WHO WON THE KYRIE IRVNG TRADE?
The process dragged on a lot more than most fans anticipated and both teams would have liked, but it finally happened: the Cleveland Cavaliers traded All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics, in exchange fellow All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas, forward Jae Crowder, the first round pick in the 2018 NBA Draft of the Brooklyn Nets (owned by the Celtics), and the second round pick in the 2020 NBA Draft belonging to the Miami Heat (also owned by the Celtics).
FROM BOSTON’S PERSPECTIVE
After seemingly missing out on guys like Paul George, Jimmy Butler, and other All-Star players they were supposedly linked to, General Manager Danny Ainge was finally able to translate his war chest of “assets” into a tangible, franchise-altering player.
There are two key elements to this. For one, let’s not forget that Ainge was the architect behind what could be considered the NBA’s first real “super-team” of the current era, adding Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen alongside Paul Pierce, creating a team that would make six consecutive playoff appearances, including two appearances in the NBA Finals.
Those moves created the precedent for the creation of the “Big 3” of the Miami Heat and the cultivation of the 2015 Golden State Warriors (who turned down trade packages for Klay Thompson, choosing instead to keep him alongside Stephen Curry and Draymond Green). Or, put another way: Ainge was the father of the NBA’s modern day arms race, where teams with championship aspirations look to two or three superstar players to form the foundation of their roster.
BOSTON MAKING MOVES TO WIN A TITLE
So after seeing his Celtics team hopelessly and hilariously outplayed by Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals, Ainge knew that the team had to shift the focus of its roster from quantity to quality. The first step of the plan actually took place in the summer of 2016, when the Celtics signed forward Al Horford to a maximum deal. This year, they cleared the cap room to aggressively pursue All-Star forward Gordon Hayward in free agency, and sign him to a maximum deal.
But there was still questions about whether a team featuring Horford, Gordon Hayward, and Isaiah Thomas, was enough to overcome Irving, LeBron James, and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Even with that core of three All-Star players in place, both the Celtics organization and fans felt, deep down, that it still wasn’t enough to beat Cleveland in a seven-game series. It’s why, even with their well-known intent to pursue Hayward in free agency, the Celtics kept popping up in every trade rumor involving marquee NBA players. It’s because they knew they needed to create the next iteration of Garnett, Pierce, and Allen.
WHAT THIS DEAL MEANS FOR BOTH TEAMS
However, this deal changes everything. While the argument could be made that the difference between the 2016 version of Thomas and the 2016 version of Irving might be a wash, the reality is that Boston was able to rebuild the foundation of their team for the foreseeable future, while simultaneously weakening their biggest rival in the East.
As a scoring-oriented point guard himself, the swap of Irving for Thomas should prove to be seamless in Boston. The Celtics were already used to playing in a manner that enabled Thomas to shoot a high volume of shots, while not expending a ton of energy on defense. That fits Irving’s game perfectly. Instead of worrying about massaging the ego of the franchise’s cornerstone player, he’s going to play alongside two guys in Hayward and Horford whose games are well-suited to facilitate Irving’s play-making skills. Irving, and the rest of the team, knows that he’s coming in as that “missing ingredient” to take them over the top, instead of being one half of a (highly successful) odd couple.
FROM CLEVELAND’S PERSPECTIVE
There are many people that believe that while the Cavaliers might have sent away one of the 10-to-15 best players in the NBA, in exchange for a player who could miss up to half of the upcoming season (if not more) because of a slow-healing hip injury, Cleveland might have actually been the “winners” of this deal.
Let’s operate under the assumption that all the ever-swirling rumors are true, and LeBron James really will leave the Cleveland Cavaliers (again) at the end of the 2017-2018 season, regardless of how it ends. James’ adamant refusal to quash any rumors about leaving Cleveland after this season only amplifies all the whispers that he wants to leave town (again) after this year is over.
His was reportedly already miffed at the way Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert fired former General Manager David Griffin, and many of those reports confirmed that the move was another wrinkle in an already strained relationship. Then, when the condition of Thomas’ still-healing hip became a sticking point for the trade, James and head coach Tyronn Lue reportedly began to cool on the acquisition of Thomas.
Point being, acquiring Thomas and Crowder doesn’t appear to be enough to convince James to stick around past this season.
So if James leaves, that opens up over $30 million worth of cap space for the Cavaliers to use.
If they want, they could devote that money towards resigning Thomas to the maximum contract extension that he’s been seeking (if Cleveland feels that the condition of his hip isn’t an issue), and build a team around Thomas, the oft-maligned Kevin Love (who will seemingly be happy to play with Thomas — a long time friend of Love’s), Crowder (who still has two years left on of the most cap-friendly contracts in the NBA), and whoever the Cavaliers get to choose with Brooklyn’s pick (which could very well be a very high pick).
But, perhaps the most interesting development in all of this is the new report that Cleveland may actually try to take the Brooklyn pick, and turn it into an asset that could immediately contribute to the team; in other words, the Cavaliers could try and build a new “superteam” on the fly, only weeks after trading away Irving. For instance, what about Cleveland trading the pick around this season’s trade deadline, in exchange for Demarcus Cousins of the New Orleans Pelicans? It’s very possible that the Cousins-Anthony Davis pairing could turn out to be a major disaster, and that the Pelicans will want to pull the plug on this idea as soon as possible. Would a core of Cousins, James, and Thomas (and maybe Love too?) be enough to shift the balance of power back in their favor in the East?
Or better yet, what if the Cavaliers pull off a blockbuster deal that brings Cousins’ teammate — Davis — to Cleveland instead? There have been plenty of trade rumors that have mentioned Davis, as incredible as that might seem. Cleveland could package Love and the Nets pick in exchange for Davis, with New Orleans letting Cousins walk (or trading him elsewhere at the deadline), and rebuild their team around Love, the Brooklyn pick, and whatever else they get.
THE DRAMA IS NOT OVER
While the Irving trade might have culminated the wildest NBA off-season in recent memory (if not ever), clearly, things won’t be standing pat to where the dust will settle. There is still much to be seen, in terms of who ultimately emerges as the short-term winner between Boston and Cleveland, and what these moves mean for the future of LeBron James’ future with the Cavaliers.