After reportedly flirting about a trade for weeks, the two top teams in the NBA’s Eastern Conference have finally decided to dance. It’s a big dance. As first reported by the Vertical’s Shams Charania (and confirmed by the Celtics), the Cleveland Cavaliers have agreed to send disgruntled superstar Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics. It’s a move of major consequence, meaning it will likely decide who gets to lose to the Warriors in next year’s finals.
The Celtics give up a lot in this trade. Boston General Manager Danny Ainge has recently been the prince of keeping his powder dry, stockpiling and sitting on draft picks for years. It was beginning to look as though he was preparing for a basketball apocalypse, packing away future first-rounders like canned ham and iodine pellets. But in Kyrie Irving, Ainge has finally found a prize he believes worthy of his sizable dowry: star point guard Isaiah Thomas, swingman Jae Crowder, Croatian prospect Ante Zizic, and the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 first-round pick.
(Here’s a neat little tidbit: By trading Irving and Thomas, the Cavs and Celtics are swapping the first pick of the 2011 NBA draft with the very last pick. The world has changed much in six years.)
On the surface, one could argue that there’s a lot to like for both teams in this trade. The Celtics get a superstar point guard with playoff experience to pair with excellent small forward Gordon Hayward, who was acquired via free agency over the summer. The Cavs have rid themselves of a player who desperately wanted out of Cleveland, while earning in return an all-star in Thomas, a solid rotation player, a draft pick, and a European center who might turn out to be decent come President Barron Trump’s second term. Cleveland sets itself up for the future (albeit an uncertain one), and Boston gets better immediately.
There’s also a lot to dislike about the move. Boston is swapping a great offensive point guard who is a liability on defense for … a great offensive point guard who is a liability on defense. Celtics coach Brad Stevens’ game plan relies on crisp passing, a skill that isn’t exactly Kyrie’s forte. In fact, Irving’s Jupiter-like gravitational hold on the ball prompted 3.8 FPPG—frustrated pouts per game—from LeBron last season. (Thanks to Elias Sports Bureau for that stat.)
This is not to ignore Kyrie’s considerable talents. He’s a god-dang necromancer, and Boston will certainly be improved from last season. But anyone who watched them crumble against the Cavs in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals knows they were leagues away from leapfrogging LeBron. The additions of Hayward and Irving help matters, but considering that Boston had to give the Cavs key players in order to obtain their new point guard, this all seems like frantic sleight-of-hand, a trick where a lot of waving happens but the coin never moves from the magician’s palm.
So while this trade may not guarantee a Finals appearance for the Celtics, it does ensure plenty of pressure on Ainge if they miss out again next season. Celtics fans strive for relevance above all else, but swapping crowd-favorite Thomas, even for a bona fide superstar, will spark agita across the greater Boston area. His magical season last year cemented the diminutive scorer as a cult hero. (He’s a fighter, just like Hub-native Mark Wahlberg in the classic film The Fighter! He’s also a shooter, just like Hub-native Mark Wahlberg in the classic film Shooter!) After the Celtics traded down in the 2017 draft to avoid picking point guard Markelle Fultz, it seemed as if the Boston front office had finally committed to the little player who could. How will Celtics fans react to the team unceremoniously tossing Thomas into the Charles for a guy who clearly doesn’t care about endearing himself to his fan base?
There’s also the elephant in the room, and that elephant just drained a three-pointer in your face. Nothing about this trade puts either team in a position to beat the Golden State Warriors in the finals next season. Sure, injuries and other unforeseen events could unseat the defending champs, but barring a cataclysmic turn of events, the balance of power in the NBA isn’t shifting any time soon. This trade may affect who represents the Eastern Conference in the 2018 Finals, but when it comes to that team’s chances in June, the Titanic is merely trading deck chairs with the Hindenburg.