting caliber point guard. He could’ve chased size, versatility, shooting and defense by accepting the Bucks offer of Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton.
That’s not what he did.
Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN laid out exactly what the Cavaliers were looking for in his piece from the end of July:
The Cavaliers want a package that resembles the 2011 Nuggets-Knicks deal for Carmelo Anthony -- young players, win-now veterans and draft picks, league sources said. For new general manager Koby Altman, this is a textbook way to open trade discussions. But for now, most Irving suitors are using the Timberwolves-Bulls trade model for Jimmy Butler, a scaled-down model of Melo's rich return of assets.
In trading for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and an unprotected Nets 2018 first round pick, Altman got exactly what he said he wanted.
Now, this is kind of cheating, because Zizic very well might not be a rotation player in the NBA depending on who you ask. But nabbing two win-now veterans in Thomas, Crowder and probably the best draft pick that could be had in an Irving deal is not a bad consolation.
It’s not just a matter of getting quality players that help a team, though. These players fit archetypes the Cavaliers already use.
Thomas is famously 5’9”, and he might not having Irving’s size at 6’3, but from an advanced stats perspective, they’re fairly close:
You’ll note that Thomas’ true-shooting percentage is much stronger, and that’s a result of a free throw rate that nearly doubles Irving’s. That’s been one of the biggest steps Irving needs to take in his game, and Thomas has already figured that out. But other than that, they’re both high-usage, ball-dominant point guards that prefer to score rather than get their teams into their offense.
Thomas has a worse defensive ceiling than Irving at 5’9”, and that’s hard to cope with. But it’s fair to say that Irving rarely did the Cavaliers favors on that end of the floor, so from a purely stylistic perspective, it’s not far off. These guys aren’t exactly the same players, but it’s easy to slot Thomas into Irving’s role for the Cavaliers next year.
For Crowder, it’s probably easiest to say that for the Cavs, he fits in as a hilariously more useful option at the backup small forward and power forward slot than Richard Jefferson. Though Crowder is in an entirely different stratosphere as a player than Jefferson at this point, his role doesn’t have to be hugely different.
Jefferson was often asked to guard a tough perimeter player to give LeBron rest, hit open threes, cut into open space, and run the floor in transition. This isn’t that far off from what the Cavaliers will ask from Crowder, though Crowder will likely have expanded minutes as compared to Jefferson.
Crowder should be able to help in that regard, landing in the 87th percentile as a spot up shooter, per Synergy, slightly less effective in transition at the 62nd percentile, but a frankly insane 98th percentile on cuts.
It was easy to see how the Cavaliers might’ve been an entirely different team in the wake of a Irving trade. Now that the deal has been consummated, it’s hard to imagine how they’ll really look all that different.
The place Altman can really look to impress his own philosophy on the identity of the team will be with the Nets pick. They should be able to produce a close approximation of what they were last year, better in some spots and worse in others, but similar.
If things break right, and LeBron James decides to stay, Altman can either use the pick - which should land in the top-five of a top-heavy draft - on LeBron’s next running mate as he ages, or flip it for a superstar that becomes available. If James decides he’s leaving, the team can quickly get off of salary by declining to bring Thomas back and still have something valuable to look forward to in the next year.
Part of what made the first year without James so brutal was that it wasn’t accompanied by the hope of development of a young star. The Cavaliers had to suffer through a 26-game losing streak devoid of hope. Cleveland is now insulated against that, at least, and the usage of this pick is where Altman can truly put his stamp on the team.
Lost in the drama surrounding Irving’s request, David Griffins’ departure, LeBron’s potential exodus and a five-game ass-whooping in the NBA Finals is that the Cavaliers are really, really good. With this trade, Altman, in a way, acknowledged that.
“This thing is not broken.”
Let’s put that theory to the test, shall we?