Most NBA divorces are written off to the same adage: It’s a business. Celtics GM Danny Ainge’s decision to trade Isaiah Thomas, who became a legend in Boston, was, seemingly, a business decision. Just not to Thomas, who told Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins he had no warning that he was going to be dealt to Cleveland.
“I might not ever talk to Danny Ainge again,” Thomas said. “But what he did, knowing everything I went through, you don’t do that, bro. That’s not right. I’m not saying eff you. But every team in this situation comes out a year or two later and says, ‘We made a mistake.’ That’s what they’ll say, too.”
Despite an emotional departure for the point guard, he doesn’t fall far from the chase for his first NBA Finals berth. The 28-year-old may be out until the start of the 2018 calendar year, but he joins a still-stacked Cavs team that projects to win the East for the fourth straight season.
What Thomas’s role will be in Cleveland when he does return, however, may not be as clear as it was in Boston. As his hip heals—which, for what it’s worth, played a part in the Celtics trading Thomas in the first place, according to Ainge—the Cavaliers will start both Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade in the backcourt. Both guards have received LeBron James’s public support—Wade a longtime friend and Rose someone James fondly called himself “a fan of … for a long time.”
And as Kevin Love found out recently, when James informed him of his switch to starting at the 5 this season, the four-time MVP appears to wield a lot of say in the Cavs’ process. Dahntay Jones now has a ring—Dahntay Jones! Tristan Thompson, represented by James’s close friend and business partner Rich Paul, got paid by the franchise two years ago. J.R. Smith checks off all three: He became a champion, a Klutch Sports client, and the signee of a $57 million contract, all in 2016.
Also complicating matters: What if the Cavs get off to a fast start with the Rose-Wade pairing? Rose, for one, seems convinced that their backcourt will work. “We’re hoopers,” Rose said after a preseason debut, while also noting that this Cavs squad is “the best team I ever played on.”
From a spacing standpoint, the duo seems like an odd fit, especially on a Cavs team that shot lights-out from deep last season. Love at the 5 may help balance it out … but Kevin Love, Rim Protector isn’t going to make that 22nd-ranked defense from last season any better. Hence the dilemma.
But the Cavs are all in on the veteran-heavy starting unit, at least for now. And the move is already causing ripples with another veteran guard, former starter Smith.
"We talked about it," Smith told Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon on Wednesday, after coach Tyronn Lue told him Wade was going to start in his place. “It wasn’t the most positive conversation, but we talked about it and we’ll get through it together.” Smith also added that he was “absolutely” frustrated with the decision. Not great!
Is Thomas setting himself up for a similar letdown? Even if the veteran point guard does instantly rise into the starting lineup—which seems likely unless you, like LeBron, think it’s 2011—it won’t erase the fit questions. At best, Thomas won’t get the scoring opportunities he had in Boston last season, when he had the fifth-highest usage rate in the entire league. That test might not come for a while, something Ainge knew then and Thomas knows now. “The nice thing about the Cavs is nobody is in a rush,” Thomas told Jenkins. “Most places are trying to get you back, which isn’t always best for you. These guys know they’re going to play in June. It’s a given.”
In this Eastern Conference, that is a given; the Cavaliers’ regular season is still merely a prelude to yet another run at toppling the Warriors’ budding dynasty. What that team will look like then is still in question.