The Runner Sports

Celtics Land Kyrie Irving, Lose Isaiah Thomas In Swap With Cavaliers

When most NBA fans awoke on August 22, 2017, they figured it’d be just another quiet end of summer basketball day. The sports stations ogled over the approach of football season, and, beyond the murmur of what to do with Kyrie Irving’s disinterest in remaining in Cleveland on the talk shows, all was quiet on the hardwood front.

But while most sports pundits continued to chat about the Irving situation, so too did newly appointed Cavs GM Koby Altman and Celtics GM Danny Ainge. What began as afternoon whispers of rumors turned rock solid by evening’s end to send the disgruntled Irving to Boston in exchange for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the Celtics’ coveted rights to the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 first-round pick.

The news comes as a bit of a shock, as after an initial wave of fan intrigue in the early days after Kyrie’s comments, the odds of the two top-seeded teams in the Eastern Conference coming together on a trade seemed unlikely.

As was expected, the Cavaliers initially came out and shook off any notion of a Kyrie trade happening. But it’s been an interesting summer for the Cleveland kids. LeBron has played mind games that his future at home could come into question, and the team has operated as though on broken glass as result. Hoping after some early dislike that Irving and LeBron could work things out, things only got worse, and the shipping of Kyrie indicates, regardless of what likelihood they’re working against, an organizational commitment to James.

It’s an interesting maneuver to see from the top teams out east. Rarely do you see such a trade between two direct competitors.

It makes every sense in the world from the Cavaliers’ perspective. Kyrie was moments away from turning the locker room into a war zone, and now they get an exciting playmaker in IT, versatile defensive wing depth with Jae Crowder (reduces the chatter of who guards the likes of a KD when LeBron sits), and in the worst-case scenario will likely have a top five pick in next year’s draft, which can be parlayed into further trade action or sat on if LeBron re-pens his coming home letter.

It makes a hair less sense from the Celtics’. You lose a fan-favorite in Thomas, defensive depth in Crowder after already having lost top defender Avery Bradley, and their biggest trade asset in the Brooklyn ’18 pick to land Kyrie; which is arguable whether or not it’s an upgrade at a position that short-term didn’t even need addressing.

Danny Ainge has come out and said that Thomas is still rehabbing a hip injury that knocked him from the playoffs last year, and could be “delayed” in returning this season.

Boston secures an extra season of PG control without going down the road of contract talks just yet. Kyrie is signed through 2019, making an average of roughly $19.5 million over the next two seasons, as opposed to IT’s expiring contract and ensuing pursuit of a max contract –Boston might not have been able to afford that. Irving also features a $21.3 million player option in 2019-20. Whereas IT seemed thrilled to stick around, Irving is a wild card when his contract ultimately expires. Boston intends to re-sign him, and wouldn’t have pursued without thinking they stand a chance to accomplish that.

Kyrie Irving Boston Celtics Gear

Uncle Drew can be one of the league’s best scorers, and, at 25, could be a great piece to build around should he connect to the city, fans, and organization. He’s a career 21.6 PPG, 5.5 APG, and 38% three-point shooter. Irving adds to an exciting centerpiece after Boston landed Gordon Hayward in free agency earlier this summer and Al Horford a year ago. Boston also retained highly-touted youngsters Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown in the move, which is a major positive.

That said, ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh highlighted an interesting stat in that the Cavs were -120 in 635 minutes with Kyrie on and LeBron off last season. Plus/minus stats are far from 100% telling, though. A year earlier, the Cavs were outscoring opponents 8.9 points per 100 possessions with that scenario flipped.

Swapping for Irving doesn’t address Boston’s biggest eyesore, however. Zizic was supposed to be a building block for the future and answer the team’s long-ailing rebounding deficiencies. The Celtics finished tied 26th in the league with 42.0 rebounds per game. They were outrebounded throughout the Eastern Conference Finals by the Cleveland Cavaliers, 210-192. They’ve lost Kelly Olynyk and Crowder, who combined for 9.6 rebounds per game last season, but add Aron Baynes and possibly legally troubled Marcus Morris. The team also signed 2016 first-round pick Guerschon Yabusele.

While Kyrie can be a focal scoring piece to a team that sometimes lacked anybody beyond IT in crunch time, he’s not your traditional point guard in the sense that he enjoys the ball in hand but likes to score. He’s never been a pass-first point guard and that started the initial wave of ire with his time with LeBron, and it likely won’t be any different in Boston. He’ll be much more a centerpiece and not a complimentary piece, but that won’t make Irving a Rajon Rondo level facilitator. It’s the NBA of today, and isn’t the end of the world, simply telling in the offensive flow the team will see with him in charge.

Brad Stevens has built a solid culture in his time in Boston, and bringing in a star the caliber of Irving will be his first real test to maintaining that. Kyrie wants to be the face of a team, and while the position is available to be filled in Beantown, he’ll have to earn it both through an illustrious basketball team, but also a tough on its stars town. He’s replacing a guy that’s come as close to achieving that in the last four years.

Irving will enter town under some scrutiny. Forcing your way out of a team is never a good look, regardless of the circumstances surrounding it. The Boston media doesn’t take anything off the balls they throw high and inside, and Irving comes at a high cost, which will already have the sharks circling.

Boston doesn’t entirely leverage their hand in this one move as they still sit on a potential treasure trove of picks for next year with the Lakers’ ’18 pick (if they finish between picks no. 2 and 5) or the Kings’ in 2019.

It’s never fun to give a lending hand to your biggest competition in the conference. If LeBron James jumps ship and turns the Western Conference into a nuclear wasteland, Boston no doubt comes out ahead in this by a wide margin. By 2018-19, the super teams, namely Golden State, will still rule the league. That said, in a year, they might start shedding their unbeatable facade, not to mention a tiring path through the Western Conference playoffs tips the scale ever so slightly back to the Eastern Conference foe.

If LeBron stays, well then it gets much more complicated. If the Cavs add Dwyane Wade (as was reported Tuesday from a leak close to James) and keep LeBron happy enough to continue his reign out east, then it’s not so black and white for the men in green. They would have resolved their top competition’s biggest internal fire while potentially giving them an upgrade –maybe IT sticks around. Defensive depth and another potential big man to burn them on the boards gets thrown in Boston’s face as well. Lastly, the best team in the east could add a top five lottery pick to their mix.

The Celtics and Cavs will open the NBA campaign on October 17 in Cleveland and it’ll be a quick return to a town he spurned for Kyrie.

Boston recognizes that this might be their best chance and their window of both competing for a championship and parlaying their flexible assets into meaningful returns dwindles. Regardless of how this unfolds, this is what a good chunk of Celtics nation has begged for, converting assets into action.

Are the Celtics a better team after a one-for-one trade at the position? Tough to truly say.

Thanks to the likes of Golden State and LeBron James, the Celtics may never see a championship in what could have been a prosperous era. Kudos to them for finally starting to cash-in and going for it. It’s a gamble that might pay big dividends or come up short, either one is better than sitting on their hands.

The doomsday prep storage is being raided, and it’s looking like it’ll be a cautious “all in” from the Celtics from here on in.

Tyler Arnold

Tyler Arnold

I am the founder and editor-in-chief of The Runner Sports. I've been an avid sports fan since I was a child and have turned that love into a profession. I will watch, comment, and break down anything I can get my hands on, from football to white water rafting in the Olympics. Your visit means a lot to me, so thank you for your readership.
Tyler Arnold