10 Thoughts on the Kyrie Irving – Isaiah Thomas Trade

Yesterday afternoon the Celtics and Cavaliers came to terms on a trade that will send Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the Nets’ 2018 unprotected first-round pick to Cleveland in return for Kyrie Irving. While the news did pop suddenly, it wasn’t quite as shocking as the majority of people on social media would have you believe. The teams had been talking for a month, and a couple of weeks ago I predicted the trade on Twitter.

Still, the quick execution and the momentous nature of the news left me semi-reeling. As an NBA writer, a fan of the game, and most of all, a die-hard Celtics fan, I had such a wide range of thoughts and emotions in the immediate aftermath of learning about it that it left me spinning. I recorded a podcast with our editor-in-chief Tim Livingston, where I elaborated on some of my thoughts, but here are ten more:

– The one piece of the trade that I feared but didn’t predict was the inclusion of the 2018 Nets first-rounder, the last in a series that has so far netted them the #3 and #1 overall. That #1 overall pick was traded for the #3 overall pick (Jayson Tatum) and a future pick. If the Lakers land anywhere from 2 to 5 in the draft order in 2018, the pick goes to the Celtics. Otherwise, it rolls over to next year, where they would get the better of the Kings and Sixers first-round picks, assuming neither are #1 overall.

Are the Nets as bad as they were the last two years? Will the weak Eastern Conference and the fact that they play hard every night for a good coach drop them out of the top three? Remember, they have no incentive at all to tank (which live basketball betting odds will confirm). You can bet the Celtics thought long and hard about these questions. If that pick is #1 overall and Marvin Bagley reaches his potential, then the Cavs have a replacement or running partner for LeBron who’s better than Kyrie, not to mention Crowder and Isaiah. But, if the pick is more like #5 overall and they end up with someone like Robert Williams, while the Lakers struggle in a strong Western Conference and the Celtics end up with the #2 or #3 overall pick, then they come out on top. Where that Nets pick lands matters for a hell of a lot.

– Regarding those two picks, I’m guessing Ainge thought: “I’m already two for two on those Nets picks, plus I have an additional pick as a result of moving down this year that may end up being even better than the Nets pick. The Nets are also getting better and may have hit their trough. If this unsure asset is what I have to give up to get a difference maker just entering his prime, whom (I believe) is a big upgrade over Isaiah Thomas in the playoffs, then fudge it, I’ll do it.”

I’m just guessing Mormons don’t swear…

– This IS a good deal for Cleveland. This MAY be a good deal for Boston, depending on a variety of factors. I could argue for the trade:

The Celtics got a younger, better, bigger, version of Isaiah Thomas who is just entering his prime, as clutch as anyone in the league, gets better in the playoffs, is good enough to compete with now, and young enough to build with long-term. His agents have also already indicated that he wants to be there and will most likely sign a long-term deal at some point. He may not be a defensive ace, but he will be a huge upgrade in the playoffs because he can’t be completely taken out out of the play with a simple pick.

Trading Isaiah always made a lot of sense because he’s coming off a worrisome injury, is only 5’7, is a liability on defense, and retaining him beyond next year would require a massive, ill-advised contract. To be able to rid yourself of that issue and bring back a dominant playoff performer at the same position in return, while at the same time taking him away from their chief rival, is a huge win. Giving up the pick is tough, but that’s why the Tatum deal was so brilliant: it made that pick expendable. Crowder was also expendable because of Gordon Hayward and the Brown/Tatum combo, and Zizic isn’t worth worrying about.

– …or against it:

The Celtics traded their best player and their most valuable asset (the Nets pick), in addition to another valuable asset in Jae Crowder and his enviable contract, for a player who does many of the same things Isaiah Thomas does, at the same position. They also got rid of Zizic, leaving their front court depth dangerously shallow. There’s no guarantee Kyrie Irving will stay beyond two years, despite what his agents say now. There is also no evidence that he can lead a time or is a winning player away from LeBron.

The Nets may be better, but they also may still suck, and next year’s draft has a chance to have three or four franchise-level players, all over 6’8. All of them could be better than Kyrie or Isaiah. Trading this pick now, for a moderate upgrade at a single position, also means you can’t use it later in a possible Anthony Davis (or other superstar) trade. This also doesn’t make them better than Golden State, never mind Cleveland. Why give up a chance at a potential franchise-altering player like Bagley or Porter just to win an extra game against Cleveland in the Conference Finals next year?

Which one do you buy?

– There are also two ways to look at Kyrie’s potential fit in Boston.

On one hand, he can be a seamless replacement for Isaiah in the Celtics’ motion-heavy perimeter-based offense. To put it simply: if Brad Stevens can turn a 5’7 Isaiah Thomas into an efficient 30-point scorer without Gordon Hayward there to draw defenses away, what will he be able to do with Kyrie Irving?

On the other, there is significant evidence at this point that Kyrie is a remorseless gunner and, frankly, overrated because so many people have only seen him in the Finals. He doesn’t necessarily care more about his own stats than winning (like Westbrook), but more feels like he’s so good that his team’s best chance of winning is when the ball is in his hands, no matter who else is open or how many people are guarding him. He did just force himself off LeBron’s team, and his idol is Kobe Bryant. And his career without LeBron on the floor is basically one extended stretch of 1-on-5 basketball. He cares a lot about being the guy and having the ball in his hands when it matters. Without LeBron on the floor to keep him in line and distribute the ball, I’m not sure his style of play is conducive to winning.

I’m a Celtics fan. I hope this works, and I think it will in the end, because like Kobe with Phil Jackson and Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom in LA, being in a winning environment with Brad Stevens, Hayward, Al Horford, and young studs like Brown and Tatum will convince Kyrie to buy in enough to make it work. But make no mistake about it: there’s a big risk in bringing a me-first, one dimensional player into a leadership role on a team that preaches defense and sharing the ball.

In the end, it may come down to this: is being the best and most popular player with the highest usage rate on a competitive team and a storied franchise enough for Kyrie? Or is he hell-bent on pulling a Westbrook and going out every night to single-handedly prove he is the baddest MOFO on the planet and doesn’t need LeBron?

– In my opinion, Kyrie has the best handles in NBA history and is the best finisher around the basket of anyone under 6’3, maybe ever. Whether or not this makes the Celtics better in the long run, I’m very excited to watch this guy play 100 or more times this year.

– Conversely, it was an honor and thrill watching Isaiah Thomas blossom into a star in Boston. Every time I thought I had his ceiling pegged, he blew through it. He’s a complete class act as a person and a player and got every single ounce out of his talent while he was here. The only valid criticisms of him are about things he can’t control: his injury, his age, and mostly his size and the way it limits him on defense and against traps. I’m relieved that we don’t have to give him an extension, but he will always be one of my favorite Celtics, and I’m glad for him that he gets to go play with LeBron, although those words will certainly come back to haunt me next May.

– Kyrie may not be very good at defense, but Isaiah is too small to compete. In the playoffs, when good coaches and smart teams ruthlessly exploit mismatches, Isaiah constantly gets swallowed by picks, causing the Celtics to play 4-against-5 or 3-against-4. I would even argue that having a defender like Isaiah on the floor makes it almost impossible to win a title in today’s perimeter oriented, pick-and-roll based league. Kyrie is no candidate for the all-defensive team, but his size is a huge advantage over Isaiah in this regard. This is something that seems a little geeky, but is very important. You can bet the Celtics factored it in.

– The part of this deal that isn’t being talked about enough is how motivated the Celtics may have been to move on from Isaiah. All things being equal, I don’t think they wanted to sign him to a rich, long-term extension, and I think they had serious doubts whether a team led by him could ever consistently compete for a title (if you doubt the logic, again, check the updated betting odds). Not to mention the lingering injury and the possibility that he’s played his best basketball already. But they couldn’t just let him walk with no replacement. It would be a disaster on the court and at the box office. This way, they not only rid themselves of that dilemma, but they pick up an elite Finals-tested talent who is only 25 and one of the few guys in the world who can be the best player in a Finals game. The cost was steep, but to the Celtics at least, fair.

– The Cavs got a lot back for Kyrie. They can’t be faulted at all. However, do we really think this is going to keep LeBron in Cleveland? If LeBron is really ready to leave for LA, there are only a few scenarios I can think of that keep in him in Cleveland. If the Cavs somehow win the title next year, I think it makes LeBron more likely to stay (although some would disagree). That would probably necessitate a Warriors injury, though. The only way the draft pick makes him stay is if one of the top prospects – probably Marvin Bagley – looks like a Durant-level all-world prospect ready to make an immediate impact AND the Cavs get the number one pick. Or if the Nets suck and the Cavs go all-in on LeBron staying and trade the pick in February for a veteran that puts Cleveland on level with Golden State.

None of those scenarios are likely. More likely is LeBron and IT going to the Finals and losing, then both of them leaving, while the Cavs pick a promising prospect who’s far from a sure thing, like Luka Doncic, with the third overall pick.

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