When the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics stunningly swapped All-Star point guards, the general reaction from basketball intelligentsia was that the Celtics gave up too much for Kyrie Irving, especially since the leak-filled trade process never revealed a single offer elsewhere in the NBA that came close to Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and an unprotected surefire lottery pick in 2018.
Thomas was a top-five MVP candidate in 2017 whose production compared favorably to Irving’s. The Cavs added Crowder, an above-average starter and advanced statistical darling in Boston, and Zizic, a promising 7-foot Croatian who the Celtics drafted in the first round a year earlier. And all of that was merely the icing on a #NetsPick cake that could come out of the oven as the No. 1 overall pick in June.
Even with the knowledge that Thomas’ hip injury could keep him out of the lineup until 2018 — a revelation that earned Cleveland another second-round pick in the deal — the majority of pundits believed that was a lot to give up for a guy who had yet to prove he could succeed sans LeBron James.
Even if you were among those who thought, Hey, Kyrie Irving is the best player in that trade, and that usually works out for whoever’s on the receiving end, you had to concede new Cavaliers general manager Koby Altman landed a hell of a haul for his 25-year-old four-time All-Star point guard.
Former Cavs GM David Griffin, who held the job up until a month before news of Irving’s trade request became public, certainly agrees with that sentiment. Except, he still thinks Cleveland lost the trade:
— SiriusXM NBA Radio (@SiriusXMNBA) November 14, 2017
“Will it be judged historically as a good trade? No,” Griffin said during an appearance on Sirius XM NBA Radio. “I mean, it won’t be, because Kyrie’s going to be a special individual player, and the way this works from a social media standpoint and a media coverage standpoint, all they’re going to talk about is how good he is.
“But given the cards Koby Altman was playing at the time, given the circumstances they found themselves in, if you were dealing with the situation where LeBron [James] refused to tell you unequivocally he’s staying in the organization, you don’t know what his longterm future is, you’re trying to win championships while he’s there and simultaneously set yourself up for a future run, I think the deal they put together was really well constructed.
“And I think it was a very good deal given the cards they were playing at the time, but do I think he’s going to be hailed as having made a great trade deep into the future? Probably not, but if he wins a championship, I know Koby doesn’t care. So, he had a subset of things he had to achieve, and I think if you know what those things are, he probably achieved them.”
He may be right that Irving’s solid start on a Celtics team that leads the league with a 13-2 record has won the day on social media, particularly as the Cavs struggle to find a secondary playmaker in the absence of Thomas, but most nuances Griffin described were discussed in the media at the time.
The uncertainty around LeBron’s impending free agency was precisely why Altman sought a veteran starter who could help the Cavs win this season, a talented young wing and a first-round pick in return for Irving. This was well-documented in Cleveland’s pursuit of Eric Bledsoe, Josh Jackson and a first-rounder from the Phoenix Suns, which always seemed like the best deal until Boston came along.
We’re still left wondering what it was, exactly, that turned the tide for Irving to ask off a team that had reached three straight NBA Finals and won the 2016 title, and Griffin offered little clarity in that regard.
— SiriusXM NBA Radio (@SiriusXMNBA) November 14, 2017
“Everybody wants to find sort of that silver bullet, the magic bullet that made everything end,” Griffin added to Sirius XM NBA Radio. “It wasn’t that. It was a gradual day-to-day thing of the evolution of a young guy who went from being the first pick in the draft to being an Olympic champion, an NBA champion, making the biggest shot in the history of Cleveland. You evolve and change that way.”
The ex-Cavs GM couldn’t say whether Cleveland’s interest in trading for Paul George in a three-team deal that would have cost him Irving was the impetus for Kyrie wanting out, since his contract wasn’t picked up between a nixed deal and Irving’s trade request, but Griffin made one thing perfectly clear:
“If he had articulated to me he wanted to be traded, we would’ve traded him,” he said on Tuesday. “You’re all the way in or you’re all the way out on winning a championship. You don’t get to bring the house down from within, and if you’re miserable, the worst thing you can do is hide it. So, what I think he did was what he was supposed to do for a team that wants to win a championship. He made it very clear.”
This isn’t all that different from what Griffin already told ESPN about Irving’s trade request. What is new, though, is the fact that he already thinks his ex-coworkers lost this trade. Griffin seemed to suggest that any trade of Irving was going to result in a loss, and Altman just minimized the damage.
But isn’t any grade of the deal far from final? Thomas could still return to All-Star form and help LeBron lead Cleveland to another championship, the Nets pick could turn into Michael Porter Jr., Marvin Bagley III, DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Mohamed Bamba or any other elite prospect who may be the NBA’s next big thing, and/or Irving could leave Boston in 2019 free agency — any combination of which would alter the historical judgment on this trade. Maybe Griffin knows something we don’t.
Or maybe he’s making the same snap judgment we all are a month into this season: The trade looks great for Boston and the opposite of great for Cleveland. Time will tell, but Griffin has seen enough.
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