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What the Blazers Can Learn From the Irving/Thomas Trade

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The Celtics and Cavaliers completed a blockbuster trade earlier this week. Eric Griffith explains what lessons the Blazers can learn from that transaction.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The Celtics and Cavaliers shocked the NBA earlier this week, swapping Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas. Two reigning conference finalists exchanging All-Star players is unprecedented in NBA history. Throw in Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and, the fabled 2018 Nets first round pick, and the trade becomes one of the craziest in league history.

Interestingly, from a Blazers’ perspective, Thomas and Irving are two of the players most frequently compared to Damian Lillard. As such, Blazers’ fans can use this trade to make several inferences, which I’ll outline below:

Lillard’s Value

Several NBA All-Stars have been switched teams this year in an unprecedented flurry of dramatic trades. However, prior to the Irving/Thomas trade, none of those players garnered a fair return for their original teams.

Paul George is on the final year of his contract and sabotaged the Pacers by admitting he wouldn’t re-sign with his new team, the Bulls panic-traded Jimmy Butler for marginal starters and a mid-lottery pick, and the Kings felt compelled to take a low-ball offer or risk losing DeMarcus Cousins for nothing in free agency.

But the Cavs and Celtics bucked the trend; they both gave up and got back significant players. Irving is a bona fide star heading into his prime and the Thomas/Crowder/Zizic/Nets’ pick package has the potential to become 80 percent of a legit starting lineup in a couple years, on top of Thomas’ all-NBA status.

This trade is a great development for the Blazers — it shows a best case scenario in which players of Lillard’s caliber, like Irving, can bring back multiple valuable assets. Lillard may even be worth slightly more because of his solid reputation, as opposed to Irving’s recent drama in Cleveland.

It’s hard to imagine now, but if in a couple years the Blazers do decide to pivot away from the Lillard and CJ McCollum backcourt, it’s very possible that trading Lillard could net another star of slightly lower caliber and several high level role players. That’s a valuable piece of information for a team that has floundered to find reliable contributors beyond their starting backcourt.

Long Term Salary Obligation and PR Matter

Celtics’ General Manager Danny Ainge admitted in a press conference that salary concerns played a factor in the decision to trade Thomas. At present, Thomas is one of the best deals in the league — an All-NBA player earning fewer than eight figures annually.

But that’s set to change next year. Thomas will be a free agent and has already proclaimed that he expects any suitors to “bring the Brinks truck.” This created a conundrum for Ainge. Thomas will be heading into his 29 years of age season, and will be coming off a notoriously tricky hip surgery, similar to the one that has caused Gerald Henderson repeated problems. Despite his stellar play last year, there is potential risk to giving the 5’9” scorer a maximum deal.

Celtics fans, however, have fallen in love with their “King of the Fourth” and Thomas has shown himself equally attached to the city of Boston, appearing (and playing well) in playoff games only days after his sister’s death in April. Throw in his perpetual chip-on-the-shoulder attitude, and Blazers’ fans can understand how Thomas became a cult hero in Boston.

Combining Ainge’s apparent reticence to hand a maximum contract with Thomas’ local celebrity status created a combusitble situation for the Celtics. Fans would not easily forgive Ainge if he lowballed Thomas and lost the team’s star for nothing next summer. If Thomas continued playing well in another city it would have been a PR disaster for the Celtics.

Irving, on the other hand, is three years younger and on the upside of his career. If he leaves the perceived attitude problems behind, there is little risk in offering him a maximum contract. The Celtics paid a premium (Crowder, plus the Nets pick), but decided that it was worth it for Irving’s upside, the long term salary stability that comes with it, and avoiding a messy contract negotiation with Thomas.

Again, the Blazers will not face a similar situation in the immediate future, but if the team continues to flounder in the 41-win range for another couple seasons, Olshey may need to swap McCollum or Lillard before their contracts run out four years from now. Ainge provided a model of how to convert a star player entering the end of his prime into another All-Star, while also keeping the fans relatively happy. This strategy seems preferable to another hard reset, like Blazers fans saw in 2014.

Overachieving Players Are Valuable

Crowder’s and Thomas’ low salaries facilitated the Cavs/Celtics trade. Both players signed below-market deals right before the salary cap exploded, and then significantly outperformed those deals in Boston. If Crowder, or especially Thomas, doesn’t turn into a high-value player, Ainge would never have been able to make this trade.

In contrast, the Blazers have exactly one player clearly outplaying his contract: Jusuf Nurkic. Maybe Maurice Harkless.

In a hypothetical scenario where the Blazers try to flip McCollum and assets for another high caliber player, they have no equivalent of Crowder to offer. With their big 3 ostensibly set, the Blazers will need to continue to search for Crowder-like players to fill out their roster if they want to maximize their trade flexibility.

Crowder’s value also serves as another indictment against last summer’s Allen Crabbe and Evan Turner signings. Handing out huge contracts to role players is fine if those players are with the team for the long haul, a la Tristan Thompson. But if the roster still needs significant tinkering, then it’s vital to have high-value contracts that can be combined with star playres to create exciting trade packages. Counterintuitively, it may be better to sign Jeremy Lin to a 3-year, $36 million contract than to sign Evan Turner to an $80+ million contract, even if Turner is the better player and even if there’s no way to make up the salary difference between the two.

Teams Are Willing to Make Blockbuster Trades

The Irving/Thomas trades serves as an emphatic reminder that there are very few truly untouchable players in the NBA anymore. Shorter contracts, combined with star players being more willing to switch teams in free agency, has created a market that incentivizes blockbuster deals. The alternative is to get LaMarcus Aldridge’d.

Since the Blazers are low on mid-level talent, they need to at least be willing to listen to trades that involve swapping a core player — presumably Jusuf Nurkic, McCollum, and Lillard — for a package similar to the one the Cavs received for Irving. It’s too early to tell whether or not that will be a necessity for the Blazers, but how Olshey handles this trend is a storyline to watch.

Bottom Line

Two eastern conference finalists swapping All-Stars did not immediately impact the Blazers, but it did give fans a glimpse into one possible future for the franchise. If the McLillard era does not work out, and it’s admittedly way too early to draw that conclusion, then the Thomas/Irving trade suggests that there are multiple avenues forward, other than complete teardown and rebuild.