As we take our collective deep breaths after what may have been the fastest-developing blockbuster trade in Boston sports history, the Celtics’ acquisition of Kyrie Irving for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and a first-round draft pick will be one of those deals that defines Danny Ainge’s legacy.
There were several factors that led to this deal. Perhaps the primary factor was Thomas’s insistence that he wanted to be a maximum-salary player after this season, even though he turns 29 in February and still is nursing a sore hip that could require surgery.
Thomas is beloved in Boston. He endured the tragic death of his sister, Chyna, in a car accident April 15 and did not miss a postseason game. He had to be dragged off the court during the Eastern Conference finals because of his hip injury. He personified the Celtics’ rebirth. He became a superstar here. He embraced the responsibility of resurrecting the franchise.
It is a trade that conjures mixed emotions. But this league is a business and here’s why the Celtics made the deal:
The Celtics always have had interest in Irving, ever since he torched the Big Three during his rookie season, hitting the winning basket with his father, Drederick, sitting courtside with his former Boston University teammates.
When management found out Irving was available a few weeks ago — when Irving’s private trade demand turned public — the Celtics reached out to the Cavaliers, even though it was unlikely Cleveland would consummate a deal with its conference rivals.
But the trade market began drying for the Cavaliers and Irving never backed off his trade demands. The most sensible trade candidate, the Phoenix Suns, did not want to sacrifice rookie Josh Jackson or Devin Booker (who scored 70 points at TD Garden last season), and never became a serious candidate.
So the Cavaliers shifted their focus to Boston, one of the few teams with assets to acquire Irving. The Celtics knew there were high risks with Thomas. He is 5 feet 9 inches and wanted a long-term extension and there were still questions as to whether he could be the best player — or second best — on a championship team.
Irving is 6 inches taller than Thomas, a dynamic scorer who is unstoppable in stretches. He recorded at least 20 points in 60 games last season and then scored 42 points in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Celtics (Thomas was injured and did not play).
Irving is 25 and has the desire to become an all-time great, and perhaps that’s why he wanted out of Cleveland — and the shadow of LeBron James. The Celtics wouldn’t have made this deal if they didn’t think Irving would re-sign after the 2018-19 season.
There is no more uncertainty with the Celtics’ roster. The status of Thomas’s and Avery Bradley’s contracts would have hovered over the team all season. Thomas kept reiterating he wanted a max deal, but said that wouldn’t affect his play.
The Celtics won’t have to find that out because now they have Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, and Irving secured for at least the next two years. Add in rookie Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Marcus Morris, and the roster is essentially set to make a long playoff run.
Chemistry will be a question with 10 new players, and Irving is not considered a great locker-room presence. He was troublesome with the media during the 2016 Rio Olympics and can be moody and cantankerous.
Will he be revived now that he’s in Boston, with a fresh start and an opportunity to lead the team in scoring and lead the team past his former club? That’s a major question as training camp approaches.
Thomas was popular, perhaps the most popular Celtics since the departure of the Big Three. He embraced the Green. He liked playing and living in Boston, but wasn’t going to take a hometown discount because he has accepted those concessions throughout his career. The reason the Celtics had to add Crowder and Zizic in the deal was to make the salary match because Thomas will earn $6.2 million in the final year of his contract.
He deserves the Brink’s truck, and he shouldn’t feel slighted after being traded for a player three years younger who sealed a championship with a clinching 3-pointer against Golden State in 2016.
But he will view this as a slight, and that’s the player with a chip on his shoulder the Celtics were privy to the past 2½ years.
In the end, however, Irving is an upgrade. He is a marvelous scorer, ball-handler, and finisher on a reasonable contract and he will play with great motivation. He wanted out of Cleveland. He played to oppose James. He wanted a fresh start and he is the cornerstone that Ainge has been chasing for years.
Fans have asked for the past four years when Ainge was going to cash in these draft picks and get that superstar. Well, Tuesday was the night. It happened fast. It was a shocker, and the Celtics are a better team than they were 24 hours ago.
So the NBA Finals run may now commence.