Rumors and might-have-been deals have swirled around the 2018 Nets pick for years. After missing multiple times on Jimmy Butler and later on Paul George, Celtics General Manager Danny Ainge spiced up his offer to the Cleveland Cavaliers with the coveted unprotected asset.
Finally, Ainge cashed in one of the lauded Nets picks for a current star in Kyrie Irving. All-NBA point guard Isaiah Thomas will be a Cavalier next year. Along with him, Boston fans will have to say goodbye to one of the hardest-working swingmen (on one of the best contracts) in the NBA: Jae Crowder. And, if rookie Ante Zizic pans out, it’ll be in the midwest, not in Beantown.
So, with a tip of the cap to ESPN’s Zach Lowe (RIP Grantland), here are 10 things I like and don’t like about the Kyrie-for-Isaiah-and-company deal.
In no particular order:
1. Trading Mr. Fourth Quarter for Mr. Hit The Championship-Winning Three. Isaiah Thomas put on a show in Boston last year. The diminutive leader was on fire late in almost every game in which he competed last year, bursting into the lane for contorted finishes at the rim, stopping and popping jaw-dropping treys on the break, and battling through fouls to ice games at the line.
For all that, Boston seems to have upgraded at the position (even if just a little bit). As good a finisher as Thomas is, Irving might be better when comparing careers. Along with putting away the game-winner to bring the 2016 title to Cleveland, the Celtics couldn’t stop him in the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals:
While Thomas led a team to success in the regular season, Irving is capable of taking the scoring load off of LeBron James’s shoulders deep in the postseason. It might not be a huge upgrade, but it’s an upgrade nonetheless.
2. Losing the closest thing to clutch the Celtics have had since Larry Bird. Yup. Believe it. Walk back through Thomas’s 2016-17 campaign and try not to picture him coming around a screen or stepping back into a dagger three late in the game. As good as Thomas was around the rim (especially for someone his size), he was the Celtics’ best pure scorer since Paul Pierce in his heyday, and he was 1.0 points per game away from tying Bird’s best season 29.9 ppg (1987-88).
But beyond the volume of points, Thomas stole the breath from the lungs of Celtics fans throughout the season in the way that only Bird used to do at the height of his career.
Moreover, Thomas captured the hearts of the Boston faithful while doing it. When was the last time the entire league feared a single Celtics player in crunch time, yet couldn’t stop the ball from finding his hands?
3. We might have just seen peak Isaiah Thomas. File this one under Like and Don’t Like. Last season, IT4 posted a 26.5 average PER, beating out any other season in his career by at least 4.0. That number gets more impressive when you think about how limited his appearances were before he logged time as a starter in Boston. He also blitzed his points-per-game averages from previous years by a minimum of 6 ppg. The list goes on. NBA media members around the league, including former CelticsBlogger Kevin O’Connor, have gone on the record to note it as one of the all-time seasons in efficiency.
The more one digs through IT’s career stats in comparison to last year, the more meteoric his rise becomes and the more unlikely it is that he repeats it. Was it thrilling? Absolutely. Did he perform at his absolute best in the playoffs while suffering extreme adversity and familial loss? Yup.
But at his size, at his age, and with a suspect hip, the incredible ride we’ve been on with Thomas might have reached its top speed. That’s great for the Celtics because they benefitted from Thomas’s play and gave him an adoring fanbase that spurred him on. It’s great for fans to have seen it happen and to have enjoyed a return to the Eastern Conference Finals. But, like most leads against the Golden State Warriors, all good things must come to an end.
Thomas may be fantastic for Cleveland—he may in all likelihood be an impact starter in the 2018 NBA Finals. But he probably won’t be 2016-17 good again, even though Ty Lue and James will have their own creative ways to hide Thomas on the defensive end of the floor.
Basketball Gods: DM me for my address when Thomas inevitably proves me wrong in 2017-18 and you need to know where to ship a lifetime’s supply of humble pie.
4. Crowder leaving makes room for Brown, Tatum, and Morris.
Even without the 2018 unprotected Brooklyn pick in hand, the Celtics are still able to exist in both win-now mode and build mode. Marcus Morris is a veteran swingman who should fit beautifully into a Brad Stevens system. Jaylen Brown is already a plus defender who’s primed to be a better finisher at the rim than Crowder. Jayson Tatum already has the shooting stroke of a seasoned pro.
Crowder was a huge piece of the Celtics’ success these last two seasons (who somehow built an entire vacation home on Underrated Island), but there’s strength and promise left at his position on this new Boston roster.
5. The Celtics still have a very valuable first-rounder in 2018 (or 2019).
Danny Ainge owns the Los Angeles Lakers’ top pick next year if it falls between positions 2 and 5. If it doesn’t, it transforms into either the Sacramento Kings’ 2019 top-1 protected first-rounder or the Sixers’ 2019 top-1 protected first-rounder, whichever is better. Considering that Marcus Smart, Brown, and Tatum all look like top investments, there should still be confidence that the bright minds in Boston’s front office can spin this valuable asset into something worthwhile to help a team that will contend for the Eastern Conference title again next season and be in prime position to take the throne from Cleveland if James departs for LA.
Side note: start rooting for James to leave now. That move would turbo-boost the Lakers into the playoff race (even at James’s age), and we could all start praying for a Celtics vs. Lakers title series in 2020.
6. Boston will be okay in the frontcourt without Zizic. The lineup is primed with Al Horford, Aron Baynes, Daniel Theis, Guerschon Yabusele, Semi Ojeleye, and Morris. In a five-out offense that had plenty of success while almost entirely punting on rebounds from the frontcourt (remember when Thomas and Avery Bradley were leading the team in rebounds for a period last season?), the team will continue to shoot the lights out, focus on switching matchups to prevent good shots, and worry about boards later.
And now is a great time to get excited about the plethora of young bigs. Theis, Yabusele, and Ojeleye all bring different and interesting talents to the frontcourt.
7. The Cavs will probably still win the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals (as long as LeBron’s in town). Celtics fans can always hope for outperforming the talent on paper, but for now, Cleveland remains the dominant force in the East. While there’s promising depth at every position for Boston, there isn’t proven, tough-as-nails defense at every position. Unfortunately, that’s just the sort of depth needed to deal with a LeBron team. Crowder will now hassle his former team at the 3 and the 4. His jack-of-all-trades skill set will quickly surpass any lineup that required Iman Shumpert to take on an opposing swingman.
And of course, stopping Thomas was near impossible last season. Now in Cleveland, he can run the pick and roll with the greatest current player in the league, find Kevin Love or Crowder in the corners, and wiggle around most of the bigs the Celtics could throw at him. The Cavs will have to rejigger their defenses to deal with Irving and Gordon Hayward now, but is that enough to tip the scales in this Eastern Conference rivalry?
8. This is all just rearranging the deck chairs on the ship that will be sunk by the 2018 Warriors. While the top two teams in the Eastern Conference swapped rival point guards and looked toward 2019 and beyond, this move might not do much of anything against the reigning NBA champs next year. We need not remind ourselves that (thanks to a weird move by the Bulls front office and other smart offseason plays), the Golden State Warriors retained their key pieces and managed to beef up their bench this offseason.
Gordon Hayward is a great player. But even before this trade, was anyone pretending that he was the key piece to winning a seven-game series against Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson?
Basketball Gods: Uh, help?
9. Does Irving add just enough to make #8 that much harder for the Warriors? He’s taken a fearless shot to ice a championship against the Dubs before—can Irving do it again (if the Celtics even make it there)?
To make it even harder to believe, as good as Golden State is on offense, they are a nightmare on defense. Irving adds an uptick in scoring alongside Hayward, and Morris makes the offense even more interesting. But outpacing the championship defense that can switch every position with Andre Iguodala and Durant sharing duties as 3 and 4 and with Green at the 5 seems, well, unlikely.
10. If anybody can coach up this team, it’s Brad Stevens.
Then again, the Celtics may have the basketball magician necessary to overcome the odds. Stevens corralled Thomas after a frustrating start to his career in Sacramento, a listless stay in Phoenix, and put him in a place to become an All-NBA point guard in Boston. He helped bring Al Horford to town as a free agent. He made Evan Turner and Kelly Olynyk look like high-value assets to other teams. He might know how to get Irving to play defense, and he definitely has enough chemistry with Hayward to turn him into the leader Boston needs. Maybe he can even fix Smart’s shot (okay, maybe not).
So, that’s that. Kyrie Irving is a Celtic. Isaiah Thomas is a Cavalier. The Warriors are still the best team in the NBA by a mile. But we’re all sweating in anticipation for October 17th.