The wait is finally over, and after all the hand-wringing, posturing, and unnecessarily drawn out negotiations, the trade between the Celtics and Cavaliers originally agreed upon on August 22 is complete. Isaiah Thomas plays for Cleveland now, and Kyrie Irving will suit up for Boston.
It’s something of a disorienting reality. Celtics fans spent the last two and a half years falling in love with Thomas and almost twice as long rooting against Irving. Suddenly they’ve swapped places, and in a prolonged and painful fashion. Watching the two sides semi-publicly argue about how compromised Thomas was physically was unpalatable. He deserved much better.
Thomas gave his heart to the city of Boston, growing into a superstar under coach Brad Stevens and playing through pain, grief, and incredible personal tragedy. He was the most beloved Celtic since Paul Pierce, and before Pierce, possibly the most beloved, Larry Bird. That’s crazy, especially considering how little time he spent on the team.
And yet, he’s gone—traded away in Danny Ainge’s ruthless pursuit of improvement. It was an emotional blow, and there is some reason to believe it could be detrimental to the team’s production on the court, now and in the future as well. We won’t know who got the better of this deal for a while. There are just too many variables in play.
Sports are meant to be fun though, so let’s assume, at least for a moment, an optimistic stance and run through everything a Celtics fan needs to start feeling good about this trade.
It starts with buying into the following premise: in the NBA, teams that have transcendent talent win championships. The best teams don’t just have very good players or even All-Star players—winning it all without a top-ten talent is exceedingly rare.
No one included in this trade fits that bill, not even the version of Thomas that Boston got last year. That player was amazing, awe inspiring, and decidedly lovable, but he was a huge minus on defense, and at the game’s highest level, that really matters.
To be clear, Irving was worse. Not specifically on defense, but overall. He had some brilliant performances in the playoffs, but on the whole, Thomas was a superior player. So why should anyone be excited about this? Even if Thomas’s injury is severe enough that trading for Irving is a significant upgrade, the Celtics’ ceiling isn’t lifted by adding an inferior player (it is lifted by adding him in conjunction with Gordon Hayward, but that’s a different topic for a different time).
The answer lies in the potential for growth. Irving is young enough to develop into something more than what he’s been to date. If he blossoms into the next James Harden, as some have been inclined to (probably foolishly) suggest he may, then this trade is a master stroke from Ainge.
If he’s not, then what’s the real cost? The likelihood of the Nets pick the team surrendered becoming a transcendent talent, capable of vaulting Boston into contention, is probably smaller than Irving taking a leap and doing so. There’s a growing internet narrative that suggests that Brooklyn might be an average team next year, making their pick less appealing, but that’s what I’m talking about here.
In fact, I’m fairly convinced that the Nets will be one of the five worst teams in the NBA, but even if they secure the best odds at the number-one overall selection, there is no guarantee that the pick will land atop the draft, and that says nothing of the process of identifying the right prospect and developing him to his fullest potential.
Irving has a long way to go before he becomes the player that the Celtics are hoping he will be for them—the front man on a team with real hopes of winning a championship. There’s plenty of reason to doubt him. He’s a bad defender. He’s prone to chucking. His team has never been successful with him in the lead role.
Still, Irving is probably a better bet to lead Boston to the level of play they hope to achieve than the draft pick they gave up to get him, and he’s definitely a better bet than any of the players they swapped. At the end of the day, being one of the best players in the league is really difficult. The odds are against everyone.
The Celtics have seen enough out of Irving to believe that he’s got a shot to take them where they want to go. They might be wrong. Or they could be right yet still not win a title. Competing for championships in the NBA is hard. You can make all the right moves and ultimately fall short.
If that’s not satisfying enough, there are other things to take solace in. Just remember that Irving can do things like this:
If you can’t get excited to watch plays like that, then you should see a doctor. I’m joking here of course. Contending in a meaningful way is more fun than seeing a player consistently do things that make you say “wow.” But you have to admit, that was pretty great.
There is potential for you to have your cake and eat it too though, and if you’re really worried about the future, remember that the Celtics haven’t precluded themselves from landing a very good pick in next year’s draft. They still have the Lakers’ pick, should it land anywhere in spots 2-5.
At the end of the day, finding enthusiasm requires having faith in the Celtics’ front office. Boston did their homework, weighed all their options, and went after a player they think will grow into something special. Time will tell if they read the tea leaves well, but if they’re confident in Irving, then they’re right to take a shot.