It was all so quick. After brief hints about a Kyrie-to-Boston deal brewing over the first couple of weeks in August, things suddenly picked up. Shams reported that Boston and Cleveland were closing in on a deal for Kyrie Irving, Woj made the official report, we waited for a few days as the teams jostled over the Isaiah Thomas medical report and then it was done. Kyrie Irving was a Celtic, Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the prized Brooklyn Nets pick were now in Cleveland.
Today is the anniversary of the trade, one that marked the beginning of the downfall for Cleveland’s stranglehold in the East while creating a path for Boston to be the next team up. In honor of the trade I decided to take a look back to re-live the emotions I had back then and look at where both teams are right now.
When it first went down
Like most, I was as shocked as anyone. It’s important to remember that at the time, it wasn’t public on how severe the Isaiah Thomas injury was. Most of us still assumed that he’d be back relatively early in the season. Trading away 28.9 ppg and 5.9 apg on 62.5 TS% in the middle of their prime for a player who had never reached those levels offensively and wasn’t exactly known to be a willing defender just didn’t seem logical on its face.
If we’re being blunt, my initial reaction was that the Cavaliers won the trade. Thomas and Crowder together were going to replicate most, if not all, of what Irving brought and they had the extra lottery pick that could be used to bring the Cavaliers another established star. It felt like we just extended their window and raised the chances of them retaining LeBron James the following summer.
After emotions settled down
So after going back and watching Irving film, listening to all of the top basketball pundits weigh in on the deal, and imagining how the Celtics would use Irving I started to see the vision a bit. Irving was still a couple years away from his prime, didn’t have nearly the defensive issues that Thomas had, and getting off of Crowder opened the door for our lottery picks to play. Even if I wasn’t fully sure how much better Irving could get, I felt that by simply getting a guy who wouldn’t be a complete liability defensively and letting Brown and Tatum play more would make the team better. At this stage, Boston was heavy on the wing depth and finally had a real big that could cover for a lot of Irving’s mistakes. If Kyrie just bought into the motion-heavy offense and tried on defense…maybe this could work out after all.
Addressing the backlash
Days after the trade, the landscape was still pretty anti-Celtics regarding the move. The two main themes were that Irving was who he was as a player and that the Celtics could have used their assets to acquire a better player (Jimmy Butler or Paul George). This really painted the “swing question” regarding this trade: how good could Irving be?
The numbers based on age compared favorably to Isaiah Thomas and Steph Curry at similar ages despite his scoring diet being filled with iso-heavy plays. Some pundits claimed that Irving chose an unhealthy shot diet and the move proved he was more interested in getting more of his own offense as opposed to winning. My stance was that he was marginalized by LeBron James and in Stevens system he could showcase an ability to use his talents within a team construct that helped his teammates get better.
The December marathon
This time feels important because it was the first time there was real backlash against Irving and the Celtics during the season. After the sudden loss of Hayward, most fans marked the Celtics for dead, the 16-game win streak raised a lot of eyebrows and so did Irving. He was grading out well as a team defender and was playing big minutes for a team that was ranked first defensively. Then, December hit. The Celtics got crunched by a crazy schedule because of a London trip in January that required extra rest days off for travel.
The team as a whole began to regress defensively and just like clockwork, the theme became “Irving is regressing on defense and that’s the main factor hurting the team.” It obviously wasn’t true, but it showed just how much pressure was on Irving to show he could perform without LeBron James.
This was crushing. The Celtics were basically guaranteed a top-two seed and were coasting towards the end of the year when rumors of the Irving’s injury continued to grow louder and louder. At first, the word was he just needed one quick procedure that he could get before the playoffs and be back by the playoffs, but that quickly turned into a season-ending injury right as the team was shifting into playoff mode. As details of the injury began to come in, it became very apparent that this was a serious issue for Irving all year and could have played a substantial role in how he moved on the court.
What hurt even worse is that Irving was playing the best basketball of his season prior to the injury and was averaging 25 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 6.3 apg on 60.6 TS% in just 29.7 mpg. The team was moving the ball the best it had all year with Irving on the court and was averaging 28.4 apg which was equivalent to 2nd in the league at the time. The sample was small, but it gave fans a tiny glimpse of how the team looked when Irving was at his peak and potentially heading into the playoffs.
The Cavaliers turned the Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the Nets pick into Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., Rodney Hood, Ante Zizic, and Colin Sexton. Isaiah Thomas was quickly turned into a scapegoat once it was clear he wasn’t healthy enough to be the walking bucket he had been his whole career, Jae Crowder never found a rhythm and quickly got disgruntled, and at the end of the year, LeBron James took his talents to Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, the Celtics are in a little bit of a different situation. They’re still banking on Kyrie Irving to take a bit of a leap, but prior to the season they needed that leap to potentially win a championship. After the rapid development of Tatum, Brown, and Rozier, the team’s margin for winning a championship increased to the point where Irving’s ascension will not be the only path for Boston to capture a title.
Who won the trade though?
Well, that’s a loaded questions that comes down to how you evaluate deals, specifically, how to balance the process and the results of the situation. The Cavaliers put themselves in a situation where they added veteran players that could help and a lottery pick that could potentially be a franchise player. Do they win because they accomplished what they were aiming for or are they losers because the pieces did not help raise title chances and the pick they got isn’t projected to be a franchise player? There’s a lot of variables, but I think the most compelling one to me is simple. Would you do this trade again?
Kyrie Irving bought into the Celtics system and re-built his game in a more diverse image.
He iso’d less, he played more off-ball, he took less dribbles before shooting, he was a willing defender, passer, and he quickly became a leader and mentor for the young players. His game and mindset have matured in ways people were unsure it would. From that standpoint, it’s very clear that Boston won the trade from their point of view, but questions still persist.
For the Celtics, did they want a transcendent star who fit their timeline and could help win them a title. Do they win the deal by simply getting that player? Or does he have to make a leap for it to be justified? What if he leaves next summer? Does the answer to the previous question change if the team wins a title? Should Cleveland’s diminished returns play a part in this analysis or is that just Monday Morning Quarterbacking?
But before we go...
We need to shout out Isaiah Thomas one more time. The circumstances that he played through during that playoff stretch in 2017 were insurmountable and instantly created a bond with the fan base that will never be broken. It was Thomas that ushered in the success the team has now by refusing to be a part of a loser, and he instilled that mentality into a young, undermanned Celtics team that had begun to adopt the bad habits of being a tanking team.
Getting to the playoffs and playing hard convinced Al Horford to come over. Being a legitimate playoff team that was in the Eastern Conference Finals got Gordon Hayward on board, and the combination of having a strong coach, stars, and playoff tested players will be a huge selling point to keep Kyrie Irving next year. And a big part of that is thanks to work and commitment Thomas showed this city and organization while he was here. He may not be on the next title team, but Thomas will always be an important part of history when discussing this era of the Celtics. For that, we’ll always be thankful.