What the Kyrie Irving Trade Means for the Boston Celtics
It looks like August 22nd was Danny Ainge’s July 4th. After several years of promising fireworks and teasing the idea of acquiring a superstar in a trade with the assets he acquired, Ainge finally pulled the trigger, trading fan favorite and star Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the oft-discussed 2018 Brooklyn Nets first-round pick for the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kyrie Irving.
Last season the Celtics won 53 games, with Thomas finishing fifth in MVP voting, on their way to an Eastern Conference finals berth, but Ainge wasn’t comfortable with standing idly by. After a busy offseason, Boston returns only four players from that team, Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Terry Rozier, and fans are left to wonder where the Celtics go from here.
Ainge has repeatedly stated that the Celtics plan is to be both competitive in the short term and build for sustainable future contention, and this deal does just that. It’s easy to forget that Irving is just 25 years old and despite whatever debates surround his weaknesses and how good he can be, Irving is already a perennial All-Star, team USA member, and NBA champion who can continue to improve upon any weaknesses in his game and adapt to a new situation before he even enters his prime.
On a conference call following Tuesday night’s trade, Ainge spoke of Irving’s age multiple times, mentioning how the team had to pay a “heavy price” to acquire a star player, “a player that fits a timeline for us.” The timeline, of course, that Ainge is referring to is a flexible one where the team can compete now with players like Gordon Hayward and Al Horford alongside Irving, and contend in the future with Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and the last two No. 3 overall picks Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. At 29, Isaiah Thomas presented a serious dilemma for Ainge and the Celtics: coming off a serious hip injury and into a contract year, Thomas is looking to get a full max contract next offseason. Ainge and the Celtics organization were unsure whether they wanted to make that commitment, which would have effectively capped the team out, to a player who may never be the same.
The role Thomas played in rapidly accelerating the Celtics’ rebuilding process can’t be forgotten. His play on the court and commitment and grit off it, from recruiting Horford and Hayward to Boston, to playing through a hip injury and the grief of tragically losing his sister during the past season’s playoff run, endeared him to fans and some would even say it made him a legend in Boston, but at the end of the day it’s a business. No matter how harsh the emotional aspect of the trade is, the Celtics got a younger, taller version of Thomas in Kyrie, and he’s under contract for two more years.
Part of the “heavy price” the Celtics paid for Irving was the prized 2018 Brooklyn Nets pick, and some would argue that trading a potential top-5 pick away contradicts the team’s goal of building towards the future. However, there’s a few points to consider regarding Boston’s decision to trade the pick. There really hasn’t been a trade of this magnitude that’s happened between the top two teams and rivals in a conference.
While the still have a ways to go in their rebuild, Brooklyn could be better than many expect this year given the additions of D’Angelo Russell, Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll, and others. Combine that with improved health for Jeremy Lin and the weakened state that the past offseason has left the East in, and it’s not completely insane to imagine the Nets fighting for a low playoff spot in the conference. The Nets have no incentive tank. Other teams like the Hawks, Pacers, Bulls, Magic, Suns, and even the Knicks if they end up trading Carmelo, do. Even with improvements in the offseason, the young Lakers and Kings face stiff competition in the deep, strengthened Western Conference and could very well find themselves near the top of the lottery again. This year’s Brooklyn pick may be more likely to land in the 6-10 range than the 1-5 range, in a draft where there appears to be a bit of a drop-off after the top 5 prospects. Regardless of where the pick lands and whether LeBron leaves, it’s a very important asset for Cleveland which had little to nothing in the way of assets before this trade.
The Celtics also prepared themselves for a trade like this with their moves earlier this offseason. By trading back in the draft for Tatum and the protected 2018 Lakers/2019 Kings pick, the Celtics could afford to trade another high lottery pick from their treasure trove of assets to get a star like Irving. The Tatum pick, along with the trade for Marcus Morris and the development of Jaylen Brown, provided Boston with ample wing depth to deal with the loss of Jae Crowder.
It’s no sure thing that the team matches last year’s success and coach Brad Stevens would certainly prefer more continuity, but the Celtics should be in good shape heading into next season and the coming years. Who knows, it could be the Lakers, not the Nets, who end up with the worse record and better draft pick, in which case Ainge would once again look like a genius. For the Celtics and Cavaliers the trade looks like a win-win for now, but if you’re looking to determine winners and losers of this trade it’s far too early to draw a definitive result from it. Check back in a year.
Oh, and by the way, guess who’s playing on opening night this season? That’s right, the Celtics and the Cavaliers. See you on October 17th.