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Boston Celtics trade for Kyrie Irving: The Spectrum of Possible Outcomes

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There are a lot of variables in play, let us help you sort through them all.

NBA: Finals-Golden State Warriors at Cleveland Cavaliers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Danny Ainge finally pulled the trigger on a mega deal, trading away Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and Brooklyn’s unprotected 2018 first round pick in return for Kyrie Irving. That’s a lot to give up for one player, and for the deal to work out in Boston’s favor, the Celtics will need to win a series of fairly large bets they’ve placed as a result of it.

Here is a list of everything to pay attention to in order to monitor how those bets play out:

  • Kyrie Irving- Whether or not Irving has a jump in production left in him, is able to become a more passable defender, and/or wants to stay in Boston long-term are probably the most important factors to be considered. For the Celtics to win this deal, they likely need Irving to be a superstar for a number of years.
  • Isaiah Thomas- How Thomas plays next year, whether or not he stays in Cleveland, the size of his next contract, and how he performs over the life of that deal are all critical pieces of information in assessing this transaction, and they’re inseparable from his health and age.
  • Lebron James- Making this deal is a smaller gamble if Lebron really is going to move on to L.A. next summer.
  • Jae Crowder- This is tied to the point above. Crowder is a very good basketball player, and exactly the kind of switchable wing the Cavs need to better match up with the Warriors. If he improves Cleveland’s chances against Golden State, it might influence James’ free agency decision.
  • Nets Pick- This is probably the biggest roll of the dice in the whole trade (and there are plenty here). Brooklyn isn’t going to be very good next year, but they won’t be as abjectly horrible as in the past two seasons. If their pick comes in the 6-10 range this trade is a lot more palatable than if it’s 1-5.
  • Lakers Pick- This isn’t a part of the deal, but basically, if the Lakers pick the Celtics own next year winds up being better than the Nets pick, that will go a long way towards pleasing the masses.
  • Jayson Tatum- Including the pick instead of Tatum, whom Cleveland wanted, means Ainge is confident that his ceiling is higher than that of whomever will ultimately be available with the pick (there’s more nuance to this calculation than I’ve laid out here, but the general premise holds).
  • Ante Zizic- Zizic was a salary match throw in, and looked fairly terrible in Summer League, but that doesn’t mean he can’t turn into a good player. It isn’t that likely he will swing this trade in one direction, but his inclusion isn’t nothing.

To the pessimist, that’s a lot of things that could go wrong for Boston. To the optimist it’s a lot of things that could go right. To anyone it’s a list with an awful lot of variability, which is likely why there are so many different opinions on the deal. It’s impossible to debate the trade without nuance, which, sadly, makes discussing it on Twitter fairly challenging.

But that’s why we’re here. To create an alternative space for discussion, We’ve compiled a handful of possible outcomes for this trade, ranging across a spectrum from worst case scenario to best. Before we dive in, let’s be clear, this is best case scenario for the Boston Celtics, not the individual pieces involved, or even individual fans.

For example, I’ve grown to love Thomas and Crowder, and wish them well. I want to live in a world where they succeed and the Celtics are great. That may be my best case scenario, but it isn’t Boston’s best case scenario. The worse they perform, the better this deal is for the Celtics.

What you see below is not a complete list of all the possible outcomes, but a look at several different, noteworthy scenarios. The actual outcome could fall anywhere in between the poles of what is outlined here.


Worst Case Scenario- The Nightmare

Irving’s production has been propped up by playing next to Lebron, not muted. He turns out not to be the superstar Danny Ainge is hoping he will be, and the team’s ceiling is lower than what it was prior to the trade.

Meanwhile in Cleveland, Thomas returns from injury the same player he was last year. He and Crowder are meaningful enough additions for James to decide he wants to stay with the Cavs, and team up with Marvin Bagley III, or whatever other stud prospect the team nabs with the Brookly Nets pick, which falls at the top of the draft.

FloSports: FloWrestling Les Schwab Invitational Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Cleveland proceeds to sign Thomas to a below-market contract because other teams are scared off by his height, age, and injury history. He continues to perform at an elite level for years to come, and the Cavs are the kings of the East for at least another half decade.

The fact that this is a possibility is what I think makes this trade so divisive. There is a non-zero chance that the Celtics made themselves worse presently and in the future, and did so at the hands of their biggest rival.

To be clear, I think this end-of-days type outcome is exceedingly unlikely, but the thought of it can sour one’s opinion of the trade fairly quickly.

Everything but the Pick

This scenario is exactly identical to the above, but the Nets pick is a late lottery selection. Anything that keeps Lebron in Cleveland is fairly disastrous.

Cleveland Wins the Trade, but Lebron Leaves

Thomas and Crowder perform up to, but not beyond, reasonable expectations. Cleveland loses to the Golden State Warriors in the Finals again, and James walks in free agency. The Celtics become the best team in the conference with his departure.

NBA: Finals-Golden State Warriors at Cleveland Cavaliers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Thomas signs a market-rate deal, and performs at an elite level across the life of the contract, providing production comparable to that of Irving, and the Cavs ultimately win the deal for having secured the Nets pick, which lands in the high lottery.

Kyrie Pops, but it’s Not Enough

We’re moving towards something positive here. Maybe Irving was stunted by playing in Lebron’s shadow. Maybe he does learn to play defense, and averages 35 points per game. But then it’s not enough.

The Cavs, fortified by adding Thomas and Crowder, still knock off the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, and take their Nets pick to add insult to injury. Boston beats a Lebron-less Cleveland team the following year, but can’t get over the massive roadblock that is the Warriors.

Best Case Scenario- The Dream

Here we go friends. I don’t think this is all that likely, but when you’re feeling down, remember that it’s a least a possibility.

Irving is better than anyone could have imagined. Under the tutelage of Brad Stevens, he turns himself into a two-way monster, and one of the three most ruthlessly efficient scoring machines in the world.

The Celtics make the right call on Thomas, who signs a massive contract with Cleveland, before entering a period of significant, age-related decline. James sees the writing on the wall, and Crowder isn’t enough to make him want to stay in Cleveland.

D’Angelo Russell blossoms in Brooklyn, and the Nets finish ninth in the East. Their pick, conveyed to the Cavs, is not nearly as juicy as some hoped. The Lakers, on the other hand, struggle, and Boston lands the number two overall selection courtesy of their woes.

NBA: Summer League-Boston Celtics at Los Angeles Lakers Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Celtics pick one of the many intriguing prospects atop the 2018 draft, and plug him into their system, in which both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have turned into full-fledged stars. The team competes with the Warriors, and is the best-positioned franchise to fill their spot as the best team in the league when their run finally comes to an end.


And that’s just a taste of how things could shake out from here. The possibilities are endless. I haven’t decided what I think is most likely, or what scenario needs to come true for me to feel good about this trade, which I don’t at the moment. I’m open to the possibility of it really working out though, and I see some paths to that happening.

Ultimately we’re going to have to wait and see. Danny Ainge pushed some of his chips into the middle of the table. He’s been right on these kind of big bets before. Here’s to hoping he will be again.