In principle, it seems so simple.
Print out a roster and allow the Cleveland Cavaliers to pick any players they want in exchange for Kyrie Irving. Pistons fans have made it their offseason homework, since reports surfaced that Irving — for whatever reason — wanted out of Cleveland and seemingly a fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals with LeBron James.
Pistons fans had consulted the Trade Machine to check whether salaries match — any salaries on the roster — to try to coax Irving to anchor a new-look Pistons starting group. It’s an enticing suggestion, pairing Irving with the newly acquired Avery Bradley to form one of the top backcourts in the NBA.
But it’s not that simple. It never was.
The Cavs pulled the trigger Tuesday on a trade for Irving, sending him to the rival Boston Celtics for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the Brooklyn Nets' unprotected first-round pick in the 2018 draft.
That’s a considerable haul just for Irving, who has distinguished himself against the Golden State Warriors in the Finals the past couple years, including the championship run in 2016. Thomas is an All-Star and was second-team All-NBA last season. Crowder is an underrated two-way player under a desirable contract and Zizic, a first-round pick in 2016, has some potential.
But the true prize in this deal could be the pick — which, given the Nets’ futility in recent years, could be a top-five selection.
The Pistons were interested in Irving, but didn’t have the assets to assemble anywhere near the package that the Celtics did. One report had the Pistons offering Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson, Stanley Johnson and picks. It might not matter how the pieces were rearranged; they would have needed a big name like Thomas — and Drummond simply isn’t viewed that way by the Cavs.
It’s not a slight on Drummond, who was an All-Star in 2016, but coming off a down year, the injury and the questions about Jackson’s tendinitis and Johnson’s subpar year, there was no way the Cavs were going to bite. Plus, the Pistons’ draft pick possibly will be in the lottery, but it’s certainly not as tempting as the Nets’ selection.
Superstars just don’t change hands that easily. And that kind of trade doesn’t happen for a team that doesn’t have several near-stars to barter themselves. The timing wasn’t right for the Pistons and the pieces aren’t there to make such a franchise-changing deal — without giving up the world.
They’re more likely to get a draft pick that develops into that kind of star — a hope for the likes of Drummond or Johnson, which hasn’t panned out yet.
Going into his fourth year of a five-year deal, Pistons president Stan Van Gundy would be pushing all his chips in the middle of the table — frankly, for a player that might not drastically change the Pistons fortunes by himself. The Pistons would have had to gut their roster to even get in the conversation.
Most Pistons fans would take that; they want a superstar. For many of them, the malaise for watching the team is only abated partially by the appeal of the move to Little Caesars Arena in downtown Detroit. That’s going to wear off eventually.
And when it does, Pistons owner Tom Gores and Van Gundy will be in a real quandary.
They’ll have to fill the seats and get the fans behind either a team that’s winning or a superstar leading a team that’s trying to contend. Anything short of that won’t be good enough.
It’s just that simple.