In a trade that shakes up the Eastern Conference, the Cleveland Cavaliers dealt point guard Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics on Tuesday for a package including point guard Isaiah Thomas and a 2018 first-round draft pick. Irving had requested a trade last month, and with LeBron James also possibly leaving the team next year, the Cavs made a move aimed at both short- and long-term interests.
Irving, who has been with the Cavs since they made him the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft, will be joining the team he helped defeat in May’s Eastern Conference finals. In addition to Thomas, the Celtics are sending forward Jae Crowder, center Ante Zizic and the Nets’ 2018 first-rounder, The Washington Post confirmed.
The swap gives the East’s top two teams very different looks, and it promises to ratchet up their rivalry, which gets renewed right away in the NBA’s season opener on Oct. 17. However, the massive trade could actually wind up having a minor impact on the conference race this season.
That’s because the Cavs still have the best player on either side, if not the entire league, in LeBron James, and the deal could leave the team improved — at least for this season. Beyond 2017-18, all bets are off for Cleveland, while Boston is positioned to be an NBA power for the foreseeable future.
In Thomas, the Cavs get a player who is remarkably similar to Irving in terms of the position he plays and his scoring ability. Thomas, like Irving, is deficient on the defensive end, which was a team-wide issue for Cleveland last season, but the rugged Crowder offers major help in that regard, and Zizic could provide useful depth.
James will have to adjust to playing with a new all-star teammate, but by the same token, so will the Celtics, who also have to incorporate free agent acquisition Gordon Hayward. While Boston is no doubt delighted to have such problems to solve, a manager for the sports book at Las Vegas’s Westgate casino reinforced the idea that the Irving-Thomas trade actually helps maintain status quo in the East.
“On behalf of the entire franchise, I want to thank Kyrie Irving for the six impressive years he spent in Cleveland wearing the Cavaliers uniform,” Cavs owner Dan Gilbert said in a statement. “From the moment we won the 2011 NBA lottery that put us in position to draft Kyrie to ‘The Shot’ that sealed our first NBA championship and all of the electrifying play that made him a joy to watch, ‘excitement’ was always in the air when it came to Kyrie Irving. We wish him and his family well as he moves on to the next phase of his NBA career.”
The 2012 NBA rookie of the year and a four-time all-star, Irving is considered one of the most gifted offensive players in the league. Last season, the 25-year-old averaged a career-high 25.2 points, adding 5.8 assists while helping Cleveland reach its third straight NBA Finals.
Thomas, 28, blossomed in his second full season in Boston, following stints in Sacramento, which made him the final pick in the 2011 draft, and Phoenix. The 5-foot-9 player averaged 28.9 points and 5.9 assists, and he gained particular renown for fourth-quarter scoring prowess — a skill that should serve his new team very well — as he was named to his second straight all-star squad.
Thomas became a favorite in Boston, just as Irving was in Cleveland, and more than a few Celtics fans are likely unhappy to see the diminutive star sent away. However, the Celtics were in a tricky position with Thomas, who is heading into the final year of his contract and could have demanded a multiyear extension with annual salaries of around $30 million.
Instead, the Cavs may be inclined to let Thomas walk away at the end of the season, especially if James makes it clear that he is doing the same. In the meantime, Cleveland should be able to compete for a fourth straight Finals appearance and a second championship with those two stars, a rugged veteran in Crowder, and talented holdovers in Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith.
The Nets’ pick should land in somewhere in the lottery, even if Brooklyn improves this season, as expected. Also helping the Cavs lay the groundwork for the future is Zizic, a 6-11, 20-year-old Croatian taken 23rd in the 2016 draft, who showed great promise while playing in Europe last season.
Irving has three years and $60 million left on his contract, with an opt-out clause before the 2019-20 season. A New Jersey native, he reportedly hoped to be dealt to the Knicks, after also listing the Spurs, Timberwolves and Heat as his preferred destinations, but he reportedly agreed to waive his trade kicker to join the Celtics.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Irving was “thrilled” with the trade to Boston and has already indicated that the team will have a “great chance” to sign him to a contract extension. In making the deal, which came at a high price, Boston was confident it could get Irving to stay past his current deal, according to Wojnarowski.
“It is a high price tag,” the Celtics president of basketball operations, Danny Ainge, said of the trade to ESPN. “But acquiring a 25-year-old perennial all-star, a player that fits a timeline for us, and is a fantastic offensive player, one of the best offensive players in the league, you have to pay a heavy price.”
Having signed Hayward away from the Jazz, the Celtics will have a reshaped look featuring him and Irving, along with Al Horford, Marcus Morris and Jaylen Brown. Boston held the No. 1 pick in the draft, again via the Nets, and it passed on a chance to select an offensively talented point guard in Markelle Fultz by trading back to No. 3, where it took forward Jayson Tatum. The Celtics also picked up an extra first-round selection in the process, which will come from either the Lakers or the Kings and could be a top five pick, if expectations hold.
Last year, the Celtics notched the best regular season record in the East, while the older Cavs were content to cede that advantage while saving some strength for the postseason. The tactic paid off in a 4-1 series win over Boston that propelled Cleveland to the Finals, where it lost a rubber match with Golden State.
That entire scenario — including, unfortunately for the Cavs, another loss to the Warriors — appears likely to happen all over again, as Cleveland has now gotten even older, while the Celtics are stocked with the most star power seen in Boston since the heyday of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
Armed with young talent and a seemingly bottomless well of future first-round picks, the future is impossibly bright for the Celtics. However, in acquiescing to Irving’s trade demand, the Cavs did well to restock a squad very much in win-now mode.
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