Just three months after they faced each other in the conference finals, and with a good chance they’ll have a rematch next spring, the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers pulled off a blockbuster trade on Tuesday.
The Cavs granted Kyrie Irving’s trade request and did so without worrying too much about who they were trading him to. Other general managers might hesitate to deal with the next best team in their conference, but new Cavs GM Koby Altman did not.
Neither did Celtics president Danny Ainge, who sent Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 first round pick to Cleveland in exchange for Irving.
Here are some numbers to know as you digest this major shake-up in the Eastern Conference.
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Change of roles?
Last season, Thomas was assisted on 43.5 percent of his buckets, while Irving was assisted on only 30.4 percent of his, registering more than twice as many isolation possessions (367) as Thomas (178). It will be interesting how much those numbers change next season.
Will Thomas play more one-on-one in a Cavs offense that led the league in isolations and ranked 26th in passes per possession (2.86)? Will Irving play less one-on-one in a Boston offense that ranked 28th in isolations and second in passes per possession (3.32)?
Irving and Thomas both scored 1.12 points per possession on isolations last season, tying for the best mark among 54 players with at least 100 isolation possessions.
Being a teammate of LeBron James means playing off the ball. But because the Celtics pass the ball a lot more than the Cavs, Thomas took 102 more catch-and-shoot jumpers than Irving did last season.
Though he didn’t shoot off the catch as often, Irving was the much more effective shooter off the catch than both Thomas and Crowder. Including postseason, Irving had an effective field goal percentage of 70.0 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers. In the regular season, only Kemba Walker was more effective on at least 150 attempts. In the playoffs, only J.R. Smith and Kawhi Leonard were more effective on at least 25 attempts.
Both Thomas and Crowder were solid shooters off the catch (they ranked 34th and 40th in catch-and-shoot effective field goal percentage among 122 players with at least 200 attempts in the regular season), but not nearly as good as Irving.
Though Irving was better on catch-and-shoot chances last season, Thomas was the more effective shooter overall and a more efficient scorer. In the regular season and playoffs combined, Thomas had a effective field goal percentage of 53.8 percent and a true shooting percentage of 61.6 percent. Irving: 53.3 percent and 57.9 percent.
First of all, those catch-and-shoot jumpers accounted for only 11 percent of Irving’s total shots. Furthermore, though both guys are comparable shooters from everywhere on the floor, Thomas took 79 percent of his shots from the restricted area and 3-point range, the two places that yield the most points per attempt. Only 60 percent of Irving’s shots came from the restricted area or 3-point range.
And the most efficient way to score is by getting to the free throw line, which Thomas did almost twice as often as Irving did last season. Both guys shot about 90 percent from the line, but Thomas attempted 8.4 free throws per game and 44 free throws per 100 shots from the field. Irving attempted just 4.6 per game and just 23 per 100 shots from the field.
Of course, if the Boston ball movement can turn some of Irving’s pull-up jumpers (on which he had an effective field goal percentage of just 48.0 percent in the regular season and just 44.4 percent in the playoffs) into catch-and-shoot attempts, he can increase his efficiency quite a bit.
Irving is a talented offensive player, but wasn’t able to keep the the Cavs’ offense afloat when he wasn’t on the floor with LeBron James. In 558 total minutes with Irving on the floor and James off the floor last season, the Cavs scored just 103.1 points per 100 possessions, a rate which would have ranked 26th in the league. In those minutes, Irving had a usage rate (41.7 percent) that was higher than that of Russell Westbrook (40.8 percent), which was the highest usage rate in the 21 years for which we have the stat.
Still, because Irving played 77 percent of his minutes with James, the Cavs were 9.2 points per 100 possessions better offensively with Irving on the floor (scoring 114.2) than they were with him on the bench (104.9). That was the 14th biggest on-off-court OffRtg differential among 277 players who logged at least 1,000 minutes for one team last season.
The second biggest (14.6 points per 100 possessions) belonged to Thomas. The Celtics scored 113.6 points per 100 possessions with Thomas on the floor and only 99.0 (a rate which would have ranked last in the league) with him off the floor.
No. 1 in on-off OffRtg differential was Stephen Curry. The Warriors were 15.7 points per 100 possessions better with Curry on the floor (scoring 118.1) than they were with him off the floor (102.4).
The question for Cleveland is whether Thomas can do a better job than Irving of keeping the offense afloat when James rests. If he can, maybe James (who led the league in minutes per game last season and has played 7,495 more minutes than any other player since he came into the league 14 years ago) can rest more.
Crowder could help in that regard. He’ll take some minutes from Iman Shumpert and Richard Jefferson, who had a combined effective field goal percentage of just 50.8 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers, with almost the same number of total attempts (435) as Crowder (446).
Crowder is also one of 10 players who shot better than 72 percent on at least 150 shots in the restricted area last season, though only 22 percent of his shots came from there, a mark well below the league average (32 percent).
The ’16-17 Cavs were the worst defensive team (having allowed 1.7 more points per 100 possessions than the league average in the regular season) to reach The Finals in the 41 years since the league started counting turnovers. In those 41 seasons, only one worse-than-average defensive team (the 2000-01 Lakers) has won the championship.
So, in the final year of James’ contract, getting better defensively is critical for the Cavs. They certainly know how to flip the switch come playoff time, but good defense is still built in the regular season and Crowder has the ability to make them better on that end of the floor.
With his versatility, he also helps them in a matchup against the Golden State Warriors. And with the trade, the Cavs actually took one of the league’s better James defenders out of their way.
According to SportVU, Crowder allowed James to score 0.9 points per minute in 20.3 minutes of matchup time last season, the sixth best (lowest) mark among 25 players who defended James for at least 10 minutes in the regular season. That’s not a big sample size, but the number wasn’t much higher (1.0 points per minute) in the conference finals, when the Cavs scored 127 points per 100 possessions over the five games (the most efficient offensive series for any team in the last 21 years). In that series, James had an effective field goal percentage of 50.0 percent (on 27 shots) with Crowder defending him and 67.8 percent (on 73 shots) otherwise.
The Celtics are now without both Crowder and Avery Bradley (traded to Detroit), two of their three best perimeter defenders last season. Interestingly, The Celtics allowed 104.6 points per 100 possessions with Crowder on the floor without Bradley, while allowing 113.3 with Bradley on the floor without Crowder. At plus-349 for the season, Crowder had the third best raw plus-minus (behind those of James and Kyle Lowry) among Eastern Conference players.
Gordon Hayward is a good defender and, at 6-8, taller than Crowder (6-6). But the Celtics, who ranked 12th defensively last season and were on the other end of that record-setting efficiency in the conference finals, will still be depending on young guys to make up for the depth and defense they’ve lost on the wings.
It’s not certain that Boston will be a better defensive team than the Cavs. The Thomas-Irving swap could be a wash in that regard, as both are liabilities on that end of the floor.
Irving’s clutch-ness goes beyond hitting the biggest shot in Cavs franchise history. In fact, over the six years Irving and Thomas have been in the league, Irving is the only player with an effective field goal percentage over 50 percent on at least 65 shots (including postseason) with the score within three points in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime.
Kyrie Irving remains only player w/ eFG% > 50% on 65+ FGA w/ score within 3 in final minute of 4th or OT since he came into the league. pic.twitter.com/HRIjdOJPqB
— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) August 23, 2017
At 37.7 percent, Thomas ranks 18th among the 27 players with 65 of those super-clutch shots, though he was the league’s second-leading scorer in regular clutch situations (score within five, last five minutes) last season, with an effective field goal percentage of 55.2 percent. The Celtics’ 25 wins after trailing at any point in the fourth quarter were the most for any team in the last nine seasons, and the league’s second-leading fourth quarter scorer obviously had a lot to do with that.
With the trade, the Celtics will have only four players back from last season, fewer than any other team. Those four guys – Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart – accounted for only 36 percent of their ’16-17 minutes. They’ve added talent, but it’s fascinating that only the Sacramento Kings are returning a lower percentage of last season’s minutes than the team that had the league’s fourth best record. Brad Stevens will need to basically build from scratch on both ends of the floor.
Celtics down to just 4 returning players, though the Kings still returning a lower % of last season's minutes. Latest continuity rankings… pic.twitter.com/8RgvOXvXsX
— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) August 23, 2017
For at least another year, James remains the foundation for the Cavs, who have retained seven other guys who played at least 100 minutes in the playoffs. So they have far fewer adjustments to make.
Or maybe they’re not done dealing.
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