On August 22, speculation began to emerge that the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics were engaged in trade talks involving a swap of their star point guards. A couple of hours later and the deal was done. As a Celtics fan, my initial reaction was shock and disappointment—not only did Celtics General Manager Danny Ainge give up beloved star Isaiah Thomas, but he even dared to include solid role player Jae Crowder, prospect Ante Zizic, and a potential top-5 draft pick from the Brooklyn Nets, eventually throwing in a second round pick to seal the deal. This immensely valuable package was solely for Kyrie Irving, a player that many would argue is simply as good as Thomas alone. However, Celtics fans shouldn’t be concerned about this trade—while there are plenty of reasons to be nervous about their current team, the future looks bright. Not only do Irving’s age, potential, and attitude spell hope for the Celtics, but serious concerns are emerging about the assets they traded away.
Both Irving and Thomas were drafted in 2011, but besides that, their careers could not have been more different. As Irving was handed the keys to Cavs as the number-one pick, eventually getting gifted with the chance to play with LeBron James when he returned to Cleveland, Thomas was taken with the last pick in the draft and was forced to fight his way to spots on the Kings and the Suns. After years of playing as an underdog, Thomas was traded to the Celtics and quickly became a star, leading the team in points for the past two seasons.
While none of us fans will ever truly know the full reasoning behind Ainge’s execution of this trade, a few key details stick out when comparing Irving and Thomas. Both players, while gifted offensive talents, face heavy criticism for their defensive woes. However, while they appear to be shockingly similar players, Thomas is 28, while Irving is more than three years younger. Age matters in the NBA, and Irving hasn’t been given the chance to reach his full potential while playing with James.
In Boston, with the opportunity to take the reins of a title contender, I expect Kyrie to noticeably improve, although he won’t be without hiccups in his transition to leader. If he can channel his legendary playoffs performances, he will without a doubt win over Celtics fans and improve the team. Thomas, on the other hand, will likely do nothing but decline from here, despite his great work ethic. His hip injury sustained during last year’s postseason won’t help, and age never does good things to NBA point guards nearing the wrong side of 30. If the Celtics had kept Thomas, they would’ve been forced to pay him a maximum contract after next season, a luxury they cannot afford for a player who will inevitably begin to decline in the coming seasons.
Irving is a much better bet given that he has an extra year left on his contract, seems willing to sign an extension, and is much younger, sturdier, and likelier to sustain his output. A big part of this is the height difference between Irving and Thomas. Thomas may have been psychologically fueled by his stature, but there is no doubt that it hurts him both on defense and offense, especially near the basket. Irving is a full six inches taller at 6’3”, so he can certainly improve on the defensive end, while Thomas cannot. Furthermore, Irving now has the perfect coach to allow him to do so in Brad Stevens, one of the most brilliant minds in basketball. Thomas may have the guts to succeed, but Irving is the smart choice both for the short term and the long term for the Boston Celtics.
Now, you may be thinking, “Sure, Irving may be a bit better, but the Celtics are still giving up so much. . . . How on earth can they win this trade?” Well, the Celtics’ current front office has pulled off the deals that won them their their latest championship, got them Thomas in the first place, and signed Al Horford and Gordon Hayward in the past two offseasons. However, if you still don’t trust their judgement, I’ll break down why the other pieces don’t matter as much as you may think.
I’ll start with the easiest one: Zizic. While he has had some moderate success in Turkey, Ante Zizic is possibly the least proven prospect in the NBA. In the Summer League, a practice league with mostly rookies and second year players, he showed he is out of his depth near NBA players. He looked completely lost on offense and defense, and while he is able to get a rebound or two due to his height, his box-out techniques are unpolished and he is nowhere near ready for primetime. While both the Cavs and Celtics desperately need rebounding, Zizic is too raw and unpolished to be given significant minutes during games.
While the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 draft pick was an important piece in the trade, it may very well turn out to not be as valuable as NBA observers believe. The Nets were horrid last year, it is true, but with the acquisitions of D’Angelo Russell, Allen Crabbe, and DeMarre Carroll, the Nets will be able to give middling teams a challenge. With a multitude of tanking East teams and the depth of the West, the Nets could end up vying for the final playoff spot in the East, as they have no incentive to try and get a high pick. Now, all of that could be rendered moot if the Cavs decide to sell high and get another star for the pick and another asset, but if they keep the pick as insurance in case LeBron leaves, they could be burned badly.
Finally, the biggest addition alongside Thomas has to be Jae Crowder. Under contract for two more seasons, Crowder is a bargain—he shot 40 percent from three last year, plays good defense, and is being paid around $7 million a year. Cleveland needs a player to back up LeBron and Kevin Love, so Crowder is a precious piece who will be used well. However, Crowder brings nearly nothing to the table on offense besides threes, and will be lost among the Cavs’ excellent shooters. He also plays good defense, but without LeBron, the Cavs are lost on that end; one could even argue that they’re lost with LeBron on the court. Crowder won’t do enough to help the Cavs’ team defense, so he may not be as important for the Cavs as one may believe at first glance.
If LeBron does leave, as he seems likely to do, the trade is all but wasted for the Cavs. Thomas will likely leave for another team in such a scenario, and the Cavaliers may have too much salary committed to veteran players to embrace a youth movement. At the same time, the Celtics will be laughing all the way to the Finals with their young core of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart along with vets Horford, Hayward, and Irving. Check back in five years, and the Celtics will have easily won this trade.