The NBA draft lottery brought the missing piece to the Kyrie Irving trade puzzle for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the finished product is enough to make a grown Cavs fan gag, even as the Game 7 hero of their 2016 championship team sits in street clothes on the end of the Boston Celtics bench.
Before George Hill, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson combined for exactly five more points in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals than Irving, who underwent season-ending knee surgery in March, the Cavs learned that the coveted unprotected Brooklyn Nets pick that was the prize of the Irving deal had remained in the eighth spot in what many consider a six- or seven-player draft.
Then comes the real kick in the teeth for Cleveland, right at the top of Jason Lloyd’s Final Thoughts for The Athletic from a 107-94 loss to Boston that put them in an 0-2 hole, via an unnamed Cavs player:
“Danny Ainge is a f***ing thief,” he said. No explanation needed.
That comment reportedly came after one of many lopsided mid-winter losses, but it still stings.
What, exactly, did the Cavaliers get for Irving?
After Irving’s trade request last summer, the Cavaliers sent him to the Celtics in late August for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, Brooklyn’s 2018 first-round pick and Miami’s 2020 second-round pick.
Thomas, of course, was recovering from a season-ending hip injury at the time, coming off an All-NBA campaign, and the weight of expectations for a LeBron James team came down squarely on his shoulders when he returned too early in January to a team that needed a scapegoat. He played the part well. Crowder was among a handful of pieces who never meshed with LeBron, and both former Celtics were sent out in a series of trade-deadline deals that returned Hill, Hood, Nance and Clarkson.
Zizic is still there. He and Clarkson each earned the “DNP — Coach’s Decision” designation in Tuesday’s loss, and the other three might as well have, combining for five points on seven shots in 56 minutes.
Then came the pick from the 28-win Nets, who had the eighth-best odds of jumping into the top three, no thanks to their late-season upset of Cleveland. The 27-win Sacramento Kings, owners of the seventh-best odds, moved up to No. 2 in the draft. The Cavs could still have some intriguing players to choose from, namely Oklahoma’s Trae Young, but the odds of him becoming Irving are against them.
One more pick would convey — the Heat’s second-rounder in 2020, the piece that sweetened the pot when Cleveland leveraged Thomas’ injury against Boston — but they dealt that in the deal for Hill.
But isn’t Irving injured?
Yes, Irving underwent season-ending knee surgery. And yes, he reportedly threatened to undergo that procedure — a cleanup of the hardware left in there after he fractured his left kneecap in Game 1 of the 2015 NBA Finals — if the Cavs didn’t trade him. So, there is some question as to what Cleveland would have gotten out of him this season had he remained on the only roster he had ever known.
But this deal goes well beyond this season. The Cavs tried to straddle the line between retooling for the present and rebuilding for the future, and instead they may have left both shelves empty.
They have gotten so little from the five players currently on the playoff roster resulting from the Irving deal that it is entirely plausible this group actually drives James out of Cleveland again. Outside of Hill, who started Game 2 alongside the four remaining members of the 2016 title team (James, J.R. Smith, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson), the Cavs have got less than nothing from the others. Hood, Clarkson and Nance have been net negatives, by a wide margin, and Zizic only plays garbage time.
Hill is 32 years old, often injured, and will make $20 million next season. The rest of them are still young. All are capable of filling roles on a decent team in the future. But LeBron isn’t there for a decent future. He’s there to be great now, and we saw how great they were with Irving alongside him.
If the Cavaliers felt compelled to trade Irving, a 25-year-old superstar with four All-Star bids and a championship game-winner already under his belt, you can’t come back with this return. And you might not be able to come back from this return. Irving’s surgery is expected to prevent longterm issues, rather than create them, and he will join a Celtics roster next season that is on the verge of making the Finals without him and Gordon Hayward. This is the world the Cavs and LeBron now face.
What does this mean for LeBron James?
If you’re LeBron, and you just dropped 42 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds in a double-digit loss that pushed your season to the brink, you can’t be optimistic about the future in Cleveland. Not when you know Irving and Hayward will join a team that might be better than you right now — a team with a pair of youngsters in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown who already look like superstars in the making.
If LeBron is primarily interested in competing for titles, as he’s stated in the past, it’s pretty clear Cleveland is no longer his best option. Other options — the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers chief among them — may not be ideal fits, either, but at least you can talk yourself into their future.
If LeBron is more interested in staying home in Northeast Ohio, then he better hope the Cavs hit a home run with the eighth pick or turn it into a player who helps him win while he’s still in his mid-30s, if he wants to avoid living a banal NBA existence these next few years. This sounds grim. It is grim.
How do the Cavaliers really feel about it?
Publicly, Cavaliers general manager Koby Altman put on a brave face at TD Garden on Tuesday.
“We’re pretty comfortable where we are,” Altman told reporters after the lottery. “We realize how deep this draft is. We’re excited about the potential of this pick and the player we can get at eight. …
“We’re in the Eastern Conference finals, which is a great achievement. We’re competing to get to the Finals. I think we have really talented young players and with this draft pick, it sets us up for sustainable success.”
The day a team with LeBron James at the top of the bill considers the conference finals a great achievement is the day that signals the end of an era. Whether or not Altman believes what he just said — that the group of players currently serving as cement blocks around LeBron’s feet on the sinking Cavaliers ship is a foundation for future success — there’s only one reality that matters: The Cavaliers miss Kyrie Irving more than the Celtics right now, and only one team is getting him back.
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