This off-season, the National Basketball Association (NBA) has had player movement unlike any other in a real long time. The two teams that were expected to make a major move during this point were this past season’s Eastern Conference Finalists. While the boys from “Beantown have made a couple of major moves, the 2016 NBA champions had yet to make an impactful addition via trade or free agency. Well that all changed for the back-to-back-to-back Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers as their addition as well as some future insurance came courtesy of this past season’s No. 1 Seeded, and Atlantic Division champion Boston Celtics.
On Tuesday night, the C’s and Cavs made a trade where they swapped their starting point guards with All-Star and NBA champion Kyrie Irving going to the Celtics in exchange for All-Star floor general Isaiah Thomas, forward Jae Crowder, center Ante Zicic, and the 2018 unprotected First-Round pick.
To put into perspective how big a trade this was in league history, it is the first time in the Common Draft Era, dating back to 1966, that a player picked No. 1 overall, which Irving was back in 2011 out of Duke University by the Cavs, was dealt for the 60th and final pick of the same draft, which Thomas was by the Sacramento Kings six Junes ago. It also marks the first time in NBA history that two players who averaged 25 points per game or more were dealt to different teams the following season. Irving averaged a career-highs of 25.2 points per game, on 47.3 percent from the field, 40.1 from three-point range, and averaged 5.8 assists per contest with the Cavs in 2016-17, while Thomas averaged 28.9 points per contest with the C’s this past season.
Thomas 28.9 scoring average in 2016-17 for the Celtics was not only No. 3 in the NBA, only Hall of Famer and three-champion with the C’s in the 1980s Larry Bird had a higher scoring average for a season in Celtics’ history when he scored 29.9 per game in 1987-88.
This trade also puts on full display how much has the landscape has changed on how teams do business in the NBA. Before, you would never see a team deal one of its best players to their conference rival, or for that matter a team that coming into this season is considered their biggest challenger to their supremacy in the Eastern Conference which the Celtics are to the Cavaliers.
At first glance, this trade worked out for both sides. The Celtics and President of Basketball Operations/General Manager Danny Ainge in their eyes finally got that impactful, franchise changing, superstar player that can lead them to championships in the future, who by the way is just 25-years-old in Irving.
“This has been obviously a roller coaster of a day for us,” Ainge said via a conference call on Tuesday.
“Trading away Isaiah, and J., and Ante. Especially Isaiah, and J., who’ve been such a big part of our team, our success, and our Celtic culture. As leaders of our team. Very difficult day, and at the same time, a very exciting time for one of the best offensive players in the league. An NBA champion; an Olympic champion; an All-Star and some of his best year’s ahead of him at just 25-years-old.”
On the Cavs side, they get a player who in just a short two-year span went from a guy that was as mentioned earlier the last pick in the draft six Junes ago into a two-time All-Star; an MVP candidate and an inspiration to his teammates and his opponents, especially after the way he played this postseason in honoring his younger sister Chyna, who passed away in a car accident in Tacoma, WA right before the start of this past season’s playoffs.
Thomas will also bring with his great ability to score, he will bring a very underrated intangible to the Cavs locker room, his willingness to be a great teammate and person both on and off the court.
That is not to say that Irving did bring those qualities, but the realities is this. Very few players get the opportunity to play with an all-time great, which four-time league MVP and three-time Finals MVP LeBron James is.
While it may not always be a smooth ride playing alongside one of the greats in the game, the benefits outweigh the burdens, and one of those burdens being playing for not the easiest of owner’s in Dan Gilbert.
Before returning for his second stint with the Cavs, the team was a mess and Irving was more known for the fact that he missed games due to injury than for his eye popping talent.
In the three seasons being teamed with James, Irving has become one of the best players in the game; an All-Star and part of a team that has made three straight trips to The Finals, winning it all in 2016 thanks to his game-winning triple in Game 7 on the home court of the current NBA champion Golden State Warriors, which gave the city of Cleveland their first pro sports title in 52 seasons. While it will be an adjustment in playing with James for Thomas, he will welcome that challenge and put his best foot forward in helping the Cavs make it back to The Finals for a fourth consecutive season.
While it was a sad day for the Cleveland faithful at the start of this week, Gilbert had nothing but positives to say about Irving, unlike what he said about James when he departed the first time in free agency back in the summer of 2011.
“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,” he 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 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.”
James via twitter also took the high road by tweeting from add on to a video of someone putting a note on an Irving jersey that said “Thank U so much-That’s the only way to be to the kid! Special talent/guy! Nothing but respect and what a ride it was our 3 years together Young Gode #Filayy.”
Besides getting Thomas, the Cavs also got Crowder, who is one of the best so-called two-way players in the NBA in recent years. A guy who can make three-pointers at the offensive end, and can put the clamps down on the opposition’s best perimeter player at the defensive end. He is tough minded and brings an attitude to where he will not be denied.
Crowder also solidifies the Cavs second unit, which will now consist of 2011 MVP Derrick Rose, who was signed this off-season as well as new additions Jeff Green and Jose Calderon; sharp shooter Kyle Korver, who the team re-signed earlier this offseason; Channing Frye, Richard Jefferson, and Iman Shumpert.
Just as important for the Cavs and their new young General Manager Koby Altman, they acquired that 2018 First-Round pick, that the Celtics received in the summer of 2013 when they traded future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets.
Besides getting a great player in Thomas, an excellent role player in Crowder, the Cavs got the Nets’ 2018 unprotected First-Round pick, which showed the greatness of the team’s new General Manager Koby Altman in his first big move.
This pick is worth its weight in gold. Why? Because of the uncertainty of the future of James, who can opt out of his contract next summer and become a free agent. Thomas can also opt out of his deal and be a free agent at the end of this upcoming season.
He has made no secret in the past year that he will be looking for that supermax contract next summer, as he has outperformed the four-year, $27 million deal he signed years back.
When you have won at the level the Cavs have over the past three seasons, you are not going to be drafting in the lottery, where you can get that potential franchise changing player, like the Cavs have the privilege of in drafting James, Irving, Andrew Wiggins, who was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves for All-Star forward Kevin Love before the start of the 2014-15 season.
“Cleveland has a chance this year to go out and scout the elite, domestic international players,” ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said to Zubin Mehenti on Tuesday edition of “Sportscenter,” on the Cavs getting that unprotected pick, which can range from being from the No. 1 overall pick, to the Top 5 or in the Top 10 depending on the season the Nets have.
“That speaks to their desire to get that pick, or to have gotten a really good young player in a trade speaks to the fact that they don’t know LeBron James’ future, and they had to get an asset to start building long term with the uncertainty around whether James will re-sign with them or not.”
The good news is that if James does decide to re-sign, Wojnarowski also said on Tuesday’s edition of “Sportscenter” that the Cavs could give a huge extension to Thomas.
On the other hand, if James opts out of his contract and leaves as a free agent, the Cavs may decide to go into a full blown rebuild where they would let Thomas walk in free agency, and even trade Love, who can opt out of his contract at the end of the 2018-19 NBA campaign. Two other notable Cavs in center Tristan Thompson, and J.R. Smith, and Crowder can become unrestricted free agents at the end of the 2019-2020 season.
It’s hard to imagine that at the end of this upcoming season that the Cavs could go from possibly being four-time Eastern Conference champions, and NBA champs in 2016 to the cellar of the NBA. Those are the cards that James is holding with this big decision he will have to make when the Cavs season concludes hopefully in June 2018 with a Finals appearance, and a title.
The Cavs and Altman, who got the job as GM on July 24 at age 34 after the team had parted ways with David Griffin did two very important things with this deal that a lot of people in the NBA circle did not think was possible. They got short-term help for James and the team win a title this season, and getting a pick that could be very high the 2018 NBA Draft Lottery in May.
In prior discussions with the other 28 teams that the Cavs had, they were looking for veteran players to win now or one good young player to build around for the future. The Cavs wanted to make a deal with the Celtics of all the team because they had so many different assets to negotiate from. On top of that, the Cavs saved themselves north of #29 million in luxury tax money.
The only thing the Cavs did not get was that good young player to grow with them, and that was the No. 3 overall pick in this past June’s draft in forward Jayson Tatum out of Duke University. The C’s did not relent on Tatum, and the Cavs settled for receiving the pick in the deal.
For the Celtics, this deal gives as mentioned earlier something that franchise-changing player who can take a team that was good, and turned them into a serious title contender.
While they managed to sign All-Star swingman Gordon Hayward earlier this off-season, the C’s felt they needed a legitimate great player to take them to that next level, and they hope that is what they got in Irving for the next two seasons and they can hopefully convince him to say even longer after the 2018-19 NBA campaign.
The underlying story of what this trade did for the Celtics is they avoided having to make the tough decision on how much they were willing to pay Thomas to be their lead guard for the future, who is just 5’9;” on the opposite side of age 30, and as mentioned earlier is coming off a hip injury that sidelined for the rest of their series against the Cavs.
“These are very difficult decisions as you can imagine,” Ainge said. “We face these difficult decisions at all times during the year. You never know when something may present itself, but an opportunity for us presented itself, even though it is a high price tag. It is a great value that we are giving up. We love Isaiah. We love Jae Crowder, and were just getting to know Ante Zizic, who we’ve watched and nurtured over the last year, and given up a high-quality First-Round pick, but acquiring a 25-year-old perennial All-Star 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.”
In Irving, they have a floor general on the right side of 30 at age 25, who feels more than ready to take on the challenge of being the next great to dawn the colors of green and white.
When he and his agent approached Gilbert that he wanted to move on, the team could have dealt him to a team where he would not even sniff a trip back to the postseason, let alone The Finals.
Being one of the greats in the NBA is more than just about scoring points and making great plays. It is about inspiring others around you to play to your level and beyond. Being a teammate who will have your back in the best of times and the worst of times. Also, being someone that others gravitate towards and want to play with you and work their way to becoming a champion like yourself.
That said, Irving will be entering a situation where he will have everything he was searching for. A team with stability in the front office, led by Ainge; a great head coach in Brad Stevens and a team with solid mix of young players in Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris, who the Celtics acquired from the Pistons for last season’s starting shooting guard Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, and Terry Rozier, and veterans like Al Horford, and Hayward.
What will be different for the Celtics as to the last couple of seasons, is there will be 11 new faces on the team when the 2017-18 season begins. Coach Stevens will have to either build a new identity for the team, with Irving being the centerpiece of it, or re-emphasize the philosophy that helped the C’s win 53 games a season ago and again be the No. 1 in the East.
That philosophy was based around ball movement; tremendous effort at the defensive end, and a will to play together and for each other.
Nobody embodied the C’s philosophy than last season’s starting backcourt of Thomas and Bradley, who have known each other from their days growing up in the Pacific Northwest of Washington, and reserve forward/center Kelly Olynyk, who signed as a free agent this offseason with the Miami Heat.
What must not be forgotten is that before the start of their opening round series versus the No. 8 Seeded Chicago Bulls, who they defeated in six games, Thomas lost his younger sister Chyna Thomas, who died in a car accident outside Tacoma, Washington. After winning Game 6 to move onto the Semifinals against the Southeast Division champion Washington Wizards, Thomas flew cross-country to attend the funeral of his young sister. He scored 33 points and dished out nine assists to lead the C’s to 123-111 victory in Game 1 of the Semis versus the Wizards. That was followed by a 53-point performance in Game 2-the second highest point total in Celtics’ playoff history as they won Game 2 129-119 in overtime to take a 2-0 series lead. Thomas became just the fifth player in team history to score 50-plus points in a postseason game, missing the team record held by Hall of Famer John Havlicek by one point. In the Game 7 clincher at TD Garden in Boston, MA, Thomas had a double-double of 29 points and 12 assists to lead the Celtics to a 115-105 win, to win the series 4-3, and advance to their first Eastern Conference Final since 2012.
The 2016-17 Boston Celtics had an identity that got them to the brink of making it back to The Finals for the first time since 2010, when they lost to their hated rival the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games. Unfortunately, they lost the series to the Cavs 4-1 and Thomas was lost for the series after Game 2 with a hip injury.
The other thing that the Celtics will be dealing with starting now is expectations. Before they were a team that took people by surprise. Now, they will have the attention of the entire league and can they led by Irving match of those expectations by winning not just the East, but will championships follow?
The one guarantee for the defending Eastern Conference champions, the Cavaliers, and last season’s runner-up in the Celtics is that they will not have to wait very long to see each other as they will meet on opening night, Oct. 17, 2017 at 8 p.m. on TNT.
Information, statistics, and quotations are courtesy of the 8/23/17 6 a.m. edition of NBATV’s “Gametime,” with Jared Greenberg, Mike Fratello, and Sekou Smith; 8/23/17 6 p.m. edition of ESPN’s “Sportscenter,” with Hannah Storm, Zubin Mehenti, and NBA Insider Adrian Wojnarowski; www.espn.com/nba/team/roster/_/name/cle/cleveland-cavaliers; www.espn.com/nba/team/roster/_/name/bos/boston-celtics; www.espn.com/nba/statistics, and www.landofbasketball.com/all_time_leaders/celtics/points_pg_single_rs.htm.