Normally, it’s difficult to get back close to equal value for a talent like Kyrie Irving, a four-time all-star and one-time NBA champion. But in this week’s trade with the Boston Celtics, Cleveland’s front office managed to acquire not only players that will help the Cavaliers remain competitive in the East this season, but a critical future asset: the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 unprotected first-round pick.
By pushing for the inclusion of the pick, the Cavaliers are betting that the Nets will be one of the worst teams in the NBA next season. If so, they can use that pick to either entice James to stay, by perhaps dangling the draft choice in a trade for a star veteran, or to rebuild if The King decides to leave.
The best-case scenario for Cleveland is Brooklyn winning the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft. To maximize those odds, the Nets have to post the worst record in the NBA, which they just did last season.
The Nets, winners of only 20 games last season, should be a better team in 2017-18. They acquired D’Angelo Russell, the No. 2 overall pick in 2015, and Timofey Mozgov from the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Brook Lopez; selected 6-foot-10, 235-pound center Jarrett Allen from Texas in the first round of the draft; acquired Allen Crabbe from the Portland Trail Blazers, DeMarre Carroll from the Toronto Raptors and re-signed veteran point guard Jeremy Lin.
But the oddsmakers are not yet impressed, setting the Nets’ 2017-18 over/under win total at just 20 1/2 games, the lowest in the NBA for the upcoming season — which is great news for Cleveland’s front office.
Win totals such as these are not the end of the conversation in terms of team strength, but it is worth noting that, on average, teams with a higher win total have performed better during the regular season. Since 2001-02, an NBA team with a preseason win total of 20 1/2 or less has won 18 games with a high of 23 wins. A team with a win total between 21 and 25 1/2 games won 26 games on average, and upward from there.
Historical results don’t suggest a big uptick in wins, either. There have been 12 teams since 1979-80, the first year the three-point line was implemented, that won 20 games in a season. Just three improved by 10 or more wins the following season: the 1988-89 Golden State Warriors, the 1994-95 Milwaukee Bucks and the 1997-98 San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs took a huge leap forward after selecting future Hall of Fame big man Tim Duncan in the draft and the Bucks got a boost from Glenn Robinson, also a No. 1 overall pick. The Nets, while improved, don’t have that much talent coming in to help in 2017-18 (they landed the top choice in this year’s draft but had previously traded the rights to Boston).
But even if the Cavaliers do get the top pick in the draft, it won’t mitigate the loss of a transcendental player like James.
ESPN gave the top pick in the 2017 draft, Markelle Fultz, a 5.9 percent chance of being an all-star at some point between his second and fifth season in the NBA. The No. 2 pick, Lonzo Ball, was given a 7.3 percent chance. And that’s just to be an all-star, not the four-time regular season MVP James has been throughout his career.
Over the past decade, the top overall pick has provided an average of 6.1 win shares per 82 games over their career, with a slight decrease in production with every pick thereafter. James is worth more than 2 1/2 times that amount (15.9 per 82 games), not including anything he did in the playoffs.
The better option for Cleveland would be to use the Nets’ pick to bring in another superstar to play alongside James. The 2018 NBA draft is deep with talent, especially at forward, with Missouri’s Michael Porter, Duke’s Marvin Bagley III, Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton and Texas’ Mohamed Bamba all figuring to be among the first names called from the podium. Certainly more than one NBA team would be interested in the upside a high draft pick provides at a cost-controlled price. Plus, the No. 1 overall pick has been traded six times in league history before the season started, with just one, the 1986 trade involving Brad Daugherty, triggering seller’s remorse.
Historical perspective on the No. 1 pick being in trades: The team making the trade only regretted it once, in 1986. (CORRECTED CHART.) pic.twitter.com/HSBgKGvEig
— Adi Joseph (@AdiJoseph) June 16, 2017
Whether the Cavaliers decide to keep the pick or trade it, one thing is certain — their future looks much brighter than it did before the Irving trade.