It can be difficult to grasp the gravity of any given situation while it’s happening. Often, it’s only after time passes that it becomes apparent how pivotal a decision was, or how what once seemed significant ultimately turned out to be meaningless. Sometimes, though, news that feels massive in the moment later appears to be supermassive—and I think that’s how we’ll look back on the Cavaliers-Celtics blockbuster trade of Kyrie Irving for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the Nets’ unprotected 2018 first-round pick.
We all know this deal is incredibly meaningful. We’re all dazed and confused, like we just took a flurry of jabs to the chin. It’s late August, a time when the NBA is supposed to be hibernating as MLB inches toward the playoffs and NFL opening night looms. Instead, the NBA is dominating conversation in the sports universe, and Tuesday’s stunning move has the potential to grow in magnitude.
Just consider the potential ripple effects. For the Cavaliers, this trade could bring new energy and life. Maybe Thomas will improve locker-room chemistry playing alongside childhood AAU buddy Kevin Love, and maybe Crowder will morph into the versatile two-way forward that the team has lacked for the past three years. What if a redistribution in talent is all that Cleveland needs to push past the Warriors? Maybe this blockbuster will convince LeBron to re-up with the Cavs for another season or two because suddenly the franchise’s future looks just as bright as its present. Instead of letting Cleveland’s roster implode, or watching as Irving was traded elsewhere, the Celtics may have just extended their biggest Eastern Conference foe’s championship window. Irving might even leave Boston once he hits free agency in 2019. Or maybe it will play out another way.
The deal could blow up in Cleveland’s face, leaving no doubt in LeBron’s mind that he should bolt for Los Angeles after this season. The Nets pick could end up falling outside the top five, or even the top eight, in what will likely be a top-heavy 2018 class. Thomas might fail to replicate the efficient production he generated within the cozy confines of Boston head coach Brad Stevens’s system. Kyrie could ascend to a higher level in Isaiah’s old role and lead the Celtics to the Finals. Hell, at this time next year, we could be talking about the potential for a Finals matchup between LeBron’s Lakers and Kyrie’s Celtics; now that’d be a fascinating chapter of a storied rivalry.
We can judge the trade all we want to now, but the NBA has proved to be notoriously hard to predict. Any transaction could launch a domino effect, especially when the deal is this gigantic. Whatever’s coming next will be big, so let your mind run wild with possibilities. The league’s future is not yet written.
It took a lot of willpower to make this deal happen. And it’s unprecedented for two conference finalists to swap star players. Per Elias Sports, no teams that met in the most recent NBA Finals or conference finals have exchanged players during an offseason deal in league history. This type of move simply doesn’t happen: a star beloved in Boston, coming off one of the most efficient high-volume scoring seasons in history, swapped for a 25-year-old All-NBA champion and Olympian who has yet to enter his prime.
New Cavaliers general manager Koby Altman couldn’t have found a better trade for his disgruntled superstar. After news broke in July that Irving had requested to be shipped out of Cleveland, the franchise appeared to be backed into a corner. This deal should give Cavs fans confidence in Altman at the helm, no matter what eventually happens with LeBron next summer. From a Boston standpoint, Ainge proved once again that he’s ruthless—trading Thomas, who fans truly fell in love with after his meteoric rise and the personal heartbreak he played through in the playoffs—and not complacent. It was 10 years ago, in 2007, that Ainge acquired Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. Back then, the Celtics were coming off a horrific 24-win season—the second worst in franchise history. This time is different. Ainge clearly wasn’t comfortable resting on a 53-win season or an Eastern Conference finals appearance. Rather than sit on that roster and run it back, he made so many moves that the Celtics (for now) have only four returning players from last season’s roster: Al Horford, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier.
This level of turnover is unusual for a conference finalist, but Ainge was candid about his intentions at the start of the offseason, acknowledging to the Boston Herald that the team had good players but needed great ones. He went out and got two in Irving and Gordon Hayward, but it took an extreme makeover to get that done. And an odd thing happened: The Celtics roster got better and younger. They currently have 10 players age 25 or younger, including Irving. Al Horford is the only player over 30. Jayson Tatum is only 19. Jaylen Brown is 20. In three or four years, as the Jays remain on their rookie contracts and as Irving hits his prime, then the Celtics might be at their peak. If they play their cards right and either Tatum or Brown shows upside, the Celtics could even put themselves in position to make another blockbuster trade down the line.
I’ve made the point countless times throughout the playoffs and this wild offseason, but it can’t be stressed enough that Irving is an accomplished 25-year-old superstar who’s excelled at the highest level of competition against the league’s best talent. Let’s drill it in: Kyrie is only 25. Listening to Ainge during his Tuesday conference call with the media, it’s clear that he put the same emphasis on that fact, as he mentioned Irving’s age multiple times, alluding to how a team has to “pay a heavy price” for a “perennial All-Star, a player that fits a timeline for us.”
No matter what happens in the future, the Celtics are focusing on building for sustained success; that might seem counterintuitive, since they gave up the Nets pick and the 20-year-old Zizic, but Thomas is a 28-year-old, 5-foot-9 point guard who will be one season removed from a major hip injury when he demands a five-year max contract next summer. Brooklyn doesn’t have incentive to tank like other bottom-feeders such as the Hawks, Bulls, and Suns, and while Boston’s front office may have found the promise of that draft pick sexy, it believes that Irving is the real thing.
After all, while it’s true that Thomas outplayed Irving during the 2016-17 regular season, he also had more opportunity, and benefited from having a better coach and a better system. Irving will now get the chance to reap similar rewards. When he was with the Kings and Suns, and even initially after he was acquired by the Celtics, Thomas was viewed as a sparkplug scorer. Stevens helped turn him into a superstar, a guy who last January dared to call himself “the best player in the world.” Thomas is an elite pick-and-roll scorer, but the secret sauce to his world-class scoring efficiency was his off-ball production:
Stevens unlocked Thomas. In Boston, Irving should see a higher usage rate than ever, but much of his action could come off the ball. Stevens is probably holed up in the film room right now, figuring out ways to utilize his new point guard. He’ll find that Irving possesses many of the same skills Thomas does when shooting off screens:
The Celtics lost a special talent in Thomas, but they gained a younger one in Irving. Now they’re banking on Stevens working his magic; if all goes according to plan, Irving’s talent could elevate to new heights.
This trade makes equal sense for Cleveland. Heck, Altman should have a parade thrown for him after finding a package that allows his team to simultaneously build for a world in which LeBron stays or goes in 2018. Even if the Nets don’t prove to be cellar dwellers this season, the Cavs will still be positioned to land a young player in the draft or dangle the pick in trades to bolster their roster. Zizic is a rookie, has an NBA-ready 6-foot-11 frame, and can provide energy as a bench contributor with the upside to develop into a larger role. And then there’s Thomas, who earned second-team All-NBA honors last season; who summoned the strength to take the court in the playoffs one day after his sister tragically passed away in April; and who played through a torn labrum and the effects of oral surgery until a hip injury ended his postseason in the conference finals against the Cavs. Along the way, Thomas turned in one of the greatest individual performances in recent memory, dropping 53 on the Wizards and entering a new stratosphere in Boston sports fandom.
The Cavs are getting one hell of a point guard back for Irving. But an NBA player’s most important ability is his availability, and Thomas’s outlook on that front is worrisome. He has been hampered by injury for three seasons in a row, and for a guy who is so reliant on speed, burst, and athleticism, those types of nagging injuries can add up, with any decline limiting his impact. Ainge admitted that Thomas’s health played “some” factor in the trade on Tuesday’s conference call, while ESPN’s Jeff Goodman reported it was a “significant concern.”
Irving has missed his share of games in his career, too—a fractured kneecap ended his 2015 Finals and delayed the start of his 2016 campaign—but his craftiness creating off the dribble and finishing under the rim isn’t so reliant on freak athleticism. Still, Thomas is worth the risk for the Cavaliers, and despite the fact he’ll be an unrestricted free agent in 2018, he makes for an excellent addition to Cleveland’s roster given the situation the Cavs were in and everything else they got.
It’s also possible Thomas isn’t even the best player asset they got in the deal. That might be Crowder, who could do for Cleveland what he’s done for Boston: play versatile defense against wings, forwards, and occasionally guards. Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue will be able to utilize more versatile small-ball lineups thanks to Crowder’s beef. And contracts are a significant part of player evaluation, too: Crowder has one of the most team-friendly deals in the NBA and will be paid only $21.9 million over the next three years. Nicolas Batum, Chandler Parsons, and Otto Porter will all make more than that this season alone.
For Crowder to reach his upside, he’ll need to stay engaged on defense. His defensive contributions dropped off over the past two seasons, as he suffered lapses defending on the ball and sometimes moved laterally like his feet were stuck in sludge. This wasn’t an issue when he first arrived in Boston. Crowder played the best defense of his career directly after the Mavericks dealt him to the Celtics, so maybe his play will return to top form now that he’s out for revenge following another trade. I’m not convinced that his 39.8 3-point percentage from 2016-17 is sustainable given his track record of mediocre shooting, but that’s of secondary importance. Cleveland desperately needed a two-way forward, both for the short- and long-term, and Crowder is a no-duh positive addition.
It’s also worth mentioning that Boston’s defense took a hit this offseason, at least on paper, after trading Avery Bradley for Marcus Morris and then losing Crowder. But they still have their best overall defender in Marcus Smart, who can effectively defend guards and bigs, from Russell Westbrook to Paul Millsap. And Boston’s well has been replenished somewhat. Hayward’s defense is severely underrated; Rozier will play an expanded role; Brown’s immense defensive development as a rookie made Crowder expendable in the same way that trading down from no. 1 to no. 3 and adding the protected 2018 Lakers pick made the Nets pick expendable. Boston had overlap, so it was able to consolidate pieces. Brown and rookies Tatum and Semi Ojeleye should be able to collectively fill Crowder’s shoes. The Celtics lose some defensive experience, but they’re still built to play versatile, positionless basketball.
My wonderful Ringer teammates Paolo Uggetti and Haley O'Shaughnessy already covered the winners and losers of Tuesday’s deal, but frankly I don’t think there are any losers—at least not yet, anyway. On first glance, the Kyrie-for-Isaiah trade package makes perfect sense for both teams. For two conference finalists to make an unprecedented deal of this magnitude, it couldn’t have happened any other way.