It’s hard not to be impressed by the return the Cleveland Cavaliers received for Kyrie Irving. Not only did they receive future assets in the Brooklyn Nets draft pick, Ante Zizic, and a 2020 second round pick, but they got assets that help fill a need now. The addition of Jae Crowder presents LeBron James with a high-end Shane Battier. Isaiah Thomas should be able to replicate a lot of what Irving did, whenever he returns to the lineup.
However, trying to maintain what was the status quo was never going to be good enough. As the Cavs went into this offseason, it was clear that a significant gap existed between them and the Golden State Warriors. While this move was a smart hedge for both the present and the future of the team, the question now shifts to whether or not this team is better equipped to take on the Warriors.
It’s hard to deny that the Cavs are a deeper team to start this season than they were at the start of last season. The team went into the 2016-17 campaign with Iman Shumpert trying to pull double duty as the team’s backup point guard and shooting guard. Richard Jefferson was the team’s only other reliable reserve wing. And once J.R. Smith got hurt, the Cavs paper thin roster experienced significant strain.
Now with Crowder, Derrick Rose and Kyle Korver serving as the team’s primary perimeter reserves, it pushes Shumpert and Jefferson further back in the rotation. They’ll also be competing with Cedi Osman and Jeff Green for minutes. Both come into this season hungry to prove they belong in the league, albeit for vastly different reasons. Even Jose Calderon presents the team with a more veteran option at point guard than they had last season.
This is a team that can deal with injuries, or the odd night where LeBron has to rest. While most of this depth will have little to no impact in a playoff series, it can help the team be fresher come playoffs. It also gives Tyronn Lue legitimate options and different looks to throw at the opposition, something that hasn’t always been present throughout his tenure.
Once Thomas his healthy enough to contribute, he should also be a massive help to the team. During the regular season, Thomas had the fourth highest usage rate in the NBA, trailing only Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Joel Embiid. His ability to absorb that usage and provide efficient scoring will help alleviate any additional regular season strain that could have been added to James by losing Irving.
In addition to absorbing the usage, Thomas is also a tremendous player off-ball. The Celtics used Al Horford to help free up Thomas and create for him regularly. Horford’s tremendous high post play and passing ability generated just shy of 15 touches per game for Thomas and 3.9 of his field goal attempts per game.
These are looks that Lue should be able to replicate by utilizing Love in a role that’s more similar to what he played in Minnesota. While there will be an adjustment to playing off-ball with LeBron James, he has shown enough to ability as a spot up shooter (92nd percentile), and off of hand-offs to give hope that the transition will be a smooth one.
In terms of play-making, there shouldn’t be too much of a transition from Irving to Thomas. Thomas created 11.4 potential assists per game to Irving’s 11.3 last season. Though it should be noted that Thomas received 5.7 more touches per game than Irving.
Thomas does have more experience running an offense though, so it’s possible that Lue will stagger him with LeBron more frequently than he did with Irving. On several occasions Lue brought up asking Irving to pass less when he shared the floor with LeBron, as the scoring he brought was what that lineup needed. It’s very possible that Thomas will be asked to fill a nearly identical role to the one Irving held.
In general, Thomas’s ability to replicate most of what Irving brought in the regular season should be cause for celebration. Crowder is a near perfect fit for this roster and gives the team tons of frontcourt versatility. Zizic could potentially be a starting caliber player down the road and can likely eat minutes next year. And the Nets pick gives the team the opportunity to either add young talent, or use it to add another piece to help beat the Warriors. Getting all of that without experiencing much drop-off during the season is a clear win for the team.
While all that is true, there are some serious causes for concern when we look at how the Cavs now match up against the Warriors. Concerns that all center around the team’s new point guard.
It’s well known that Thomas is one of the worst defensive players in the league. While Cavs fans should be no stranger to point guards with bad defensive habits, Thomas’s 5’9” frame prevents his effectiveness even when he is in position to contest a shot. When drafted, Irving measured in at 6’3.5 in shoes. That nearly seven inch difference becomes an issue when you examine your options against the Warriors.
Against the Warriors, the Cavs typically would put Irving onto Klay Thompson. While this was far from a perfect solution and mistakes were made, he generally did a good enough job to be a positive influence on the game.
This is not an option that exists for Thomas. Thompson has about 10 inches of height on Thomas, which is greater than the difference between Irving and Tristan Thompson. Obviously putting him on Curry isn’t an option, so that leaves the Cavs without a good place to hide him. Wherever he goes, the Warriors will hunt him down.
When the Celtics played the Wizards in the playoffs, they tried hiding Thomas on Otto Porter Jr. to limit the damage Wall or Beal would do on him. Unfortunately this isn’t an option against the Warriors now that Kevin Durant is on the team.
In the 41 minutes this season that Curry and Thompson shared the court with Thomas, the Celtics had a -50.4 net rating. While the Celtics won one of their two meetings against the Warriors, it was largely a result of strong bench play and taking advantage of the minutes where Curry and Thompson weren’t on the court together.
On a stage like the Finals, the rotations shorten and teams try to exploit every mismatch. There was not a minute that Curry and Thompson played in the 2017 Finals that wasn’t also with Irving on the court. There’s no reason to expect Warriors coach Steve Kerr not to try to capitalize on every minute that Thomas is on the court.
But what makes the Warriors so difficult to deal with is not only their offense, it’s their defense. They had the second best defense in the league last season and there’s little reason to expect a dropoff. In the Finals, we saw regular trapping of Irving while they let Durant guard LeBron one on one. The mentality being, that LeBron is going to get his, but slowing down Irving would reduce any chance the Cavs have at an upset.
While Thomas’s defensive numbers against the Warriors are concerning, the offensive numbers don’t inspire much confidence either. Over his seven games against the Warriors in the last three seasons, he has averaged 19.7 points, 5.7 assists and 2.7 turnovers per game. Not bad on the surface, but he has shot 35.5 percent from the field and 27.5 percent from three over that period of time.
Thomas has had one strong offensive outing in those seven games, a 22 and 6 performance on 9-20 shooting. But outside of that, the highest field goal percentage in any game he’s had against the Warriors is 38.1 percent. He even has struggled getting to the line against Golden State. When the Celtics played the Warriors, he averaged 5.2 free throw attempts during those games, down — from the 7.4 he averaged overall.
This isn’t to say that Thomas isn’t good. He was phenomenal last season and should be able to perform at a very high level for the Cavaliers. But while he helps against 28 other teams, the one that matters comes with a few glaring question marks and a history of poor performances. If that situation feels familiar, it’s because two out of the three All-Stars on the Cavs fall into that description.
It’s possible that the Cavs find a way to minimize some of these flaws. Or that Thomas takes on a lesser role against the Warriors in favor of going with multiple wings and LeBron at point guard. But as it currently stands, the Cavs do not appear to have a point guard that can stay on the court against the Warriors.
Given the situation the Cavs were put in, it’s hard to imagine a better return than what they received. But with concerns over Thomas’s health, his desire for max money next summer, the lack of success he’s had against the Warriors in the past, and the pressure added with LeBron’s free agency, the team would be well suited to see what other options exist in the trade market.
The team shouldn’t trade Thomas just to trade him. It’s also hard to flip him right now, as he can’t be traded with another player for 60 days from the date he became a Cavalier. And he’s low salary could make salary matching for some like Eric Bledsoe tricky. Clippers guard Patrick Beverley may be an option for a swap, although with the health of Thomas the Clippers may not be willing to take that risk.
If no clear upgrade is available, they can hope that he will struggle less against the Warriors next to LeBron and try to design a role for him that works in that matchup. But if they can find a playmaker that doesn’t come with as many reasons for concern, they should do what they can to acquire that player.