Celtics trade for Kyrie Irving, continue to eye NBA supremacy in post-Warriors era
It's debatable whether Boston gets better right away with Irving, but the future is definitely brighter
The NBA's blockbuster summer continued Tuesday with a true shocker: The Cleveland Cavaliers have in exchange for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and perhaps most important, the Brooklyn Nets' 2018 first-round pick, which could very well be a top-five pick, if not the top overall.
Earlier Tuesday, Celtics, who are notoriously stingy with their trove of assets.. So much for that. This is a gigantic package Cleveland just brought back, made more surprising by the team giving it up -- the
The questions for Boston are: Why now? Why Irving? Why not Jimmy Butler? Certainly the Bulls would have loved the haul the Cavs just got over the one they got from the Timberwolves, and there's certainly a case to be made that Butler is a better player than Irving. In fact, some people would probably say he is.
For Boston, this is all about the future, as it continues to eye NBA supremacy a few years down the road, perhaps when the Warriors fade and/or LeBron James leaves Cleveland, or at least when this Celtics' roster comes to full bloom. On a conference call with the media Tuesday night, Celtics GM Danny Ainge all but confirmed as much when he said, "[Kyrie] fits our timeline."
That doesn't mean the Celtics aren't trying to win now or cannot win now. It means the youth on their roster and the fact they have Gordon Hayward for four years means the future is probably even brighter than the immediacy. While Thomas is 29 and likely will fetch a max deal next summer, meaning he'll be late in his career and making $30 million-plus when the Celtics plan to hit their peak, Irving is only 25, and he's already proven himself on the biggest stage.
Thomas has erased all doubt that he's a legit star, but there's still plenty of doubt whether you can win a title with him at the point. On the flip side, Irving is a champion. Don't even try to say he rode LeBron's coattails, because James doesn't win that 2016 title without Irving any more than Irving does without James. Irving is ready, and deserves, to be the man, and running the point in a Brad Stevens system could prove lethal.
Thomas had an incredible offensive season as an isolation demon, particularly late in games, while also benefiting greatly from Boston's movement as an off-ball scorer. Irving is no stranger to scoring off the ball, having thrived next to LeBron James, and the freedom he's going to feel as the primary ball-handler almost certainly will bring out the best in his already magical game.
This doesn't do Boston's defense any favors. After dealing Avery Bradley -- possibly the best on-ball defender in the league -- to Detroit, they just traded away Crowder, too. But listen, you have to score to truly play with the big boys, and the Celtics are a better offensive team with Irving, Gordon Hayward and Marcus Morris than they were with Thomas, Bradley and Crowder.
Still, the Celtics' defense is going to be stout enough with a lot of remaining versatility in guys like Jaylen Brown and Hayward and the presence of Marcus Smart, who could end up starting at the two or anchoring what could be a nice bench unit next to rookie Jayson Tatum, whose scoring potential and athleticism at small forward spot likely factored into Danny Ainge's willingness to trade Crowder.
So, let's get down to it: How much does Boston really benefit from this trade next season? Are they, say, a bigger threat to take down Cleveland? According to our SportsLine projections (seen in the table below), Boston gets a little bit better and the Cavs get a little worse.
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Be careful with that projection. Numbers are numbers, yes, but Crowder and Thomas next to James and Kevin Love is a pretty formidable squad. And don't rule out Cleveland flipping that 2018 Nets pick for another big-time player in an effort to win right now and entice LeBron to stay next summer. Nothing is off the table when you're trying to keep the best player in the league.
Either way, the Celtics likely aren't terribly concerned with how much they closed the gap on the Cavs, or certainly the Warriors, in the near term, if they closed it at all. This is all going to look best if they re-sign Irving when his deal is up in two years, or get him to sign an extension beforehand. If they can secure Irving long term, the Celtics move forward with a core of Irving, Hayward, Tatum and whatever comes of the 2018 Lakers pick that Boston obtained when it traded the top pick to Philly this year. That Lakers pick is protected, but it goes to Boston if it falls between No. 2 and 5 overall (among other scenarios), which certainly isn't out of the question.
No matter how that pick turns out, few teams are looking at a future as bright as the Boston Celtics, though it's fair to say their future was pretty darn bright before this trade, too. You could argue it was even brighter with that Nets pick in hand. But Boston is taking the shot many people have longed for it to take, and while you could hear the emotion in Ainge's voice Tuesday night when he talked about losing Thomas and Crowder, you can't argue with Irving's game or star power. If LeBron ends up leaving Cleveland, or perhaps even if not, Boston is setting its plate to own the Eastern Conference and compete for championships on a yearly basis in the foreseeable future.
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