It was over one year ago when Danny Ainge made a blockbuster trade that no one saw coming. Yes, Kyrie Irving had been a trade candidate for roughly a month at this point, but the Celtics were not considered a top destination, and why would they have been? Boston already boasted a star point guard who was coming off of a spectacular season; why give up the barn for Kyrie Irving when Isaiah Thomas does the same things? The next week or so would tell us why (see: Isaiah Thomas’ hip). Nevertheless, lets explore the ramifications of this trade, what we know, and what is still to come in how we view this trade.
When Kyrie Irving officially became a member of the Boston Celtics, he got exactly what he wanted: he became the star player of his own team. No longer wanting to play in the shadow of LeBron James, Kyrie requested a trade. In Boston, Kyrie was suddenly the best player on a team that had just gone to the Eastern Conference Finals, a team that just added Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum to a core that included Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and many others… and he did not disappoint.
In terms of Per 36 minutes, Kyrie put up the best numbers of his career. Through that lens, he averaged 27.3 PPG, had a FG% of .491, and his 2P% was .541. He shot above 40% from 3 at a career high volume (6.8 3PA per game); he was also very close to a 50/40/90 season (50%+ shooting overall/40%+ from 3/90%+ from the free throw line); Kyrie was 49.1%/40.8%/88.9%.
In the games he played, the Celtics had a record of 41-19 (56-win pace); in 22 games without Kyrie, Boston was 14-8 (excluding the postseason run). Even without Gordon Hayward for the majority of the season (minus those 5 minutes), Kyrie’s presence led to winning, something people truly questioned. Yes he was injured and did not finish the season, but with Kyrie (and essentially a new team) around, he took Boston to a level of winning that was genuinely not taking place with Isaiah Thomas. He was an upgrade, and although the team improved as a whole, getting Kyrie prevented a scenario where Boston would have had to play with an injured IT for a whole season, and possibly lose the possibility of having a star PG (who knows if Boston re-signs him), which would have changed the course of the franchise as a whole.
Getting Kyrie was a cold move, but it saved the franchise in the present, and set up a successful future.
You can read more on my thoughts on Isaiah Thomas here, but I’m just gonna say it: Boston dodged a bullet. Obviously this is due to the injury IT suffered, but last season Thomas was not the same player; he was a shell of himself. Even before the injury, there were questions over paying Isaiah a max contract, but once it was obvious he was not the same, we know how Boston felt. It was a cold move, and clearly Boston had a good idea of the condition Isaiah was in order to be prepared to trade him (versus the rest of us, who truly did not know the full extent of the injury until days later).
Lets just say the trade was in fact voided because of Isaiah’s hip injury. He does not come back until January. Boston rolls out a lineup like this:
PG: Terry Rozier/SG: Jaylen Brown/SF: Gordon Hayward*/PF: Jayson Tatum/C: Al Horford
*lets assume Hayward stays healthy for now
Jae Crowder and Marcus Morris have to battle for minutes against each other, which could very well be an issue leading to one of them being traded.
Boston keeps the Brooklyn draft pick, but how would they use it moving forward? Would it have made a difference in a pursuit for Kawhi Leonard? Who knows.
Does Terry Rozier rise to the occasion yet again like he did this past season, or does it become obvious the offense is not as strong with him at the helm compared to Kyrie (or Isaiah)…
Most importantly, what would have happened to Isaiah after the season? Does he take a prove-it deal (assuming he does not put up 28 PPG when he returns)? Does he become angered and want out of Boston after having been put in the trade? How does this leave Boston moving forward??
Well, none of these came to fruition. Boston lucked out, acquired a star point guard 3 years younger, and is in shape for supremacy in the Eastern Conference for years to come. But if Isaiah stayed, everything could have been different. As heartless as it looked, Boston made the right business decision (the only choice really to keep things moving forward)…
And Cleveland traded him in February anyway. Yes they got Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. from the Lakers, two players that may aide the future of the Cavs… but the move cleared enough money for Los Angeles to sign LeBron and others this offseason; if you can connect Isaiah Thomas to losing the two best players on your team, and the second best player of all-time… you lost.
We know Isaiah was not ready to play until January, and even then he was not healthy, but I expected much more from Jae Crowder as a Cav. When in Boston, he was the heart and soul of the team, and he progressed to a viable 3 & D threat. However, he simply never fit in Cleveland. I thought he would be a perfect compliment to the way LeBron James plays. No, not Paul George, but similar enough. LeBron thrives playing with floor spacers, and Clevleand desperately needed additional defenders… yet Crowder did not do either particularly well.
He played less minutes than in Boston, but he still started the majority of his games as a Cav. The only thing Crowder did better in Cleveland than in Boston was shoot better at the free throw line. Comparing his 2016-17 season with his time in Cleveland, he had a worse 3P% in Cleveland, a worse FG% in Cleveland, a lower effective FG% in Cleveland… he was a worse offensive player in Cleveland.
Defensively, he put up similar steal and block numbers, but looking through the advanced metrics lens, Crowder had significantly less defensive (and overall) win shares. And lastly, his PER was lower in Cleveland than seasons prior in Boston.
Jae Crowder was (unfortunately) a horrible fit. Was he misused? That may have been the case, because it seemed like everyone Cleveland acquired last offseason was horrible. Crowder, like Isaiah, was traded in February, ending his time in Cleveland.
He was part of a trade that led to Cleveland acquiring Rodney Hood, but Hood was an even worse fit in Cleveland, becoming irrelevant during their finals run. Hood may be a piece for Cleveland’s future, but he has yet to even re-sign with the team… so how can he even call this a win if this is part of the trade that could leave Cleveland with nothing?
Ah yes, Mr. Zizic, the former Celtics darling who was the 23rd pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. Zizic never played a game in Boston (sorry Summer League fans), but was considered a talented prospect. One friend called losing Zizic one of the most painful parts of the Kyrie trade, as Boston was losing their “future center”… lets evaluate how the superstar did Year One:
32 games, 2 games started, 6.7 MPG, 3.7 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 0.4 BPG…. you get the idea. In a finals or nothing atmosphere in Cleveland, Zizic barely saw the floor. I would argue the same would have taken place in Boston with Al Horford, Aron Baynes, and Daniel Theis on the team, so Cleveland may still get something out of Zizic down the line.
Enough to compensate losing Kyrie Irving? I doubt it, but at least he’s still around to judge.
Collin Sexton (2018 Brooklyn First Round Pick)
Only two players are currently on the Cleveland Cavilers as a direct result of the Kyrie Irving trade: Ante Zizic, and Collin Sexton.
Sexton was selected 8th in the 2018 NBA Draft, this draft pick formerly belonging to the Brooklyn Nets (and more famously the Boston Celtics). It was not used as part of a larger trade (as was discussed for months), but rather on Cleveland’s future. If you’re noticing a trend here, everything that ultimately came out of the Kyrie trade (Clarkson, Nance, Hood, Zizic, and Sexton) are young players who will shape Cleveland in the post-LeBron era. Was this a conclusion Cleveland came to in February? Probably, but it deserves being noted.
Sexton will be the prospect tasked with taking the mantle for a team coming off of four consecutive trips to the NBA Finals. Obviously the stakes are much lower without Mr. James, but Sexton will become the face of the future in Cleveland. He will also become the person directly tied to the Kyrie Irving trade, more so than the others listed. He will be in Cleveland longer than Isaiah and Crowder (probably combined by next Christmas).
In my eyes, I respected Cleveland’s moves in February, believing they understood that LeBron was not coming back. Why keep vets like Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder (as well as Wade and D-Rose) who do not want to be there and will not help moving forward, and why sacrifice an asset like a top 10 pick in the NBA Draft for a player like DeAndre Jordan, someone who would have simply just left right with LeBron? Cleveland realized they were not beating Golden State, and rightfully decided 2018 and on was more important that winning maybe one game versus the Warriors.
It was the right choice.
Sexton could be the good that comes out of proper roster-building and long-term planning. Sure, the reason he is even in Cleveland came out of bad planning (see: manage LeBron and Kyrie’s relationship better), but the Cavs were not going to be left high and dry without a contingency plan if (and ultimately when) LeBron was gone. For that, I will give Cleveland a small victory.
What is left to judge?
Well this is “the Kyrie Irving trade,” right? Well, we need Kyrie Irving to dictate how this trade is viewed.
Kyrie Irving will most likely become a free agent in 2019 (he does have a player option folks), which means he could leave. If you’ve been reading ESPN, they seem to believe that Jimmy Butler knows Kyrie Irving better than Kyrie does, because they’re convinced he’s headed to the New York Knicks. The sports books also hold this belief (to some extent).
I do not hold this belief.
First, one reason people seem to think Kyrie is gone from Boston is that he did not sign a contract extension this offseason. Well, anyone with a brain will tell you it is not the most Kyrie could have made, and if he accepted it, he’d be missing out on tens of millions of more the day he became a free agent. Do we not preach patience?
“Contractually, financially, [an extension] just doesn’t make any sense”
-Kyrie Irving (via ESPN)
But people seem to be misinterpreting his words as code for “I want out,” but I do not see it that way. Kyrie loves his teammates, and has seemed nothing but happy since he got to Boston. Boston was one of the places he wanted to be, a team with a great coach and team that he could lead, and the only thing that has gone wrong is some repercussions from a previous knee injury. Yes this resulted on missing out on a postseason run, but it was obvious after Game 7 against Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals that if Kyrie were here, the Celtics would have been in the NBA Finals; why would Kyrie want to leave that?
Kyrie loves life, and seems to zig where people expect him to zag (see: the Earth is flat). He could very well see being the savior of the New York Knicks as a challenge worthy of taking, but there is not evidence to suggest this is the case. Kyrie is the best player on the best team in the Eastern Conference, and without LeBron, he has a clear shot at going to the NBA Finals for years to come. Boston boasts a deep squad of talented players capable of competing against the Warriors, which, once again, no other team can offer.
If the Boston Celtics win the NBA Finals in 2019 and Kyrie were to leave, then I would consider the trade a win for Boston. Anything less and Kyrie leaves next offseason, well it would be a draw. Yes you lose Kyrie, but your team will ultimately be in better shape than Cleveland, and in better shape than it was before the trade. Unless Collin Sexton and Ante Zizic are better than Kyrie, and Cleveland wins a title with them before (or instead of) Boston, Boston will be just fine.
For Boston, this trade will be judged on how Kyrie does moving forward. It was a bold move, and seeing how things went for Cleveland this season, it could have gone similar in Boston. Boston was able to acquire a true star, a face to their franchise. All Cleveland has left to boast from this trade is Sexton and Zizic, and this trade very well may have led to LeBron leaving.
If Cleveland won a title this season, this would have been a different discussion, but they did not. If Kyrie leaves Boston, this could be a different discussion, but he is still here.
At this moment, there is no other way to classify this trade: Boston won.
Follow Nick on Twitter (@Nick_Collins14)