CLEVELAND -- During what will go down as one of the most active -- and historic days -- in NBA history, the Cleveland Cavaliers found themselves on the outside looking in.
With Sunday marking start of free agency, the Cavs ultimately remained inactive as several star players signed with new teams and blockbuster trades were agreed to. That's not to say that Sunday couldn't be construed as a victorious day for Cleveland -- even if their win came in the form of a trivial retroactive trade grade.
In a move that was somehow simultaneously league-altering and overshadowed, Kyrie Irving agreed to a 4-year, $142 million contract with the Brooklyn Nets. Irving, of course, spent the first six seasons of his career in Cleveland before demanding a trade that ultimately landed him with the Boston Celtics in 2017.
Irving will team with fellow free agent signee Kevin Durant, with the duo possessing the potential to help make the Nets a force in the Eastern Conference for years to come. But while Irving's signing left most looking toward the future, his decision to leave Boston after just two seasons also served as a benchmark moment to reconsider the Cavs and Celtics' blockbuster trade.
As a reminder, the trade that sent Irving from Cleveland to Boston two summers ago was as follows:
- Celtics receive: Kyrie Irving
- Cavs receive: Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, Brooklyn Nets' 2018 unprotected first-round pick, Miami Heat 2020 second-round pick
For many, it didn't take long for Boston to be declared the winner of the deal by unanimous decision.
As Irving thrived in Brad Stevens' system, even garnering some MVP consideration, Thomas spent the bulk of his time in Cleveland working his way back from a hip injury and failed to fit in alongside LeBron James once he did. Making matters worse for the Cavs was that the once-lowly Nets were playing better than expected, with their No. 1 pick ultimately landing the No. 8 pick in the 2018 draft.
Neither Thomas nor Crowder would last a full season in Cleveland, which traded both players at the 2018 trade deadline. In sending Thomas -- as well as Channing Frye and their own 2018 first-round pick -- to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Cavs acquired Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson, while Crowder was a part of a 3-team trade that netted Cleveland George Hill and Rodney Hood.
Cleveland general manager Koby Altman's work at the trade deadline may have helped salvage some of the Irving deal, but the reality remained that it was Boston who walked away with the biggest star. The Cavs ultimately used the No. 8 pick they acquired from the Celtics on Alabama point guard Collin Sexton, who enjoyed an up and down 2018-19 season en route to being named second-team All-Rookie.
But while there's likely no amount of additional trades Cleveland could make to recoup the talent it lost when it traded Irving, the 6-time All-Star's short stay with the Celtics could be cause to reevaluate what once appeared to be a onesided deal. No, the Cavs didn't get an equal return on Irving, but the reality was that he was almost assuredly leaving Cleveland anyways -- something team chairman Dan Gilbert alluded to as he reflected on the trade while talking to Cleveland.com's Terry Pluto in May.
“It becomes a melting snowball,” Gilbert told Pluto. “We had to trade him when we did. What team would want Kyrie with only one year on his contract knowing he could leave after the season? You won’t get much back [under those circumstances].”
What's more is that despite Irving's strong start in Boston, knee surgery would cost him the entirety of the 2018 Playoffs, where the Celtics lost to the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals in seven games. And his second season in Boston proved to be as equally drama-filled as it was disappointing, as the Celtics' 49-33 campaign came to an end in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
So what did Boston really get out of its Irving experience?
Over the course of the past two seasons, the Celtics amassed a combined 104-60 record and won three playoff series. To put that in perspective, in Boston's two previous seasons without Irving, it totaled a 101-63 record with two playoff series victories to its credit.
The Cavs, of course, remain in the early stages of their post-James and Irving rebuild, so it's probably not the time to take any victory laps just yet. But it's also worth noting that two of the young players Cleveland is currently building around -- Sexton and Nance -- were acquired directly and indirectly from the Irving trade, while Clarkson's expiring contract could help net another piece in a trade in the coming year.
Ideal? Of course not. But considering where Irving wound up less than two years later, it sure beats the alternative.
“We could have ended up with nothing," Gilbert told Pluto. "Looking back after all the moves Koby made, we killed it in that trade.”