For next season, Cleveland is trying to serve two masters: LeBron James’ desire to win and a potential future without him. Right now, it’s unclear exactly how healthy Isaiah Thomas’ hip is, or how much he’ll be able to help the Cavaliers next season. That’s a problem.
Thomas isn’t the headliner of the Celtics’ package — that would be the Nets pick. And because Jae Crowder is in the deal, Thomas might not even be the best win-now piece. But he’s important because, at least on offense, he can replace what Kyrie Irving did next to LeBron.
They aren’t exactly the same player. But Thomas and Irving are similar enough that the Cavs could slot Thomas in into Irving’s spot and not miss much of a beat. In isolation last year, Thomas scored 1.12 points per possession — the exact same rate as Irving, per nba.com/stats. He's also good in the pick-and-roll, with 1.04 points per possession vs. Irving's .96. He’s comfortable off ball, too, as he shot 39.9 percent from three on 3.7 attempts per game. Is he even more of a defensive liability than Irving? Yes, because Irving at least is tall. But offensively, he’s good and fits what the Cavs do. His skillset is also malleable enough where if Tyronn Lue wants to change things, he can. As far as Irving replacements go, Thomas is close to ideal.
But he’s not healthy, and that matters with LeBron in a potential walk year. If the Nets pick is the future — or a potential way to get someone else in a few months — Thomas and Crowder are the present. In Crowder, the fit is obvious. He’s the Shane Battier-type player the Cavs haven’t had since LeBron came back and he can start or come off the bench. Crowder also allows LeBron to move off opposing team’s best players. Thomas, if healthy, is a one-year Irving replacement when the Cavs need exactly that. If Thomas isn’t healthy, he offers nothing to the Cavs in the last year of his contract.
It’s also not easy to trade Thomas if the deal goes through, even if the Cavs would like to. Per NBA rules, Thomas can’t be traded with another player — say, Iman Shumpert and his $10 million contract — for 60 days. And because he’s only making $6.2 million next year, there are so many starting-quality point guards at that price level. So, in theory, the Cavs could do a Thomas-Patrick Beverly swap. But would the Clippers even do that? And would Thomas plus Shumpert and likely a pick actually get the Cavs someone like Eric Bledsoe or some other veteran who isn’t Derrick Rose?
Of note: this is why the Cavs being able to trade their own first round pick and, maybe, another from the Celtics matters. In this sense, it’s hard to see another possible deal for Irving that gets Cleveland everything it wants. This why it seems likely that the Cavs and Celtics will work something out.
Also of note: the Cavs (understandably) don’t seem comfortable with Rose, Jose Calderon or Kay Felder, as a starter next season. At his introductory presser, Koby Altman referred to Rose as a “backup” and it doesn’t seem as if the team promised him a starting role. He’s also not a starting caliber player anymore, particularly for a title contender. Calderon wasn’t even a necessary signing. Felder, while good in the G-League last year, had a bad performance at Las Vegas Summer League and has a non-guaranteed contract. If the Cavs look to sign someone, Calderon and Felder would be likely candidates to be cut.
This all presents the Cavs with a choice. If Thomas’ hip is as bad as the Cavs think it could be, they have to pick between taking a risk that Thomas will return at some point, or that they can be good enough to contend and placate LeBron even without a starting caliber point guard on the roster.
Neither is a perfect option. Both are workable. It all just depends on what the Cavs are comfortable with, and how comfortable they are with the rest of the roster being enough for LeBron.