The Boston Celtics are Gambling on a Budding Supernova in Kyrie Irving
Boston didn't have to trade for Cleveland's All-Star point guard, but they did. Now the questions begin.
Photo by Ken Blaze - USA TODAY Sports
Travel four years back in time and tell any Boston Celtics employee or fan that they'll trade for Kyrie Irving in 2017. Every single one would be thrilled. Teams that aspire to win it all can't do so without at least one (see: multiple) top-10 players on their roster. Irving is not a top-10 player today, but by forking over Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and an unprotected Brooklyn Nets pick in 2018, the Celtics obviously believe he'll not only reach that level soon, but sustain it through his prime.
Danny Ainge spent the past few years accumulating assets in a legendary hoard that bore multiple first-round picks. He pounced at opportunistic possibilities whenever they crossed his desk, knowing productive veterans on team-friendly contracts can be just as useful as first-round picks in his relentless pursuit of legitimate star power.
Among the many deals that were made, he flipped a late first-round pick for Thomas and discarded a deteriorating Rajon Rondo for a first-round pick, Jameer Nelson, Brandan Wright, and Crowder. Thomas, a ruthless 5'9" uppercut, miraculously evolved into a second-team All-NBA guard and finished fifth on the MVP ballot last season, while Crowder has unexpectedly thrived as a critical piece in a league that covets his rare 3-and-D skill set.
Both were beautiful mistakes. Neither was supposed to be as good as they became, and Tuesday night, Boston's front office took a deep breath, remembered their end game, and made the blockbuster trade many have been waiting months to materialize.
Of course, nothing is as simple in a deal this gigantic. Thomas is coming off a better year than the one Irving just had, besting the former number one overall pick in points, assist rate, usage percentage, True Shooting, PER, and free-throw rate. Thomas is one of the sport's 10 best offensive players and he's in his prime. Forfeiting that, plus other commodities, makes little sense in a deal that, at first glance, best feels like a lateral move.
But in a league that's eclipsed by the Golden State Warriors, other factors come into play. Thomas turns 29 in February and is an unrestricted free agent who's expecting a massive raise this summer. Locking him up on a hefty long-term contract that stretches into his early 30's is a humongous risk, particularly when you consider that Thomas's postseason was cut short by a lingering (and serious) hip injury.
Thomas can shoot and pass as well as most, but his continuous aggression attacking the rim is where he leaves a vast majority of his colleagues in the dust. (Thomas led the league in drives and points per game on drives last season, per SportVU.) If his hip injury, mixed with age-related decline, strips that usefulness away, Thomas is reduced to an aging, super-expensive version of Kemba Walker—a quality piece, sure, but not anyone who moves the needle when positioned as the primary option on a playoff team. Thomas's 2016-17 campaign was incredible, but it's worth wondering how sustainable it is.
Some of that logic applies to Crowder, who's 27 and made 39.8 percent of his threes last year after sinking just 33.6 percent in 2016. An integral part of Boston's success over the past couple years, regression could be right around the corner for a player who's also shown steady decline on the defensive end.
Meanwhile, Irving is 25 with breathtaking skills that splash on the court like a Jackson Pollock masterpiece. Two years ago, he averaged 27.1 points with 46.8/40.5/93.9 shooting splits in the NBA Finals, elevating his historical stature beside LeBron James and capturing a championship for an organization that had zero to their name the day they drafted him.
A few months ago, Irving dropped 78 points in Games 3 and 4 of the 2016 Finals against arguably the best team ever assembled. Few cascade into the heart of an opposing defense in the myriad unstoppable ways he regularly does. Irving's magical layups give birth to a different brand of pessimism for those who root against him; they're technically worth two points, but erode the other team's belief in unquantifiable ways. Next to Kevin Durant and James, he is the most unguardable player in the league when a game is on the line, and, quite possibly, the most lethal 6'3"-or-under scorer of all time.
This is the supernova Boston is gambling on. How Irving fares in the most altruistic system of his career, beneath the best NBA coach he's ever played for, is an interesting variable that should bear all-around improvement. But there are no guarantees when judging a point guard who doesn't make those around him better and has yet to noticeably upgrade any particular area of his game since he was drafted; Irving didn't exist in a winning environment until the greatest player of his generation entered the frame and helped shatter a few of his bad habits.
Irving is a paranormal offensive being with MVP ability, but he doesn't have the resume other top-10 players share. He is not James Harden, Russell Westbrook, or Kawhi Leonard, franchise-centering mastodons who've shown they can carry lesser talent on their shoulders. He's never been named to a first or second All-NBA team and only cracked the top 10 in scoring and Win Shares one time. Contrary to most superstars, Irving is married to the mid-range and isolates on the wing with disconcerting comfort.
He's a minus on the defensive end, and questions surround his willingness to embed himself in pass-first atmosphere. Irving's desire to flee LeBron (a trillion dollar lightbulb who his peers just voted as "The Player You Secretly Wish Was On Your Team") is just a wee bit perplexing. Will he subvert Boston's momentum or hoist the franchise to a higher plane? Again, this is a gamble.
Irving can opt out of his contract after the 2018-19 season. He's no longer eligible for the Designated Player Extension (aka the super max), but the Celtics own his Bird Rights and can offer one more year with higher annual raises than anybody else when the time comes. It's very possible he's the top player at his position by then.
Locking a perennial All-Star up through his prime is a tantalizing proposition any team would consider, but if Irving walks after two years—a scenario that's reportedly unlikely—the Celtics should be chastised for not slapping a top-1 protection on that Nets pick. One member of Boston's front office told VICE Sports earlier this summer that they expect that pick to yield closer to the 10th slot than first overall—a reasonable prediction when you count the number of Eastern Conference teams that have prepped for self-sabotage this season—but it would still be nice.
The Celtics have somewhat of an insurance plan in the form of a 2018 Los Angeles Lakers pick that they own if it falls between two and five, but dangling that Nets pick in a different deal at the trade deadline, with Thomas and Crowder still in town, could've led to a more complementary haul and increased their odds to make the Finals.
Boston is still toeing two separate timelines—their refusal to part ways with Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown in this deal is a significant win—but it's unclear if they're any closer to winning it all after this trade. Irving knows how to carve up the Warriors and there are zero players on the Cavaliers who can touch him, should Boston reach the conference finals. Health permitting, he'll be better than Thomas next season and in the years ahead. But including Crowder's flexible nature in the deal changes Boston's functional identity altogether. The Celtics are now dependent on several youngsters with limited/no experience and are far more top heavy than they were as a 53-win team that was three wins from reaching the Finals last year.
While the Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards, and Milwaukee Bucks have continuity on their side, Boston is forced to generate chemistry on the fly. Gordon Hayward and Al Horford are adjustable two-way forces, but there's no telling how long it'll take for them to mesh with Irving, let alone each other.
A step back in the regular season should be expected, but the Celtics are banking on their irrepressible star power to shimmer in the Spring, when games matter most. Defending this offense for 48 minutes, 24 seconds at a time, through a seven-game series, will be quite the challenge, being that they have end-of-shot-clock snipers at more than one position. But Boston's defense (and toughness) is spent now that Crowder and Avery Bradley are elsewhere.
What makes this trade so fascinating from Boston's point of view is they didn't have to make it. Head into next season with Thomas (assuming he's 100 percent healthy), Crowder, Zizic, and a tradable Nets pick instead of Irving and you're in pretty good shape! The Celtics probably agree. But a unique opportunity presented itself after Irving demanded a trade.
Viewing it one way, Boston dealt a star, role player, promising big-man prospect, and high draft pick for...another star. But if Irving can unfurl his limitless offensive repertoire on demand, transform into a playmaking savant, and prove capable of being the best player on a championship-winning team, this bet will pay off in a major way.