A Tale of Two Cities… Or Maybe Four

It certainly is the best of times. Especially since the playoffs were pretty close to being the worst of times.

After a dud of an NBA playoffs, the summer speculation season is at full force, with rampant trade rumors about two of the NBA’s finest swingmen. First, we had Paul George telling Kevin Pritchard that he wasn’t returning after the 2018 summer. And then we got this…

To which…

And then the rumors of Jimmy Butler moving started swirling…

Cleveland, Minnesota, Denver, and even fucking Phoenix are now littered all over the NBA tabloids

That may have been one or two too many unnecessary Will Smith references, but hey, I’m listening to “Switch” right now, so, I don’t fucking care.

Enough exposition. Let me try to summarize the point of this column with a single text exchange with CJ:

Let me allow to walk you through my crudely worded opinion: Jimmy Butler to Boston and Paul George to Cleveland makes the most sense, for Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, Indiana, all the players involved, and all the tertiary franchises that need to be involved to make the trades possible.

Let’s make sense of it all.

Who fits where?

Any player who’ll sign on to play with the Cavaliers is going to have to slide in next to LeBron James and Kyrie Irving — two ball-dominant play initiators, even though in the latter’s case, the play is initiated by him and ended by him. Any third offensive weapon on the Cavaliers needs to be effective without the ball in his hands. Boston, on the other hand, relies on a offensive style dependent entirely on penetration and ball movement. The issue with their team is that the only adept penetrator on their team stands barely 5'9" and is dealing with a hip injury. So, here’s the bottom line for this distinction: Cleveland needs an All-Star 3-and-D player, and Boston needs an All-Star creator.

From an overall stats standpoint, Paul George and Jimmy Butler are pretty much equivalent: George’s 23.7 points, 3.3 assists, 6.6 rebounds and 2.0 stocks per game on 53.3% effective field goal to Butler’s 23.9 points, 5.5 assists, 6.2 rebounds, and 2.3 stocks per game on 49.2% effective field goal.

Breakdown of counting statistics, scaled to Paul George’s stats

If we examine the player tendency statistics, from NBA.com’s Stats hub, out of all forwards in the game, Butler ranks second in drives per game, only behind James’s 9.5, with his 9.4 a game. Paul George, even as the lead play creator and scorer for his Indiana Pacers team, is all the way down at 5.4 a game. Butler assisted on 10% of those driving plays, tops among all forwards that had at least 5 drives a game.

Butler and George took an indistinguishable 7.4 and 7.3 pull-up jumpers every game last season. The only difference? George was almost a whopping 6% more efficient on his shots, in terms of effective field goal percentage, at 46.1% to Butler’s 40.4%. If we turn our attentions to catch-and-shoot statistics, George took 6.1 a game on a good 60.1% eFG. Butler only took 2.2 and converted at 55.2% eFG.

Breakdown of shooting tendencies for Paul George and Jimmy Butler

The numbers alone make it a clear case that George could fit around James’s elbow touches and Kyrie’s isoball magic from the wing and Butler could be the second creator in Boston’s offense.

But let’s look at a little tape, first on George. Cleveland loves running Love off subtle off-ball screens to open him up for threes, either on the baseline or at the break. The other kind of action the Cavs love is running a quick screen on the weakside for J.R. Smith or Kyle Korver and then further delaying the trailing defender with a second screen along the baseline, giving Korver or Smith enough room to loft up a three either in the corner or on the break.

And that’s exactly what George loves to do. Whether it was running off screens and catching passes from Teague and George Hill above the break or running two-man games with David West at the elbow, George’s scoring is built off his movement without the ball.

Check out NBASavant’s heat map for George’s shooting tendencies. Lots of midrange jumpers from the elbow, a shot that’ll be less available since LeBron loves inhabiting that space. Lots of above the break three pointers at a really good clip, a shot that’ll be readily available off LeBron and Kyrie (if he decides to pass it) drives. He’ll probably need to take and make more corner threes, but it’s not a shot that the lead scorer of a team generally takes, so his low corner usage for the Pacers isn’t a shock.

Now it’s Butler’s turn. Boston’s best lineup last year was Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder, and Al Horford — that’s one tiny creator surrounded by an above average off-ball scorer in Bradley, a pick-and-pop savant in Horford, and two “wings” that are below average to average three-point shooters and decent at driving on the closeout. Now, if the Boston offseason goes according to plan, we’re replacing Crowder and Smart with Gordon Hayward, a great shooter and great attacker of closeouts, and Jimmy Butler, a second creator. Plugging Butler and Hayward into exactly the offensive roles of Smart and Crowder will open everything up for the Celtics.

Take a look at these highlights from a ho-hum March game against the Bucks. Butler carves apart an above average Milwaukee defense by making the extra pass time and time again.

Most of Butler’s buckets come from isolation plays, catching the ball in the corner or above the break and consistently finding his way into the paint, either to finish with pull-ups, kicking out to the Bull’s host of inadequate shooters, and dropping the rock off for easy dunks to Robin Lopez.

Butler’s shot chart is heavy on the right side of the floor, which may be a little redundant, given Thomas’s usual points of attack. Butler, though on a tiny sample space, is a much better three-point shooter from the corner than from above the break, and Brad Stevens is likely to utilize that strength in the offense.

Consider Butler’s assist chart, also from NBASavant. Most of Butler’s assists are from the paint, suggesting an ability to kick out to open shooters. I’m sure that if the Bulls had better shooters, Butler’s assist totals would spike.

So, here’s the take-home message from this section: George and Butler like to take and are able to make exactly the shots that will be available as the third option on the Cavaliers and the 1B option on the Celtics, respectively.

How do we make this happen?

Let’s start with Jimmy Butler here, the easier transaction to make happen. Chicago’s going to want young players that can play right now, and Boston won’t want to give up any cap room. So, we’re going to have to match salary, so that Boston can keep their depth for ensuring playoffs pushes. So, here’s the trade:

Boston receives: Jimmy Butler
Chicago receives: Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, Tyler Zeller, Boston’s own 2017 first round pick (3rd overall), and Boston’s 2018 LAL pick with the protections (2019 Kings pick if the 2018 pick doesn’t pan out)

The trade works, and the Boston is actually shedding salary! And before, some Masshole tells me that two top 10 lottery picks and Marcus Smart (Bill Simmons’s favorite Celtic of all time not named Larry or Kevin) are way too much to give up, the Celtics are able to drop the horrible Tyler Zeller contract and they still have the Brooklyn pick in 2018 (likely top 10) and their own 2018 and 2019 first rounders. That allots them the cap space to sign a FOURTH FUCKING ALL-STAR and use the midlevel exception to shore up the interior depth. (Taj Gibson, anyone?) And they’re not even giving up Jaylen Brown, and they’ll still be able to build for the future with Brown, Rozier (I really like his game), and those first round picks. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Because if you do, you’ll be stuck getting T-bagged by LeBron every year.

And, Chicago won’t say no to this deal. That’s two marquee prospects, probably Josh Jackson and someone like Marvin Bagley or Wendell Carter or even DeAndre Ayton, along with a stop-gap point guard in Marcus Smart and an above average wing in Crowder. That’s the best package out there for Butler, hands down.

Getting Paul George on the Cavaliers is at an entirely different level of difficulty, probably involving a third team and a stern talking to from James to George, convincing him to publicly state that he’ll only resign with Cleveland if he’s traded. There’s not point for Indiana to trade Paul George for Kevin Love, straight up, seeing as they don’t want to stay mediocre with talent that’s still in their prime. If the Pacers wanted to go that route, staying mediocre and hoping to make the playoffs, they’d just keep George and make auxiliary trades to improve the roster around him. Essentially, Cleveland needs to find a third team who could use Kevin Love and can’t possibly convince Paul George to stay past this one-year rental should they trade for him.

Bill Simmons threw this out:

Nope. The Suns won’t and don’t need Kevin Love. They’d much rather rent George for a year by throwing back minimal assets. I could see Denver using Kevin Love next to Nikola Jokic to create an even more lethal offense, but Denver could just make the trade with Indiana straight up. Beasley, Mudiay, and the 13th pick for George? Who says no? Paul George in 2018, that’s who.

So, here’s my trade:

Cleveland receives: Paul George and C.J. Miles from the Indiana Pacers
Indiana receives: Allen Crabbe, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Noah Vonleh from the Portland Trailblazers, sweetened with Portland’s 15th overall pick in the 2017 draft, Portland’s 2018 first round pick, and the lesser of the LAL’s or MEM’s second rounders in 2019 from Cleveland
Portland receives: Kevin Love and Iman Shumpert from the Cleveland Cavaliers, Georges Niang from the Indiana Pacers, and the 2020 second rounder they sent over to Cleveland

Cleveland can’t say no to this — an All-Star wing who seamlessly fits in with James and Irving with George and a floor spacer and actually good defender in Miles, even though they’re giving up Love’s rebounding and offensive mismatchiness and Shumpert’s…well, effort… and I guess, hair? Portland gets their option 2B, especially since Love can slide in seamlessly next to Nurkic and play off the high post pretty well. Indiana gets a shooter in Crabbe, an effective combo forward in Aminu, and a project in Vonleh, who might finally feel comfortable playing close to his heyday at Indiana University. The picks they get aren’t exactly stellar, but given George’s imminent exodus from Indiana, two additional first rounders and another couple second rounders can maybe yield one solid starter and maybe another rotation piece. And they’ll be so horrible that they won’t even have to mess with the lineup to tank. And given Indiana’s drafting track record (George at 10, Turner at 11, Lance Stephenson at 40, Granger at 17, Vonteego Cummings at 26… oh wait, never mind), even a pick between 5 and 10 is a value pick for them.

There’s another sneaky move up Cleveland’s sleeve: shopping Kyrie Irving AND Kevin Love to entirely revamp the team. I’m right about capped out in terms of trades, but here’s the scenario, I’m thinking about. They make a three-team trade this summer to ship out Love and bring in George. And, as the season progresses, Butler starts to get disgruntled, and Cleveland can leverage them for a Kyrie-for-Butler panic trade, building a threesome of wings in Butler, LeBron, and George. The point guard spot will be tricky to fit, but given that kind of shot creation in their starting lineup, they’d only need to have a backup point guard as their starter, someone like Shelvin Mack or Langston Galloway or Sergio Rodriguez on a mini mid-level contract giving them 20 minutes a game at most. Bring Smith off the bench as a sniper, find another wing and big off the buyout scrap-heap, and that’s a rotation that’s better suited for the track meet of a Finals that is a matchup with the Warriors.

It used to be the case that two top-five players or three All-NBA caliber players were the key to a championship team. Moses, Dr. J, and Andrew Toney for the ’83 Sixers; Bird, McHale, and Parrish for the 80s Celtics; Magic, Kareem, and Worthy for the 80s Lakers; Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman for the Bulls second three-peat; Kobe and Shaq; the Spurs Big Three; Pierce, KG, and Allen for Boston; the Heatles… the list goes on. This year proves that, now, you need four top-30 players. Boston can maybe match that if they swing a trade for Butler and sign Hayward. Cleveland’s best bet is to hope that the second best player of all-time with two other top-15 players in the league is good enough to match the Warriors firepower.

All I can say that this offseason is going to be just a little somethin’ to break the monotony of the NBA season. I’m hoping that the landscape shifts entirely, and we have some serious power consolidation, so that next year’s playoffs are a lot more interesting that this year’s M. Night Shyamalan movie of a postseason.

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