LeBron James already thought it was “ridiculous” that Celtics fans were burning Isaiah Thomas jerseys, in the wake of the latter’s blockbuster trade to the Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving. One can only imagine what James — not to mention Bostonians — might be thinking now, in the wake of a report Friday that Thomas’s injured hip could potentially void the trade.
That intriguing, and for the two teams involved, intensely awkward, possibility was raised Friday by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. He reported that Thomas had undergone his physical examination by the Cavs, after which the team was “still evaluating” the injury and “weighing options” regarding the completion of the Irving trade.
As Wojnarowski noted, “All players must pass [a] physical, or a deal can be voided.” He added that a “source involved in the process involving Thomas’ medical clearance” told ESPN, “It’s a very sensitive situation.”
That would be an understatement, given the difficulties of potentially having to reincorporate Thomas and Irving to their original teams. Irving had requested a trade away from Cleveland, which would presumably have to find another trade partner or work out a different deal with Boston.
Thomas was the key to that deal, as his status as a high-scoring point guard made him a near-ideal replacement for Irving, one who promised to help James contend for another appearance in the NBA Finals. If the deal falls through, a disenchanted Thomas might well lodge his own trade demand with the Celtics, whom he led to the Eastern Conference finals last season.
Thomas was forced out of that series, in which the Celtics fell to the Cavs, after re-aggravating a hip injury he’d suffered earlier in the season. Boston General Manager Danny Ainge said this week that the lingering effects of the injury played “some” role in his decision to make the trade for Irving, in which he also sent forward Jae Crowder, center Ante Zizic and the Nets’ 2018 first-round pick to Cleveland.
Ainge reportedly said that Thomas might not be ready to start the season, but Wojnarowski subsequently reported that the Cavs had “no short term concerns” about the guard’s health. He added, though, earlier this week that while Boston believed “rest and rehab would return Thomas’s hip to a full recovery,” Cleveland was “anxious to give him [a] physical.”
The fact that neither IT nor Kyrie have said a word about the trade, and LeBron hasn’t welcomed IT publicly, is weird
— Joe Vardon (@joevardon) August 26, 2017
On Friday, Wojnarowski said on ESPN that if the Cavs decided that Thomas’s hip was a major problem, they might still try to make the deal but ask for an additional draft pick. According to the reporter, Cleveland was most excited about receiving that Nets selection, which has no protections on it, in the trade, and the Celtics are armed with several other high-value picks over the next few drafts.
Assuming some version of the trade does happen, and even if Thomas ultimately proves healthy and productive, it still would not prevent James from bolting the Cavs after this season, according to unnamed NBA executives who spoke with Bleacher Report’s Ric Bucher. “I don’t see him staying in Cleveland,” one told Bucher, while another said, “He’s out.”
A third executive, described as an “Eastern Conference general manager,” said it was a “foregone conclusion” that James would opt out of his contract in 2018 and leave Cleveland. The Cavs’ reported interest in gaining draft picks could be an indication that they, too, are planning for a post-James future. From Bucher’s report:
There is also concern that Thomas elected to recover from his hip injury without surgery because he’s aware of what that could’ve done to his market value as a free agent next summer.
“We all have the numbers when a guy gets hip surgery,” one executive says. “They’re not good. Now what if he’s not right and needs surgery anyway? That is not nearly the same trade.”
According to Bucher, not only were the executives assuming a James departure from Cleveland, but they also saw it as almost inevitable that he would wind up joining the Lakers. The attraction of that move to the four-time MVP, according to Bleacher Report, is three-fold: It would help with his interests in TV and movie production; he would likely be offered an ownership stake in the Lakers; and he would have the opportunity to lead a third franchise to an NBA championship.
That last point might be of particular concern to James, who has mused aloud about his NBA legacy and his desire to supplant Michael Jordan atop the unofficial all-time ranks. A league source told Bucher that James, who has three titles in eight Finals appearances, had “relinquished his goal” of matching Jordan’s six championships. However, Jordan won all of those with the Bulls, and only Robert Horry and John Salley, neither a Hall of Fame player, have won rings with three franchises.
“LeBron did what he came to do [in Cleveland],” an NBA scout told Bucher. “He needs to prove he can do it somewhere else now. Three different teams will make him more unique.”
In that case, James would be all but certain to bolt Cleveland after this season. In turn, that scenario might be giving the Cavs all the more reason to make the deal with the Celtics, or some version thereof, and accept whatever condition Thomas’s hip is in.
It is even possible that Cleveland executives have gamed this out, and are now using the awkwardness Boston would face in taking Thomas back as leverage to squeeze another draft pick out of Ainge. One thing is certain: the NBA’s schedule-makers did a spectacular job in setting Celtics-Cavs as the first game of the coming season.