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Re-evaluating the Cleveland Cavaliers' Kyrie Irving-Collin Sexton trade

It was more than three years ago that the Cleveland Cavaliers traded Kyrie Irving for a draft pick that would become Collin Sexton.

CLEVELAND — Editor's note: the video in the player above is from Jan. 19, 2021.

As has happened several times before, a Cleveland Cavaliers guard lit up the scoreboard at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Wednesday night.

RELATED: More Cleveland Cavaliers coverage from WKYC

He was wearing No. 2. He was wearing Kyrie Irving's Nike signature sneakers. Heck, Kyrie Irving was even on the court.

But it wasn't Kyrie Irving.

Rather, it was Collin Sexton turning in a performance for the ages, scoring a career-high 42 points while leading the Cavs to a 147-135 double-overtime victory over Irving's Brooklyn Nets. And while the showing would have been special under any circumstances, Irving's presence on the court helped conjure thoughts of the trade that landed Sexton in Cleveland in the first place.

More than years after the blockbuster trade that sent Irving to the Boston Celtics, the Cavs' actual return on the deal is beginning to crystalize. With that in mind, let's take a look back on the trade and what Cleveland now has to show for it.

The deal

Nearly one month to the day that Irving first demanded a trade in July 2017, the Cavs agreed to send the now-6-time All-Star to the Celtics in exchange for the following pieces:

  • Guard Isaiah Thomas
  • Forward Jae Crowder
  • Center Ante Zizic
  • The Brooklyn Nets' unprotected 2018 first-round pick
  • The Miami Heat's 2020 second-round pick

To say that the short-term return on the deal was unfavorable for Cleveland would be an understatement.

After recovering from offseason hip surgery, Thomas played just 15 games for the Cavs, averaging 14.7 points on .361 percent shooting while failing to mesh with LeBron James. He has since appeared in just 69 NBA games and currently remains unsigned one month into the 2020-21 season.

Crowder, meanwhile, played in 53 games for the Cavs (including 47 starts) and averaged 8.6 points on .418 shooting. Like Thomas, he was traded at the 2018 NBA trade deadline and has gone on to spend time as a valuable role player for the Utah Jazz, Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat and Phoenix Suns.

The 6-foot-10 Zizic played sparingly over the course of three seasons with the Cavs, with his most significant contributions coming in the 2018-19 campaign, when he averaged 7.8 points and 5.4 rebounds in 59 games. He is currently playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Israeli Premier League.

The Nets' pick wound up being the No. 8 selection in the 2018 draft, which Cleveland used to select Sexton -- more on him later. The Heat's second-round pick wound up being traded twice more before the Atlanta Hawks used it to select LSU guard Skylar Mays with the No. 50 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. He has appeared in three NBA games during his rookie season while splitting time in the G League.

Additional dealings

Sensing that Thomas and Crowder weren't meshing with the rest of their roster, the Cavs were the NBA's most active team at the 2018 trade deadline. 

In one deal, Cleveland sent Thomas and Channing Frye to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for forward Larry Nance Jr. and guard Jordan Clarkson. In a separate three-way deal, the Cavs traded Crowder and guard Derrick Rose to the Jazz and guard Iman Shumpert to the Sacramento Kings, acquiring point guard George Hill and swingman Rodney Hood.

In the time since, Nance has become one of Cleveland's core pieces, a versatile 6-foot-7 forward capable of contributing on both sides of the floor. In 2018, the Cavs signed Nance -- the son of the franchise's former All-Star forward Larry Nance -- to a four-year, $45 million contract. Through 14 games this season, he has averaged 10.8 points and 6.2 rebounds.

Clarkson averaged 15.5 points during the parts of the three seasons he spent with the Cavs. In 2019, he was traded to the Utah Jazz in exchange for guard Dante Exum and two second-round picks.

After being acquired from the Kings, Hill served as the Cavs' starting point guard throughout their run to a fourth straight NBA Finals, where they lost to the Golden State Warriors. In 2018, he was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks in exchange for guard Matthew Dellavedova, center John Henson and a future first-round pick. 

Last year, Cleveland traded Henson and Brandon Knight to the Detroit Pistons for All-Star center Andre Drummond. Recently, the Cavs traded the first-round pick they acquired from Milwaukee and Exum to the Houston Rockets in a four-way trade, acquiring center Jarrett Allen and forward Taurean Prince from the Brooklyn Nets.

Hood, meanwhile, was traded to the Portland Trail Blazers in 2019 for a package including shooting guard Nik Stauskas, point guard Wade Baldwin and two future second-round picks. 

Altogether, the following players are currently members of Cleveland's roster due to pieces that were acquired as a part of the Irving trade and subsequent deals:

  • Collin Sexton
  • Larry Nance Jr.
  • Matthew Dellavedova
  • Andre Drummond
  • Jarrett Allen
  • Taurean Prince

What about Sexton?

For all that Cavs general manager Koby Altman has spun the Irving trade into since, the centerpiece of the deal was always the Nets pick -- and that remains the case even more so now. Despite debates over whether Cleveland should deal the pick for immediate help during what would be James' final season with the franchise, the Cavs ultimately opted to hold onto the pick, using it to select Sexton out of Alabama.

While it didn't take long for the 6-foot-1 guard to show his ability to score, he's taken it to a new level in his third season in the league. In nine games, Sexton has averaged 27.0 points on a career-best .534 shooting, including an absurd .500 percent from 3-point range.

Although Sexton's averages are likely to regress, his penchant for filling up the basket can't be denied. In what marks the third season of Cleveland's post-James rebuild, the 22-year-old Sexton has emerged as the type of young, core player that the Cavs were hoping to acquire when they were forced to trade Irving more than three years ago.

Speaking of Irving, it's worth noting that he left the Celtics after just two seasons to sign with the Nets, leaving Boston with nothing left -- and not even an NBA Finals appearance -- to show for its 2017 blockbuster trade. And while the player who hit the biggest shot in Cavs history certainly still has big shoes to fill, Sexton sure seemed to do a heck of an impression on Wednesday.