In late July, when the NBA typically begins its summer slumber, Cavaliers All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving stunningly requested to be traded from the team that was just one year removed from an NBA title, a team that also had LeBron James. The Celtics, league sources said, quickly snapped into action in pursuit of Irving, well aware that a deal would come at a hefty cost.
And Tuesday night, after several weeks of discussions, the sides agreed on one of the biggest blockbusters in recent NBA history, a trade that will send Irving to Boston in exchange for All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas, forward Jae Crowder, rookie big man Ante Zizic, and the 2018 first-round pick the Celtics will receive from the Brooklyn Nets.
“Kyrie is one of the best scorers in the NBA. He has proven that on the biggest stage, the NBA Finals, the last three years,” Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said. “He’s been an NBA champion, an Olympic gold medalist, and a four-time All-Star. For all he’s accomplished, we think his best years are ahead of him.”
The deal is pending physicals for all players involved. Given the timing in the thick of the offseason, a source said, that could take up to one week. The Cavaliers, of course, are already aware of Thomas’s hip injury that sidelined him in last spring’s playoffs.
The Celtics had great interest in acquiring Irving, sources said, but they assumed the Cavaliers would be reluctant to trade him to their primary competition in the Eastern Conference. A league source said recently the Celtics did not have a sense where they stood in the pursuit of Irving, partly because the Cavaliers’ unsettled front office — Cleveland general manager David Griffin stepped down in late June — made for a challenging landscape.
Ainge said Tuesday night that the deal the Celtics agreed to was not on the table one month ago. When it presented itself, Boston felt it was time to strike, even if the reverberations would be felt throughout the roster.
“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,” Ainge said.
James is set to become a free agent next summer, and the uncertainty about his future had made trade discussions for Irving challenging. According to multiple reports, Cleveland wanted to find a way to surround James with powerful talent next season while also looking to give its future a boost, and this deal appears to have done that.
The arrival of Irving, who averaged 25.2 points and 5.8 assists last season, instantly puts the Celtics in contention in the East, however. Irving is under contract for the next two seasons, while Thomas is set to become a free agent after one season.
Thomas was sidelined in the Eastern Conference finals last May after tearing a labrum in his hip. He is still slowly recovering, and on Tuesday Ainge acknowledged for the first time that Thomas might face “a bit of a delay” at the start of the season.
The departure of Thomas will sting strongly in many corners of Boston. When he was acquired in February 2015, he was a mostly discarded 5-foot-9-inch point guard with heaps of potential but no real home. With the Celtics, he emerged as an All-Star and was at the heart of the Celtics’ surprisingly rapid return to the league’s upper tier.
Last season Thomas averaged 28.9 points and 5.9 assists per game, and he gained league-wide respect during the playoffs, when he played on despite his sister’s death in a car crash, despite having major dental surgery after several teeth were knocked out in a semifinal game against the Wizards, and despite this hip injury that slowed him until it finally stopped him.
“He entertained us all, the whole city of Boston, and everybody fell in love with him,” Ainge said. “He’s such an underdog because of his size and his heart and his spirit.”
Ainge said he spoke to Irving and that the point guard was “very excited” about joining the Celtics. But Ainge declined to discuss his conversation with Thomas, because he wanted that private moment to stay that way.
“I’ll leave it to your own imagination to realize how difficult that conversation might have been for me and Isaiah,” he said.
Thomas did not respond to a text message seeking comment.
Last season the Celtics bowed out of the conference finals against Cleveland quite meekly, but now they have retooled and reloaded, as Irving will be joined by another All-Star, free agent forward Gordon Hayward, as well as the No. 3 overall pick in this year’s draft, Jayson Tatum.
Still, there is no question that the acquisition of Irving came at a steep price, as Boston lost two starters and perhaps its most prized future asset, the final Nets pick. In the trade’s aftermath, Ainge alternately called it both “a very exciting time” and “a very, very difficult day.”
Thomas’s blue-collar work ethic resonated with Boston fans, and he opened his arms for a city that was more than willing to embrace him. But Ainge has never allowed personal feelings or relationships to tint his overarching goal: to bring another championship to Boston. That was evident when he traded guard Avery Bradley to the Pistons in July, and it is even more clear now.
And make no mistake, Thomas’s future in Boston was uncertain. He has publicly insisted that he will seek a max contract next summer. And this summer he has continued his slow rehabilitation from the hip injury.
As of last week, Thomas had yet to return to full on-court workouts. Thomas is three years older than Irving, and there were some concerns within the Celtics organization that his fearless style of play might not be sustainable.
The Celtics acquired Crowder from the Mavericks in December 2014 in the deal that sent point guard Rajon Rondo to Dallas. Like Thomas, he instantly endeared himself to the Celtics and their fans with his toughness, competitiveness and work ethic. And in the summer of 2015 he was rewarded with a five-year, $35 million deal.
Since then, though, the NBA’s salary cap ballooned so extensively that Crowder’s contract was viewed as one of the best bargains in the league. Although coach Brad Stevens has many uses for versatile wing players such as Crowder, the arrivals of Hayward and Tatum made him more expendable. A man who answered Crowder’s cellphone on Tuesday night said Crowder was not available to talk.
“Jae’s toughness was contagious for our team,” Ainge said. “He improved his skills each year, but it’s his energy and fight that will be remembered.”
Zizic, meanwhile, was selected by the Celtics with the 23rd overall pick of the 2016 draft. The 20-year-old center played professionally in Turkey last season before joining Boston’s summer league team in July. Fans hoped the powerful Croatian could help fix some of the Celtics’ rebounding woes, and he may someday become an elite rebounder. But his summer league play revealed that he remained raw, and perhaps not ready to make significant contributions just yet.
The 2018 Nets pick had long been viewed as one of Boston’s most untouchable assets. It is the final piece of the seismic 2013 deal that sent Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn. In return, Boston received four future first-round picks.
It has used two of them on potential stars Jaylen Brown and Tatum, and now the last one has been used to acquire Irving.
“We still value that pick,” Ainge said. “We valued it from the time we got it. It’s still very valuable. I don’t think that’s gonna change. But obviously we valued Kyrie more. It’s that simple.”
Brooklyn has upgraded its roster since last season, acquiring point guard D’Angelo Russell, forwards Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll and center Timofey Mozgov. So in a watered-down Eastern Conference, Brooklyn might not be as bad as many expected. Now, the Celtics will certainly hope that is the case.
Regardless, Boston will start the season with a roster that hardly resembles the one it ended last year with. Starters Thomas, Crowder, Bradley and Amir Johnson (76ers) are all gone, along with reserves Kelly Olynyk, Tyler Zeller, Jonas Jerebko, Gerald Green, Jordan Mickey, James Young and Demetrius Jackson.
But a potent, powerful core consisting of Irving, Hayward and the four-time All-Star Al Horford will make the Celtics quite dangerous. The Celtics will now have at least one open roster spot, with 14 players under guaranteed contracts, one below the league maximum. But a league source indicated it is possible Boston could start the season with 14 players to maintain some roster flexibility.