Why blockbuster Kyrie Irving-Isaiah Thomas deal is all about LeBron James

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

Four players and one draft pick exchanged hands Tuesday in a blockbuster trade between Boston and Cleveland, but make no mistake, as with so much of the NBA, this was about one guy who wasn’t directly involved … LeBron James.

The Cavaliers traded disgruntled star guard Kyrie Irving to Boston for guard Isaiah Thomas, forward Jae Crowder, young big man Ante Zizic and the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 first-round draft pick that the Celtics owned. The Nets are expected to again struggle this season, meaning the selection has the potential to be in the top three of the draft.

Boston got the best player in the deal, which is usually how NBA trades are judged. Cleveland, however, got a nice haul with great potential in exchange for a player who had demanded to be traded after he began feuding with LeBron.

So what is to come over the next nine or 10 months is the immediate referendum. Is this enough?

Is this enough to get the Cavs back to the NBA Finals for another crack at the Golden State Warriors? Is this enough to win it all?

Are there enough basketballs to go around for both James and Thomas, a diminutive but creative guard coming off a career season who needs to control possessions?

Mainly, is there enough potential in a group that should be better defensively and can add a highly skilled young player going forward to persuade LeBron James that Cleveland has a future worth sticking around to experience.

LeBron’s ability to pursue free agency next spring will loom over everything this season, certainly everything in Cleveland.

James turns 33 in December and has been to seven consecutive NBA Finals with the Cavs (2015-17) and Miami Heat (2011-2014). His team has won the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June of 2012, 2013 and 2016.

LeBron James is always the center of the Cavs’ plans. (AP)

He isn’t in this for anything other than everything. Moral victories and near misses have little, if any, value at this point.

He’s still a dominant player, but the clock is ticking on his career. While he’s still relatively young, he turned pro at 18 and the miles are piling up on his legs. He’s entering his 15th season, most with lengthy playoff runs, not to mention another 68 games with USA Basketball across three Olympics and one World Championship.

Each spring is precious. With Irving in 2016, he was able to deliver Cleveland its first professional sports championship since 1964. After beating Boston in the Eastern Conference finals this past season, the Cavs were defeated by a superior Warriors team.

And now?

Thomas is 5-foot-9 and a different player than Irving, although both thrive on driving to the rim and finishing in unlikely manners. With James and Irving unable to coexist, something had to be done. Thomas, 28, is coming off a hip injury, though, with inevitable questions about whether he can duplicate his production from a season ago (28.9 ppg). He is also entering the final year of his contract and Boston is in store for a difficult decision on whether to max him.

Crowder is a classic glue guy who should improve the team’s defense and rebounding. And chemistry is likely to improve – Irving and James were reportedly not even speaking during parts of last year’s Finals.

The Warriors are still the Warriors, though. And Boston now has Irving to add to a young and deep roster. Irving, just 25, is a better all-around player than Thomas. Neither is a particularly great defender. He has three years remaining on his deal with the final year being a player option, and sources told Yahoo Sports there’s confidence he’ll be in Boston for the long term.

If nothing else, if these two teams meet again in the 2018 Eastern Conference finals, it will be a viciously fought series.

Speculation on James’ thinking will overwhelm much of the Cavaliers’ season. Many have him pegged to leave unless Cleveland wins another championship, perhaps joining a Western Conference team with better firepower to take on the Golden State juggernaut. Some think his sometimes-contentious relationship with owner Dan Gilbert can’t be salvaged.

We’ll see.

James has time to judge the situation. Is this Cavs team better, or just more fun to be on? Is it worth staying at the expense of his dwindling prime? Is there really a better option out there?

Or, is he gone for sure, leaving Cleveland the way he did once before, in search of a title contender? In that case, could the Cavs be so bold that they try to trade him during the season?

It’s Kyrie out the door now. Just more than a year ago, he hit the clutch Game 7 shot to clinch Cleveland’s championship. That’s ancient history in a deal that’s all about the future.

Boston got the star, Cleveland got a nice return on a bad situation, but in the end, this always was about LeBron James and whether the dynamics can be changed enough to keep him around Ohio for the rest of his career.

Related coverage from Yahoo Sports:
How the Celtics granted Kyrie’s wish
Kyrie’s trade fuels one of the NBA’s great feuds
Cleveland sets up for now, eyes future in Irving-Thomas swap
LeBron’s Twitter farewell to Kyrie: ‘What a ride it was’