Why the Raptors and Wizards won the Kyrie Irving trade ... for now
With every trade, each pundit wants to name winners and losers. Whether the Boston Celtics or Cleveland Cavaliers truly 'won' the Kyrie Irving-Isaiah Thomas trade won't be known for a while.
But in the short-term, there are two clear winners: The Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards.
How did those two teams win a trade in which they didn't take part? Simple: The Celtics and Cavs are about to undergo significant transitions that should last well into the 2017-18 regular season.
The best example to provide insight to the upcoming transitions may be the 2014-15 Cavaliers. That squad underwent a complete makeover after the acquisition of LeBron James in July, later trading for Kevin Love and signing some veterans to flank their new Big Three. However, the team took a while to truly gel and were 19-20 on Jan. 13.
The Celtics return just four players, including just one starter, from the 2016-17 Eastern Conference runner-ups. Irving, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford have never played together and only Horford has played for coach Brad Stevens. The team also has to integrate rookies like Jayson Tatum, Semi Ojeleye and Guerschon Yabusele, who are expected to be rotation players by the end of the season.
And the Cavaliers will have a similar situation on their hands. On paper, they can slide Thomas in to replace Irving and utilize Jae Crowder as yet another three-and-D weapon for James. But with Thomas likely out to start the season, the team will have to rely on Derrick Rose and Jose Calderon at the point while trying to make up for Irving/Thomas with more ball handling duties for James. That's all before they try to figure out how Thomas and Love can work together defensively or how Thomas works off-ball with James handling the offense.
So the Wizards and Raptors should be ready to pounce. Both teams return the cores from their second-round playoff teams and retained their head coaches. John Wall and Kyle Lowry should be able to lead their respective teams to strong starts with manageable early schedules.
The Wizards got off to a 3-9 start in 2016-17, but that was with a new coach and Wall/Bradley Beal working through injuries. They shouldn't have that same issue with largely the same squad which took the Celtics to seven games coming back this season. And the Raptors lost P.J. Tucker, but added C.J. Miles to help flank their main trio of Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Serge Ibaka.
This could easily lead to an Eastern Conference that flips the 1-2 and 3-4 seeds from a year ago, at least initially. While starts as bad as 19-20 seems unlikely, the C's and Cavs have growing pains they'll have to work through and that should be reflected in that standings.
Of course, neither the Raptors nor Wizards should get comfortable atop the East. That 2014-15 Cavs team made it to the Finals while dropping just two games through the eastern portion of the postseason. After all, by the time the playoffs come around, we'll have a better idea of which team truly benefitted from the trade and just how lethal the new lineups in Cleveland and Boston can be.
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