Boston was never supposed to trade for Kyrie Irving. Paul George or Jimmy Butler, sure, but those opportunities came and went with the touch of Sam Presti’s wand and Tom Thibodeau’s negotiating voice, respectively. Nabbing Kyrie wasn’t just a surprise from the Celtics—neither side was openly interested, as Cleveland was reported to be in serious talks to find Irving a new home with only the Wolves, Knicks, and Suns. Nevertheless, on a slow Tuesday afternoon, Boston and Cleveland made the deal: Irving will finally wear another shamrock jersey, in exchange for the Celtics’ coveted Brooklyn pick, Ante Zizic, Jae Crowder, and Isaiah Thomas.
The point guard swap was unexpected, but also represented another intersection of Thomas’s and Irving’s careers. While both are explosive scorers and underwhelming defenders, the former has always been on this side of trades, never considered the centerpiece, while Irving’s credentials make him a headliner. The two have lived opposite timelines for their entire existence in the NBA, with just a position and a chip in common—Irving’s on his ring finger; Isaiah’s on his shoulder.
Kyrie went first overall in the 2011 NBA draft, a lottery Cleveland won after going 19-63 the season before. The Cavs faithful were bitter from The Decision that left the team in the NBA cellar, and wanted a young star—another chosen one—to believe in again. At the other end of the 2011 draft was a 5-foot-9 point guard from Washington, three years older than Irving, and waiting what seemed like three years longer for friends and family to hear his name called by the tall, glasses-wearing man at the podium—commissioner David Stern had packed up by then. Isaiah Thomas was in the gym when he was finally selected by the Sacramento Kings, 60th overall, the last pick in the draft.
Thomas became a pleasant surprise, notching second-team All-Rookie honors by year’s end. For Irving, a prestigious Rookie of the Year award followed his first season, albeit during a 21-45 showing for the Cavs. The Duke product grew into one of the flashiest at-rim finishers in the league, a man whose handles could stop you midsentence. By summer 2014, after finishing his third season in the league averaging 20.8 points and 6.1 assists in 35 minutes, Irving agreed to a maximum extension with the franchise that drafted him.
Two days after Kyrie signed that offseason, Thomas was uprooted from Sacramento. Coming off a season averaging nearly identical stats to Irving, 20.3 points and 6.3 assists in 34.7 minutes, the Kings dealt him to Phoenix in a sign-and-trade. Sac’s return: A $7 million trade exception that eventually expired, unused, and the rights to Alex Oriakhi, who never played a minute in an NBA game.
The lone parallel Isaiah’s and Kyrie’s careers have ever shared is their stat lines. I.T. made it his business to prove to everyone—picks 1-59 in the 2011 draft, the 29 teams that passed, and, well, even the team that didn’t pass, Sacramento—that he could hang as the playmaker on a respected team.
Thomas was finally that guy this past season, entering the outskirts of the MVP conversation, and winning hearts over with his tremendous poise in the playoffs, where he scored the second-most postseason points (53) in Boston history on the day of his late sister’s birthday. But even after his historic season, averaging over 28.5 points and 5.0 assists, as only Larry Bird and John Havlicek had previously done for the Celtics, and averaging the second-most fourth-quarter points in NBA history (9.8 per game), Thomas remains three years older than Irving, six inches shorter, and outside of Boston’s plans.
But I.T.’s new franchise is an automatic contender, too, by proxy of one man on the roster whom Thomas has long admired.
“What goes through a guard’s mind,” Stephen A. Smith asked Thomas during the 2015 Finals, “when you’re not playing with LeBron?”
“I mean, LeBron just makes the game so much more easier for anybody out there on the court,” Isaiah told the First Take panel, unknowingly giving the counterargument to Kyrie’s desire to leave and find his own path. But James might not stay in Cleveland after this season, either, and if the King leaves once again, it’s difficult to imagine that the Cavs will cling to Thomas and offer him the maximum contract he wants. Without Irving or LeBron, and now equipped with the 2018 Nets pick, Cleveland could find itself in a rebuild at the end of next season when Thomas’s contract is up—not the ideal time to max out a then-29-year-old.
But as Boston grew attached to Isaiah, Cleveland will, too. An underdog has an infectious way to rally a crowd, and if his past year in Boston is any proof, Isaiah won’t slow down any time soon. And despite the probable rebuild the Cavs will undergo, a fat contract is at least slightly more feasible for Isaiah in a LeBron-less, Kyrie-less Cleveland than it ever would have been with the Celtics, who never saw him as the future.
In the near future, though, Boston will face Thomas, just as Sacramento and Phoenix eventually had to, and he won’t need to wait long. The Cavs and Celts match up for the NBA’s season opener on October 17, and in Quicken Loans Arena, Thomas will once again be matched up against Irving, jerseys flipped; situations unchanged.