By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
The trade that sent Kyrie Irving from Cleveland to the Celtics in exchange for five assets turns two years old today.
It was a trade that had its obvious highs and lows throughout what was a title-less two-year run with Irving leading the Green, and came to an end with Irving’s decision to leave Boston for a deal in Brooklyn earlier this summer. It’s also a trade that some have highlighted as a loss for Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge.
This, two years later and even with Irving gone, is absolute crazy-talk.
Just start with the particulars of the trade: Ainge swapped Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, Brooklyn’s 2018 first-round pick (the Cavs ended up taking Collin Sexton at No. 8 overall with that pick) for Irving. Ainge and the Cavs then bickered over the conflicting medicals on Thomas and his battered-to-hell hip, which “forced” the Celtics to add in a 2020 second-round pick to officially complete the deal. (Hilariously enough, the Cavaliers initially went into those “make whole” talks hoping to hustle the Celtics out of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, or a first-round pick. They settled on a second-round pick. “I want a free house. No? Fine, I’ll take that two-by-four you found by the dumpster.”)
Let’s go through that one-by-one, actually.
The Celtics pawned off what was a clearly broken Isaiah. In fact, Thomas didn’t even debut for the Cavs until Jan. 2. And it didn’t take long for everybody involved to realize that the 5-foot-9 guard was a poor fit for a LeBron James team. In 15 games with the Cavs, Thomas averaged 14.7 points per game, but averaged what were then career-lows in field goal percentage (36.1 percent) and three-point percentage (25.3 percent). The greatest impact I.T. made with the Cavs came when he criticized Ty Lue for his lack of adjustments. The Cavaliers cut bait with Thomas with a trade that sent him (along with a first-round pick and Channing Frye) to Los Angeles for Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr.
Crowder, meanwhile, was moved out of Cleveland as part of the package that brought Rodney Hood and George Hill to the Cavaliers. A year later, the Cavs moved Hood to Portland for two expiring contracts (Nik Stauskas and Wade Baldwin) and second-round draft picks in 2021 and 2023. The Cavaliers also moved on from Hill, sending him to Milwaukee for Matthew Dellavedova, John Henson, and a 2021 protected first-round pick and 2021 second-round pick.
It’s a tangled trade tree, but saying the Cavaliers “won” the Kyrie Irving trade is saying that they won the trade because they won one more game than you did in the 2018 NBA Playoffs. And because they acquired Sexton, Zizic, Clarkson, Nance Jr., Dellavedova, Henson, a protected first-round pick (from one of the league’s best teams), and three second-round draft picks with what you gave up to acquire Irving. They also punted on at least more run with Irving, LeBron, and Kevin Love in town, leaving the greatest era of Cavaliers Basketball with just one title to their name.
Suggesting they ‘won’ the deal because they simply collected those assets or because neither team won a championship over the two-year shelf life of the trade is not only incorrect, but it actually borders on insulting.
It also ignores what that non-trade would have done to the Celtics.
Thomas, as we’ve all come to realize, is unfortunately never going to be the same. He’s on his third new team since Cleveland in an effort to prove that he can regain his MVP-level form from 2017, having signed with the Wizards earlier this summer after falling out of Denver’s rotation last season. Keeping Thomas on the Celtics, who had just gone through a massive roster overhaul to fit Gordon Hayward into the mix on a max contract, would have left the Celtics’ slow build towards a new Big Three without their most dynamic scorer and leader. The true doomsday would have seen the Celtics stick with a battered Isaiah, and then reward him with a Brinks Truck contract that would have hamstrung the team.
Instead, the team took their gamble on Irving staying committed to the Celtics. That obviously didn’t happen, but (un)fortunate injuries gave Terry Rozier an extended look at playing the No. 1, and when the Celtics realized he wasn’t a long-term option, they were able to pivot and sign Kemba Walker to a max contract in Summer ’19. If you weren’t keeping Irving, Walker is and was the next best option, miles ahead of paying an injured Thomas or erratic Rozier.
Then there was Crowder.
Crowder already had a bee under his bonnet because of the Hayward situation. He felt slighted and disrespected by Celtics fans cheering Hayward when Hayward visited TD Garden as a member of the Jazz… and then the Celtics went out and signed Hayward to play in his exact role that same summer. And the C’s already had an abundance of wings (Brown was entering his second NBA season, Tatum was selected with the No. 3 overall pick, and Marcus Morris had been acquired from the Pistons) looking for real minutes in 2017-18. Imagining Crowder comfortably refitting into the Green’s mix with a new, reduced role behind rookies and perceived fan favorites was always an absolute pipedream.
Are we talking about Brown and Tatum the way we are today if Crowder ate into their big minutes during the 2018 playoffs? You could also do the whole Butterfly Effect with Crowder being the one who pushed Hayward on the play that ended Hayward’s 2017-18 year just five minutes into the year, but that’s a topic for another universe.
Zizic played a grand total of 214 minutes for a contending Cavaliers team in 2017-18. His role wouldn’t have been that much different for the 2017-18 C’s, and Zizic averaged just 7.8 points and 5.4 rebounds per game for a 19-win Cavalier team a year ago. He also doesn’t attempt three-pointers, which would not bode well for a future in Boston.
And then there was the Brooklyn pick.
The last of Boston’s haul for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry, Ainge knew the risk in trading that pick. But he also knew that he had to at some point cash-in on that haul. And he decided to do exactly that given the age of the two max players (Hayward and veteran big Al Horford) he had acquired prior to that trade.
“I think that having signed Al Horford and Gordon Hayward, I feel a responsibility to give them a chance,” Ainge told NBC Sports Boston back then. “I think that Brooklyn pick could be very very exciting. I think Cleveland could have a really good pick there, but it’s probably going to be a big man that’s 19 years old that probably needs a couple of years to develop, and could develop into a franchise player. But Kyrie is proven as a sure thing as a guy that’s 25 [years old] and can really really play right now. I think that’s fair for Brad [Stevens], Gordon, and Al.”
(There’s also something to be said for the fact that the Celtics turned those Brooklyn picks into a formidable core of Marcus Smart, Brown, and Tatum. You can also mention that the Celtics were able to get 2019 first-round pick Romeo Langford out of that package, as well, as the Celtics moved that 2017 Brooklyn first-round to Philly in exchange for the picks ultimately used to select Tatum and Langford. With that kind of haul, you could afford one gamble.)
Turning that into Irving, for all his flaws and empty promises over a two-year tenure in Boston, is in no way a loss.
Unless you value Collin Sexton, Ante Zizic, and that collection of assets (not particular good assets, but just assets as a whole) over a two-year gamble on what everybody would agree is a top six or seven point guard in the NBA.
Which, if you’re being honest with yourself and are of sane mind, you absolutely do not.