Celtics, Cavaliers Trade Analysis
Trades, by nature, are tricky. All parties involved want to come out as "winners", no matter how they define it in their mind. Some may define it by getting the best player, others by getting financial flexibility, others by adding draft picks. Finding a deal that provides these alternatives to a team is difficult to do, and these two trade partners were particularly frugal.
Cleveland is in between a rock and a hard place: Kyrie Irving demanded a trade, LeBron is on edge with management and may not come back next year, but the organization must try to win this year if they hope to keep King James. Boston, in trying to vault past Cleveland, saw an opportunity to land a superstar to help get them past their Eastern Conference foe.
Looking at a deal like this from any side strongly paints Cleveland as being a winner. Their backs were against the wall with the Kyrie Irving trade demand and building tensions between LeBron James and owner Dan Gilbert. Cleveland had the largest salary in the league, no draft picks at their disposal and the need to continue to compete for an NBA Title while also preparing for a potential future without LeBron.
Accomplishing both seemed nearly impossible before the trade was announced.
Koby Altman's first deal as Cavaliers GM is an absolute home run when you consider Kyrie a lost cause of an asset. The moment the rest of the league found out about his trade demand his value began to rapidly depreciate, hitting closer and closer to its lowest-conceivable point as the regular season grew near. Now they turned him into a top-five scorer from last season, one of the better 3-and-D wing/ forwards in the league, a 2017 first-round draft pick and the golden ticket to post-LeBron insurance: Brooklyn's 2018 pick.
Cleveland pulled off nailing both facets of their trade Ben Falk marked as difficult. The short-term value of having Isaiah Thomas instead of Kyrie Irving won't change much. Both are above 50 percent finishers near the rim, strong three-point shooters on high volume and point guards with overall low turnover rates. The Cavaliers offense won't change much with Thomas instead of Irving, except they'll face the added challenge of defenses that try to take away his left hand so sharply (I.T. scored nearly 30 PPG last year; I don't think those efforts do too much).
Defensively Isaiah may be a small downgrade from Kyrie, but not one that will hurt them too much or be felt by the rest of the roster. The team needed to address perimeter defense this summer and failed to by adding Derrick Rose and Isaiah Thomas (world's strangest fits at point guard, by the way). Still, not a downgrade too severe from Rose and Kyrie.
The gap between Isaiah and Kyrie's production may not have been too great, but the talent level is not quite even. Jae Crowder, as one of the most underrated players on an amazing team-friendly contract, swings the scales of talent back in favor of the Cavs on this loot. Crowder, per Synergy sports tech, had an effective field goal percentage of 66 percent in unguarded catch-and-shoots, while also allowing 32 percent shooting in isolations defended.
His defensive attribution for the Cavaliers is two-fold: he adds another forward that can switch and brings toughness to the table. That'll help the Cavs in their pursuits of the Warriors, who have a litany of forwards to defend. The second factor: it takes away their biggest threat in the East's best LeBron defender. It's addition by virtue of the Celtics not having Crowder anymore. Regardless of these two teams being trade partners, that movement away from Boston has to count for something.
Zizic didn't impress during the summer league the way many expected, but it's too soon to bail on the 2016 first-rounder. The big man is an excellent finisher near the rim, and the Cavs haven't had a reliable backup center since LeBron returned to town. If he develops into a guy that can give them 10 minutes per game this season, he's helped the LeBron-led Cavs short-term.
The cap implications for this season got so much better for the Cavs and owner Dan Gilbert, who signs the paychecks. This trade directly saves the Cavaliers $29.1 million against the luxury tax. Altman walked into a toxic situation, where the last GM performed well but drove up spending beyond what Gilbert began to pallet. The new guy was able to get rid of Cleveland's Kyrie problem while saving the boss a cool $30 million. Nice start.
Long-term Cleveland isn't out of the woods, but that 2018 Nets draft pick certainly helps. It's essentially LeBron insurance where, if James leaves, they'll have a top youngster, two years of Kevin Love, two years of Tristan Thompson and the Bird rights to re-sign Isaiah Thomas. Teams worry about wanting to pay I.T. the max, but this trade could drive down his value thanks to the lack of statistical production he'll achieve while playing second-fiddle to LeBron.
Much has been made about the Cavaliers possibly not re-signing Isaiah should LeBron leave, instead choosing to strip down and trade the likes of Love and Thompson to build a more sustainable team for the long-term beyond 2020. That conversation certainly occurred, and is one reason why the Cavs insisted on getting that 2018 pick from Brooklyn unprotected. They couldn't stomach a scenario where they traded Kyrie for a one-year usage of Isaiah and Jae Crowder with LeBron leaving.
The difficulty comes most from what happens if LeBron tries to stay, in which case they have to retain Isaiah. These cap savings of immediate impact from the trade will come right back next summer when the Cavaliers pay Thomas his due.
That isn't ideal, and it will be expensive, but at least the Cavs got rid of their Kyrie problem and picked up a 2018 high-value pick for their troubles. Huge win today for the Cavaliers.
Danny Ainge has been after his golden boy ever since he pulled the trigger on that huge deal with the Brooklyn Nets in 2013. Every move since then has brought the team to the point where they can attract free agent stars, have great young talent and still have enough chips to trade for one more. It was the master plan, and it was driven by a timeline as much as a necessity.
Ainge built that timeline for himself when he inked Horford to the contract last summer, establishing a minimum five-year window where the Celtics were to be competitors. Those Nets picks would come due, so the C's could augment their stars with youngsters or leverage those assets for other great pieces via trade. This summer the Celts got star number two with Gordon Hayward, and expedited that timeline.
To compare where the Celtics were at 18 months ago with the roster they have now is a moot point. Of course Kyrie Irving, Hayward and Horford are more impactful than Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley and Jared Sullinger. Judging this trade for what its worth though has as much to do with the cultural impact as it does the overall talent of the move.
Kyrie demanded a trade from the Cavaliers a few months back, tired of playing second-fiddle to LeBron James and being "son'd" by the greatest player in the world. It was his time to prove he was the number-one option on a championship team. No disrespecting the confidence that type of statement takes, but there's something unsettling about acquiring a player that put himself and his own individual success above the desire to win championships and hang banners.
Boston offers Kyrie both, but Kyrie offers the Celtics a drop-off in competitiveness from Isaiah and Jae Crowder, the literal heart and soul of this past season's Celtics team. Both are fiercely competitive and great locker room presences. To go from them and a consummate pro in Avery Bradley to Kyrie is a tough hit for team chemistry.
Additionally Irving rates out as a fairly overrated player. Last year the Cavaliers were better defensively without Irving (0.02 PPP) than the Celtics were without Thomas (0.009 PPP). For all the flack that I.T. gets defensively, it's not like Irving is a clear upgrade. Offensively Irving test out as efficient thanks to what I describe as the LeBron factor. Those numbers change drastically when he's the number one option. I'm very much of the notion Kyrie is overrated, and with that notion it's hard to separate that from my analysis of how strong Boston's loot is.
But Kyrie for three years is different than Isaiah for one, and the Celts clearly decided they didn't want to pay the max to a guy like I.T. So if you were to ask if I'd rather have Isaiah on a max and Jae, or Kyrie... I'd probably take Kyrie.
As mentioned in the section for the Cavaliers, theres a huge loss for the Celtics by way of Crowder's defense on LeBron. Now that mantle is forced upon Gordon Hayward, second-year player Jaylen Brown or rookie Jayson Tatum. Others can provide change-of-pace options like Marcus Smart or Marcus Morris, but those three must be ready to tackle the challenge of defending King James. Losing both Crowder and Bradley in the same summer definitely hurts.
Moreso than losing Thomas's heart, or Crowder's toughness, or even the potential of Zizic, that 2018 first-rounder hurts most. Ainge has long coveted that pick as the final stake in his masterpiece Brooklyn deal. Many jokes were made at his expense about his unwillingness to part from those stashed draft picks when the opportunities presented themselves. Jimmy Butler and Paul George were names on the table earlier in the spring, neither of whom had the price tag attached that Kyrie did.
It's not to say Ainge was a fool for turning them down. Hayward came via free agency, and this summer had an unbearably poor pool of point guards on the market. Taking Butler or George with Isaiah would indeed run up the spending bill for next summer; Hayward and Kyrie is a much more flat, linear way to approach their contract status -- especially with Tatum and Jaylen eventually expecting extension.
But was that 2018 pick necessary to achieve that type of salary synergy within their core?
In my all-too-early analysis of the 2018 draft, it projects to me as the strongest draft since the famed 2003 year with LeBron, Melo, Wade and Bosh. Six players -- Marvin Bagley III, Michael Porter, Luka Doncic, Mo Bamba, DeAndre Ayton and Robert Williams -- have top-pick potential. Porter, bagley and Doncic are all guys that would be legitimate threats to go number one in any draft. But with that much top-heavy talent, giving up on what's highly likely to be a top-five pick seems insane.
If that's the cost of doing business, then it's the only thing Ainge could have done to pull the trigger on the deal. But if you're asking for an evaluation today if that is a risk I'd take, the answer would be no.
Only time will tell how this works out, and the Celts have their core clearly defined for years to come. The chips Ainge holds have finally been cashed in. We'll see just how good they really fit together.
Defensive Terminology: The X-Out
The following is an excerpt from an article written on BBALL BREAKDOWN discussing the defensive strategy of X-ing out. With several videos and examples of when and how it is put into placed, the goal of such an article is to illustrate complex and high-level basketball skills in a digestible manner. To read the article in its entirety, please click here.
In looking at some of the most important actions and details NBA teams run, we often forget about the depth, breadth and importance of a defensive playbook. Teams have names for their schemes, the levels of their pressure and all the tricks they can throw at an opponent. One of those tricks is called “X-Out,” where defenders cross assignments off the ball as a way of aiding the man who gives help at the rim.
Why is it called an X-Out, you might ask. When the coverage is drawn on a whiteboard to show players their designed paths, it looks like an X. The two defenders on the weak side cross each other’s path, switching men while working in unison.
Conquering and mastering this skill is difficult. It takes communication, timing and a ton of practice repetitions to get it right. Add moving pieces (i.e. players), multiple other bodies on the court and the added dimension of trying to decipher which personnel will do the most damage and you can see how complex the mental game of the NBA really is. None of this is simple, despite attempts to boil it down to a few digestible tasks in an article such as this.
A great video from Basketball Immersion illustrates and explains the concept:
X-ing out can accompany a variety of defensive strategies and situations. Almost every team at a high level practices this. Whether it is a routine baseline drive that causes a scramble or built into help on a pick-and-roll, these styles of play happen at almost any time.
Think of basketball as being four-on-four for a moment. Two offensive players in a pick-and-roll, and two on the opposite side of the court. The more aggressive the screener’s defender is on the perimeter at hedging to trying to force the ball away from a scoring area, the more open the screener could be in the lane. In turn, that causes the weak side defenders to be on their toes, ready to help in the lane and in front of the rim before the roller gets a wide open layup.
We call that “bumping the roller.” But as the screener’s defender (usually a big man) slowly prods back to the paint to recover to his assignment, there’s a moment where one offensive player is wide open, and that’s where the X-out begins. Instead of recovering to the man he left to bump the roller, the helper gets support from his other teammate on the weak side. They will switch the assignment, hoping the flight of the ball across the court gives all parties involved enough time to scramble to a man, settle the ball and disallow a score on the pick-and-roll.
Here’s what a good X-out looks like:
All this action follows a simple story arc: a pick-and-roll near the sideline occurs, someone bumps the roller and the ball handler rifles a pass off to the open man in the corner. But what happens when the offense stays one step ahead of the defense and anticipates that coverage, instead sending the ball to the wing?
The coverage is no longer an x-out as the players will stay on their original assignment. The lowest guy, who provides help at the rim, then scrambles out to his man in the corner while his teammate splitting the back two takes the ball.
Communication can break these actions down, where a miscommunication on a recovery leads to two defenders running at the same player.
Even the best defensive units can have a breakdown now and then. This stuff isn’t simple and it relies on offensive players being in predicted spots and behaving a certain way.
Some teams are incredibly effective at using this strategy and finding precision and crispness in their rotations. Three of them stand out among the rest at drilling, repping and executing against various types of offenses.
To finish reading the article and find out more, please click here.
The Flare Screen: Poetry in Motion
The following is an excerpt from an article written recently on BBALL BREAKDOWN that goes over the Flare screen, one of the most unique and difficult to guard actions in basketball. Please check out the article in full here on BBALL BREAKDOWN.
In thinking about the best actions NBA offenses run, the conglomerate of every screen or cut is what makes the system work. No single ball screen is enough to justify good offense; the motion before, after and away from the ball is what makes or breaks a set.
Still, there is room to dive into the details and digest each type of screen within an offense. Which teams utilize each the most effectively? Is there a pattern to when they run those screens? What makes each play so darn difficult to thwart?
A personal favorite is the flare screen, an action far more common on the collegiate level than in the pros due to the IQ of defenders. A flare screen is generally set when the ball is in the middle of the floor. A shooter, also closer to the middle, gets a screen leading him to the sideline. The screener starts on that sideline and, while setting the pick, has their back facing the corner or the side. Here’s a quick example:
To be effective, a flare is set on an empty side of the floor, meaning there is no offensive player in the corner to add a body to the back side.
Essentially, a flare screen is meant to target both defenders in a way they cannot defend both accurately. Take the frame above for reference, where both Portland defenders switch the screen to contest the Nowitzki shot. Any switch or help that comes from Crabbe (Matthews’ original defender) then opens up a slip to the rim for Wesley. The Cleveland Cavaliers, anticipating a switching team like the Golden State Warriors might simply swap defensive assignments when the screen comes, instructing their screeners to slip:
There’s nuance in this slip from Richard Jefferson. Not only does he know to cut to the rim, but he seals off Stephen Curry with his body so when he catches he can simply finish at the rim. Curry has no choice but to foul him.
If switching is out (and often times it is when the flare screen is set by a big man instead of a wing), the man guarding the shooter has no choice but to go over the top of the screen. Go underneath and a three-point shooter has the luxury of time to set their feet.
Even going over the top does not guarantee success, as the pressure is then on the screener’s defender to be in perfect position. He must simultaneously be ready to corral the shooter if his teammate gets hung up on a screen and prevent the screener from slipping towards the rim or the ball. It’s not an easy task by any means.
Some people may talk about turning a down screen into a flare screen, though I consider that a different action altogether. That would occur when a down screen is set and the man defending the shooter tries to go underneath the screen, anticipating an avenue where he can cut the angle and get into defensive position. An adept scorer will notice the defender doing this and fade to the corner, making for a longer pass but more space for the shooter. Watch as Ray Allen makes the adjustment for the Celtics and pops to the wing instead of to the top of the key:
To me, this is not a flare screen. This is a read made by the scorer to fade off the screen instead of curling or cutting straight off it. Fading can occur when a player comes off a down screen. Flare screens are ones where the man receiving the screen starts the possession farther away from the basket than the screener.
There’s also a huge emphasis on footwork and precision from the passer in making a flare screen successful. Starting with the shooter, flare screens naturally lead him away from the basket with momentum carrying them towards the sideline. Shooters are taught to get away from the screen and towards the sideline, but their last step must be toward the basket to offset that momentum and get their body gathered towards the hoop. Likewise, a passer must throw a pass with some zip on it over-the-top of the screen so it gets to the shooter before the defense can recover over the screen.
Now that we’ve defined the parameters for what is and isn’t a flare screen and its proper defensive rotations, it’s easier to appreciate the better utilized flares throughout the league.
To continue reading the article in full, please click here.
The whole theory of restricted free agency is an interesting one. Players coming off the entirety of their rookie contract hit the open market with the caveat that their former teams can match any offer they receive to keep them. Most of these players are either lower-tier guys trying to find the right fit and change or scenery that are restricted just so a team can keep their cap hold, or are mid-tier players not quite agreeable enough to come up with terms for an extension a year prior.
That second group is the one most harmed this summer by the workings of the salary cap and, more broadly, the idea of restricted free agency as a whole. It's a strange system that, if you will humor the analogy, harms the middle-class most.
Top-tier players coming off their rookie deals sign massive extensions to stay with their teams, which cannot afford to let such a valuable young player walk out the door without compensation. Those lower-tier players are often not matched, and they are either claimed off waivers or kept around long enough to serve as cap filler.
But those players in the middle, not quite elite enough to get that long-term extension but too good to let walk out the door are caught in a strange situation. Competing teams are hesitant to pitch an offer sheet that isn't an overpay since it is likely to be matched. Those teams lose financial flexibility and negotiating power for 48 hours while they wait for the team with right of first refusal to match or decline to match that offer sheet. During a hectic period of free agency that can become a massive loss if the offer gets matched.
This year has provided the perfect storm for harming their free agent pursuits with the lower-than-anticipated cap numbers. Teams that planned to try and fit things into a budget years in advance were left with less, or sometimes zero, maneuverability this summer. The sheer number of teams that could bid for top-dollar restricted free agents dramatically decreased.
The residual effect is chilling. Good players who are either seen as sure-to-be-matched RFA's don't get offer sheets elsewhere. Busy periods of free agency in early and mid-July pass by without interest as teams find other ways to utilize their cap space. Some, like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, were forced to abandon their chances at a long-term deal after the Pistons rescinded his restricted tender and found a cheaper option elsewhere. KCP was then forced take a one-year high money contract with a new team and have to revisit free agency altogether next summer.
What's left is where we are as of this writing: a stalemate between the only teams remaining with cap space and the remaining restricted free agents on the market. Check out the remaining teams with cap space and the seven remaining RFA's with their tenders listed:
The restricted free agents remaining are in a similar plane:
There's a lot to unpack here. The first graph on the team salaries is fairly simple: just a look at who has money left to throw at these players. But perhaps the first place to look is the red bar in the second graph: an anticipated value on the open market for each played based on their PER, other past free agents with similar PER and age, and money spent on similar players this summer.
Every player on this list far outperforms their restricted free agency tender (the red bar is greater than the green bar). It's easy to see the contention and hostility that arises as a result of this. Each team that sees that see the dried-up market for their own RFAs has zero incentive to offer them more than their tender right now. No competitors mean they can corner the market, and it's exactly what they're doing. Meanwhile, talented players remain unsigned, with their agents grasping at straws to try and find a suitable way to get their client the money they deserve.
Dallas, Phoenix and Chicago are all prime examples of this. All three teams possess the cap space to offer their RFA's a fair long-term value in comparison to other deals signed around the league, and they could do so without much consequence to the rest of their rosters or spending habits. When the gold bar on that graph is higher than the red, all the team is doing is driving down the price. It's not a negotiation, it's a manipulation of the market.
Collective bargaining agreements give general managers and front offices this power. Lower cap numbers have confounded it, and poor spending habits in years past when the cap boom took place have almost necessitated it from a front office standpoint.
Nerlens Noel, Alex Len and Nikola Mirotic are all playing a waiting game, waiting for some domino to fall around the league (via trade, via buyout or some offer sheet being signed first) that opens up their movement. Right now, every day that goes by gets all three closer and closer to taking that tender or a less-than-ideal one-year deal.
Mason Plumlee and the Nuggets are in a far different scenario, where Plumlee's average salary would likely loft the Nuggets above the cap. And Denver, with two key extension-eligible players coming this fall in Gary Harris and Nikola Jokic, are being prudent not to saddle themselves down with long-term monies -- especially if Plumlee is indeed to be a backup to Jokic. Going above the RFA tender to keep him almost certainly will push the franchise above the cap this year, limiting their mid-season flexibility.
The Nuggets have a lot to consider. After signing Paul Millsap this summer they have a glut of big men. Still, the prospect of letting Plumlee walk out the door and not matching an offer sheet is a difficult one. And the pressure is on the franchise a bit to find a creative solution here: should Plumlee accept the tender and become an unrestricted free agent next summer, Denver just crosses this bridge a year from now with far, far less financial flexibility.
GM Tim Connelly is almost forced to spend into luxury tax territory to keep their elite young players in town over the next three or four seasons. Plumlee's deal only provides less flexibility to do so. More than any of the three aforementioned teams with RFA's, the Nuggets have cause to get that tender from Plumlee other than simply wanting to pay less.
Memphis has perhaps the most complex set of areas to consider with its retention of JaMychal Green. As I wrote about this week on NBA Math, the Grizzlies are in one of the worst cap scenarios in the league, if not the single-worst. We'll try to simplify this as much as possible for the sake of explaining it...
Pay no attention to the gold bar in the negative. Yes, Memphis is over the cap. Since Green is their restricted free agent, they can go above the cap to re-sign him. The issue is how quickly the Grizzlies are creeping up on the luxury tax. Sure, the Grizz could offer JaMychal that long-term deal and still avoid being under the luxury tax for next season. But where does their alleviation come from, and how do they get better players around their core?
At some point the Grizz are going to have to pinch the pennies if they want to compete around Gasol and Conley. The easiest place to do so: their own RFA. Green is the only player on the team's immediate horizon (current players on rookie deals or future RFA's) that would be worth keeping around and having as a rotation player. It not only means the team must look elsewhere to bring in quality players, but that no other candidates really exist to help pinch those pennies.
Here's where things get complicated: since the organization is not offering that large contract which would hamstring them, Green's best move is to find a way to become an unrestricted free agent next summer. He'll undoubtedly cash in again next summer, and now the Grizzlies have lost their only RFA and chance to vault themselves into high-spending territory for nothing.
It's a lose-lose for the Grizzlies. Sign Green for what he's worth now, and the team has no chances to improve elsewhere without spending into the luxury tax. Continue to push off Green and he'll bolt next summer, killing the team's ability to replace his value.
Trying to find a new home
How do players or teams circumvent these issues? Well there are two main ways to place the player in a different situation, and we'll briefly touch on both. Those two methodologies are by signing with another team featuring cap space and getting traded by the middle of the season.
As for the cap space argument, we can simplify this by ruling out teams that have Mid-Level or Bi-Annual exceptions as over-the-cap operators. None of the five remaining RFA's would benefit more from taking one of those long-term deals for short money than if they took a one-year with their current team and cashed in next summer. For those purposes, the list is very narrow.
To narrow it further, think about crossing off teams like Dallas and Denver, both of whom are better suited to spend their money tossing it at their own RFA than trying to start anew.
That leaves only three teams with the possibility of swooping in and snatching one of these players away: Philadelphia, Chicago and Phoenix.
Indiana we can all but cross off; they have a shade over $6 million in cap space, which is less than any of these players would rightfully take. Same goes for Brooklyn just a shade beneath them at $5 million and change. The Sixers, first team with a glut of cap space, are preparing for their own mega-extensions in future years with guys like Joel Embiid. They stand little to gain from throwing money at an RFA other than driving up the price. Since only one player is from an Eastern Conference team, and it's one that figures to not be in the playoff race, there's minimal return on this idea. Remember, teams must overpay to get an RFA that isn't matched, so that move makes no sense for Philly.
Phoenix and Chicago, however, are unique scenarios. They both have the ability to sign one of the other RFA's first before they try to negotiate with their own RFA. The order of those operations is key; they must sign the new player first before exercising any retention on their own.
Would it be possible that the Suns try to steal JaMychal Green away? Would the Bulls really benefit from throwing a boat load of cash at Nerlens Noel?
The odds say no.
Both teams are in the midst of internal rebuilds, and if all goes to plan, will find themselves in two years where Philly is now - with a ton of money and the desire to keep their own guys with it.
That other option is a sign and trade, where another team inks a player to an offer sheet and then sends outgoing salary to the original team as a means of making the trade work. These scenarios are possible, especially for a player like Green whose team is already operating above the salary cap.
Even if no trade occurs this summer and these players re-sign for one season, there's nothing preventing that team from flipping them mid-season. In Denver, a one-year deal of Plumlee with the knowledge he's going to leave for more money and a role that isn't behind Jokic can turn into a second-round draft pick or a player to help down the stretch. Memphis could turn one year of JaMychal Green into some draft picks they desperately need. Even Chicago could turn Mirotic into a draft pick once they're out of the playoff race.
The point is this: there are a lot of paths towards a solution that get these guys on a roster. Most of them lead back to their original teams, and most lead to very little compensation compared to what they're worth.
So I'll ask the question that begs to be asked... is restricted free agency broken?
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).