Well, the trade everyone was expecting to happen finally happened. The Cleveland Cavaliers sent All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics on Tuesday night, in exchange for fellow All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas and a whole mess of other assets, including Brooklyn’s 2018 first-round pick—a pick Celtics GM Danny Ainge had seemed loathe to give up for anything. In the end, not only did he give it up, he gave it up to the team that beat his in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. Say what you want about the NBA, just never say it’s not fascinating.
The Celtics now have just one starter—center Al Horford—remaining from a 53-win team. Their longest-tenured player, 23-year-old Marcus Smart, was a first-round pick in 2014. They gave up nearly all they had left to land Irving. Thomas was the heart and soul of the team, an undersized scorer who dominated fourth quarters and had completed the unlikely journey from the final pick of the 2011 Draft to MVP candidate. Jae Crowder is a 27-year-old defensive stalwart on a bargain of a deal. Ante Žižić is a 20-year-old, 7-foot center with tremendous upside and even more tremendous accent marks. It was a lot to offer up even without the Nets pick—especially for someone who’d expressly said he wanted out.
But consider what the Celtics got back: Irving may have been drafted the same year as Thomas, but he’s three years younger and locked into a max deal (making $9 million less a year than Horford) with a player option in 2019. He’s six inches taller than Thomas as well, and, alongside Gordon Hayward, makes for quite the backcourt. And while Thomas’s fourth-quarter exploits are the stuff of legend, Irving has had his moments in the spotlight as well, including, well, the biggest shot in Cleveland Cavaliers history. If you’re ever going to go all-in for a single player, a 25-year-old four-time All-Star who’s excelled in three straight NBA Finals is the one to go for.
As for the Cavaliers, they got one hell of a return for someone who clearly wanted to be elsewhere. They had no leverage at all, yet received an All-Star still in his prime, a valuable building block in Crowder, and effectively a pair of first-round picks, seeing that Žižić has yet to make his NBA debut. While Thomas doesn’t exactly replace everything Kyrie is able to do, the addition of Crowder should enable LeBron to get a little more rest next season after leading the league in minutes played. And next summer, should James decide to decamp for the West along with all the other All-Stars, the Cavaliers will have yet another top pick. Or maybe the prospect of getting another top pick helps convince James to stay. It’s a win/win.
None of this is meant to sell IT short (er, sorry), since he’s become one hell of a player since he was drafted 60th overall out of Washington in 2011. He’s made multiple leaps in his career, from bench player to starter, from star to superstar. He averaged a career-high 28.9 ppg last year and finished fifth in MVP voting a year after averaging 22.2 ppg and making his first All-Star Game. The big question is what is that worth. With his Bird Rights travelling with him to Cleveland, he stands to receive a major payday when his deal expires next summer. (This season he’ll make a paltry $6.2 million.) It’s possible that Ainge just wasn’t ready to pay max money to an undersized crowd favorite—and maybe Cleveland won’t either. They have a year to make up their minds.
Who won the trade? That’s yet to be seen. They’ve gotta play the games first. But on the surface at least, this appears to be one of those rare deals where no one really loses. (Except for perhaps NBA2K, who put a Cavs-uniformed Kyrie on the cover of their latest game.) The rest of us, though, we all win. Because when the season starts on October 17th, guess who plays each other on TNT first? Even Charles Barkley might watch that game.