Kyrie Irving, Isaiah Thomas, alternate timelines and the impossibility of grading the trade

Ball Don't Lie
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/4942/" data-ylk="slk:Isaiah Thomas">Isaiah Thomas</a> and <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/4840/" data-ylk="slk:Kyrie Irving">Kyrie Irving</a> in an alternate universe. (AP)
Isaiah Thomas and Kyrie Irving in an alternate universe. (AP)

In the aftermath of a trade like Tuesday’s blockbuster between the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers, in which the two Eastern Conference finalists swapped All-Star point guards Isaiah Thomas and Kyrie Irving, along with several other pieces, there’s a propensity to rush to judgment on the deal.

How could the Celtics give up their Brooklyn Nets pick, Jae Crowder and Ante Zizic in addition to Thomas? Why would the Cavs trade a 25-year-old who is already one of the game’s premier scorers and clutch performers for a 5-foot-9 guy with a bad hip who will demand $30 million next summer?

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Somebody has to win the trade, and somebody has to lose. That’s the nature of a high-profile NBA trade, because otherwise we couldn’t fill air time on debate shows or word counts for a report card. Nobody wants to discuss a deal where both sides came out even, right? The problem with most trades — especially this one — is that we won’t actually know who won or lost the trade for some time.

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In the case of this particular trade, we’ll probably have to wait until at least the 2018 Eastern Conference finals, when the two sides will likely meet again, or 2019, when Irving can opt out of his contract, or 2024, when we’ll know for sure what the Nets pick and Zizic have become, or 2029, when Irving is putting the finishing touches on a Hall of Fame career. But who wants to wait until then?

Instead, I’ve laid out five alternate timelines that illustrate just how ridiculous it is to make any determination on this deal in the present, how disparate the results could be when all is said and done, and none of them include the possibility that the Celtics could turn around and trade Irving with another pick for someone like Anthony Davis down the line and rule the East for a decade.

TIMELINE 1: The Cavaliers win the 2018 NBA title

There’s a real chance the Cavs improved on Tuesday. Thomas submitted one of the 10 most efficient high-volume scoring seasons in NBA history, averaging more points at a higher true shooting clip than Irving in 2016-17. If there are no residual effects from an offseason spent rehabbing an injured hip, it wouldn’t be out of the question for Thomas to either match or exceed Irving’s production again.

On top of that, Cleveland added Crowder, a vital component of Boston’s success the past two-plus seasons. His 13.9 points per game on 39.8 percent shooting from distance, along with 5.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists a night, compared favorably to the production that just earned Otto Porter Jr. a max contract from the Washington Wizards, only Crowder makes just $22 million over the next three years.

In 2015-16, Crowder earned enough All-Defensive votes to make the Third Team if there was one. His defense dipped this past season, but he could return to form as a well above-average two-way player alongside James. Crowder won’t have nearly the offensive responsibility he did in Boston, and at the very least he gives the Cavs another able body to defend two through four — even if Golden State Warriors forward Andre Iguodala doesn’t believe Crowder can even attempt to guard Kevin Durant.

Still, Thomas and Crowder don’t represent enough of an upgrade to close the gap on Golden State. However, the Cavs also acquired two potential trade chips in the Brooklyn Nets’ unprotected 2018 pick and promising Croatian 7-footer Ante Zizic, should they decide to go all in on the 2017-18 campaign. The Nets pick alone, along with contract filler, is enough to join the conversation for any star who enters the trade market, whether it’s DeMarcus Cousins, Marc Gasol or another run at Paul George.

Meanwhile, whispers are growing louder that the Chicago Bulls will eventually buy out Dwyane Wade, who would then join the Cavaliers this season. You’re telling me a rotation of James, Thomas, Love, All-Star X, Wade, Crowder, J.R. Smith, Derrick Rose, Kyle Korver and Jeff Green isn’t enough to at least challenge Golden State, especially if the Warriors aren’t as healthy as they’ve been the last few years?

If the Cavs do challenge the Warriors, maybe that’s enough to persuade LeBron to re-sign next summer. And maybe that’s enough to ensure Boston will continue playing second fiddle in the East.

TIMELINE 2: The Celtics win the East in 2018

On the other hand, that’s a lot to ask from the Cavs. There’s an alternative timeline where Thomas can’t replicate his top-five MVP campaign this past season, or worse — the hip injury limits his ability to reach his mere All-Star level of play two seasons ago. His usage rate and fourth-quarter solo performances will no doubt wane playing with James. And who’s to say Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue will be as effective at finding ways to maximize Thomas’ production as Brad Stevens was in Boston?

LeBron and Thomas will be motivated by the slights of Irving wanting out of Cleveland and the Celtics wanting him in Boston. Still, even if the Cavs acquire Wade, there’s no guarantee the personalities of James, Thomas, Wade, Rose and Smith will blend seamlessly — or even at all. Thomas is gunning for a max contract, Rose is looking to resurrect his career, and Smith is Smith. If the chemistry crumbles, and LeBron steps one foot out the door in free agency, the Cavaliers could very well crumble, too.

The uncertainty of LeBron’s future in Cleveland could prevent the Cavs from dangling the Brooklyn pick at the deadline, because that’s their only insurance policy against James leaving town. Then, they would be banking on Thomas and an improved bench making up for the loss of Irving in 2017-18.

If that’s the case, any combination of regression from Thomas, improvement by Irving under Stevens and/or Boston’s additions of Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes could be enough to close the gap in a conference finals that would have gone six games if not for Irving eviscerating the Celtics in Game 4 a year ago. Depending on the respective progress of Tatum and Jaylen Brown in Years 1 and 2 in Boston, Cleveland could be even closer to losing its grip on the East.

Then what? Then maybe LeBron leaves town, Thomas follows, and the Cavaliers enter full-on rebuild mode, while the Celtics and their young core are set to rule the conference for the next half-decade.

TIMELINE 3: The Cavs get the No. 1 pick in 2018

Regardless of who wins the East this season, the Brooklyn pick could result in Cleveland’s fifth No. 1 pick since 2003 — a possibility made even more remarkable by the fact that the first of those top picks is still playing at an MVP level 15 years later and working on a string of seven straight Finals showings.

There are two elite prospects in the 2018 draft — Michael Porter Jr. and Marvin Bagley III, who are respectively earning Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis comparisons — and possibly a third in Bahamian behemoth DeAndre Ayton. Any one of them has the potential to set the Cavaliers up for another decade of contention, regardless of whether James remains in Cleveland. That Zizic could develop into a bona fide blue-chip talent alongside one of them is merely icing on the cake.

Just imagine if James and Thomas lead the Cavaliers to the Finals, they both stay in Cleveland, and Porter develops into Durant 2.0 under LeBron’s guidance. The Cavs could be a monster in the East for the rest of Irving’s career, and the Celtics would have created it. This is Boston’s worst-case scenario.

TIMELINE 4: Irving becomes a perennial MVP candidate

Conversely, Irving may flourish under Stevens and beside unselfish All-Star teammates Hayward and Al Horford. He is 25 years old with four All-Star appearances, an NBA title and an Olympic gold medal to his name, and only MVPs have put forth the sort of scoring performances he’s put on in the Finals.

As he develops, so too will recent No. 3 overall picks Tatum and Brown, and there’s always the chance Boston’s own likely lottery pick — a top-one-protected asset from the Los Angeles Lakers —  could become Bagley. How Irving emerges as the leader of that group will be fascinating to watch, because they could become the supporting cast to a scorer who makes Thomas’ 2016-17 season look routine.

Should James and Thomas depart in free agency, Crowder stay stagnant, Zizic never emerge, and the Brooklyn pick fall somewhere in the 6-to-10 range, where busts are more likely, the Cavs could be home watching the lottery in 2019 and beyond as their former Finals hero leads Boston back to glory and continues stitching together a Hall of Fame career in Celtics green. This is Cleveland’s worst-case scenario.

TIMELINE 5: Irving does not re-sign with Boston in 2019

Irving could be great for Boston and still punctuate Tuesday’s trade with a gut punch. He owns a player option worth $21.3 million for the 2019-20 season — a price tag that will almost certainly be below market value for a 27-year-old All-Star point guard two years from now. And while Irving is reportedly “thrilled” to be joining the Celtics and could sign an extension at any point between now and his 2019 free agency, a lot can change in a few years. Just ask Irving, James and the Cavaliers.

Should Irving walk in 2019, Boston will regret giving up Thomas (who likely would have re-signed with the Celtics were they to meet his asking price), a top pick in a loaded draft, Crowder’s immensely valuable contract and a 7-foot prospect under their control through 2021. Because that’s potentially two franchise cornerstones and a pair of foundational building blocks for a two-year Irving rental.

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That said, the Celtics may have convinced themselves Thomas wasn’t worth the max contract he was likely to demand, that the Brooklyn pick will drop in the draft, that Crowder was going to lose minutes behind Hayward, and that Zizic isn’t anything special. In that case, the package would be well worth gambling on Irving to make magic with Hayward, Horford and company, whether or not he leaves in two years.

Beyond that, we’ll just have to wait to see what becomes of Thomas, next year’s pick and Zizic. In the meantime, any number of scenarios could make today’s report card grades and talk-show debates seem ludicrous. It’s all just a crapshoot, really, and that’s what makes these blockbuster trades so fun.

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Ben Rohrbach is a contributor for Ball Don’t Lie and Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!

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