It looks unlikely the Cleveland Cavaliers will pry a better haul than the Boston Celtics' standing offer of Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the Brooklyn Nets' unprotected pick in the 2018 draft -- even with Thomas' status so uncertain due to a lingering hip injury. That may embolden Boston to draw the line at one or two more second-round picks after Cleveland finally asked them Tuesday night for extra compensation.
Boston was forthright about the injury in talks with Cleveland before the teams agreed to a trade on Aug. 22, sources say, but Cleveland's doctors may come to a different conclusion about Thomas' prognosis for the coming season -- the last before LeBron James enters free agency as a flight risk again.
If recovery from various hip ailments, including a bone bruise, does not proceed smoothly, there is at least a slight chance Thomas would miss most of the 2017-18 season, sources say. (Thomas disagrees.)
That is the risk for Boston if this deal is voided, the source of whatever leverage the Cavs have in spite of their broken relationship with Irving: If Thomas can't go, who is playing point guard for a Boston team that wants to win 55 games next season? Boston is confident it can get by with more playmaking from Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, and better point guard defense from Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart. But the offense would take a hit on some nights.
Whether LeBron and his people like it or not, this deal for the Cavs was always about that Brooklyn pick. From the moment Irving made his trade request, Cleveland's No. 1 goal was a package centered around a blue-chip prospect or the rare pick that represented a guaranteed chance at one. They wanted a veteran ready to help LeBron now, but a blue-chipper was the priority. Landing that and a veteran who could replicate Irving's secondary scoring would be a teensy needle to thread.
It's easy to say LeBron is Cleveland's point guard, and dismiss the need for anyone else who can dribble and pass. But LeBron needs a second star to soak up some of the creative burden. Any superstar who wants to play in June needs that. Derrick Rose is not the answer.
The Milwaukee Bucks lurk on the fringes of the Irving bidding with an offer centered around Malcolm Brogdon, the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year, and Khris Middleton, sources say. The Bucks have not yet put a first-round pick on the table, sources say, but the bet here is that they would to get the deal done -- or if Irving showed any interest in staying in Milwaukee long-term.
Brogdon and Middleton are good. They can shoot 3-pointers, and switch across multiple positions on defense. They are tailor-made to help the Cavs mimic the Golden State Warriors, the only team LeBron really cares about right now.
They each provide some secondary ball-handling around Giannis Antetokounmpo. They do fine with that stuff in the regular season against most teams; Brogdon is a point guard by trade, and Middleton can post up mismatches and run nifty pick-and-rolls on the left wing. But compared to Irving, they are almost 3-and-D guys. It is a lot to ask of them to create consistent, efficient offense against elite postseason defenses.
A pick from the Bucks, an almost certain playoff team in the junior varsity conference, carries no blue-chip equity.
An unprotected pick from Phoenix would, but bad teams a half-decade away from relevance don't deal picks for stars who make them slightly less bad before bolting in free agency. Other likely lottery teams -- Sacramento, Atlanta, Indiana, Chicago -- don't appear to have made offers.
Denver was the one team in the sweet spot to go all-in with an offer of Wilson Chandler, Jamal Murray (the blue-chipper), and at least one first-round pick. They are at little risk of coughing up a top-10 pick, with a need at point guard and a roster that generally fits Irving's aging curve.
Denver never ventured nearly that far. There are obvious reasons for their reluctance: Irving's free agency in 2019, the Warriors, the challenge of building a defense book-ended by Irving and Nikola Jokic, the expense of an Irving-Jokic-Gary Harris core. (Jokic's defensive deficiencies have been overstated.) Cleveland may have concluded that package didn't bring LeBron enough present-day help. But unless Irving's representatives made it clear he would not stay in Denver long-term, the Nuggets might be the one team who should have thought harder about challenging Boston.
The Nets pick has been the single best asset available to Cleveland, even with a few other teams poised to jostle with them at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. So far, it has not been close. That 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 -- Hayward -- in free agency, and then jumping headlong into the trade market. They may well have Paul 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 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.
If this deal goes through, 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. He 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 threw more passes to Thompson than LeBron did on average.)
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. Boston is right to bet on its ability to coax Irving there. He's still young; he will mature. 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. Cleveland may still ask for more. Irving isn't worth it right now. Boston isn't crazy to think he will be soon.