Happy first birthday, Kyrie Trade!
It’s a day that changed the Celtics franchise and, eventually, the Cleveland Cavaliers. A year after the trade, here’s a look at how the mega-deal has impacted the C’s long- and short-term future.
HOW WE REACTED ONE YEAR AGO
It’s a day that dramatically changed the arc of success for the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers, two franchises that at the time were on par with one another as being among the best teams in the East – they were just three months removed from having met in the Eastern Conference finals.
Then, Kyrie Irving’s trade demand, coupled with the Celtics’ ability to give the Cavs what they wanted — an All-Star (Isaiah Thomas), an above-average wing defender (Jae Crowder), a young talent (Ante Zizic) and Boston’s most coveted draft pick (the 2018 unprotected first-rounder via Brooklyn) — all came together on this date last year.
And a year later, the franchises find themselves and their futures in two very different places.
Despite beating Boston in past two Eastern Conference finals, there’s no denying the downward tailspin the Cavs find themselves in. They were swept in the NBA Finals, a clear step back from their showing in the Finals the previous season in which they were eliminated by Golden State in five games. And when the 2017-18 season was over, LeBron James left to join the Los Angeles Lakers.
BUT NOT EVERYONE WAS DELIGHTED . . .
And the highly-coveted unprotected Brooklyn pick Cleveland was hoping would be one of the top two or three selections? It wound up being just eighth overall.
The Cavs are in rebuilding mode with a playoff appearance next spring being bleak, at best.
So, what has the trade done for the Celtics?
Here’s a look at five ways in which the trade for has impacted the Celtics in both the short- and long-term:
Thomas had a great final season with the Celtics, catapulting his 5-foot-9 frame into the NBA MVP conversation, becoming an All-Star for the second consecutive season and just delivering at a high level frequently in the regular season and playoffs. Still, as impressive as he was in Boston, Kyrie Irving is the kind of proven star that Boston was seeking long before they made the trade for him.
The numbers that Irving has averaged in his career (22.0 points, 5.5 assists, better shooting percentages in the playoffs than regular season), have him well down the path towards Hall of Fame status at only 26 years old.
And for all that James did for Cleveland and the Cavaliers organization (and he did a ton, for sure), that franchise’s biggest shot ever was Irving’s 3-pointer with 53 seconds to play that proved pivotal in Cleveland’s Game 7 victory in the 2016 NBA Finals.
It lifted Cleveland to a 93-89 victory over the Golden State Warriors and capped an improbable championship (they became the first team to ever trail 3-1 in the NBA Finals and come back and win the series). With a chance to acquire a player with his resume and at such a young age, the Celtics had no choice but to go all-in and make the deal – even if it had to be amended and required an additional asset after Thomas (hip injury while in Boston) failed his physical.
The Celtics were in the conversation about being a title contender because they were one of the top two or three teams in the East, and that alone meant your chances of getting to the NBA Finals were pretty good. But the thing is, few outside of the Celtics organization gave them much of a shot at doing much of anything if they got to the Finals…until Irving arrived.
Boston became a team that, when fully healthy, had the kind of firepower that could hold its own and then some with Golden State.
Knowing what Irving is capable of doing, to see the Celtics come within a game of getting to the NBA Finals last season without him (knee infection), his return this season only strengthens the belief that Boston has the best shot in years of not just getting to the NBA Finals, but winning it.
The addition of Irving improved the Celtics roster on multiple levels. For starters, the 6-2 Irving gave Boston better size in the backcourt and thus cut down to some degree on the mismatches defensively the C’s had to address when Thomas was the starting point guard. Irving has also been a more efficient perimeter shooter, connecting on at least 40 percent of his 3-point attempts in three of the past four seasons. Thomas has never shot better than 37.9 percent on 3’s for a season and he hit that 37.9 mark twice, in his rookie season with Sacramento and his final season in Boston.
AINGE PASSING ON POTENTIAL BUTLER, GEORGE DEALS VALIDATED
As the draft picks and young talent continued to pile up, Celtics Nation was getting antsy. They saw all the promising talent coming into Boston, but they also saw some of the biggest names in the league – Jimmy Butler and Paul George, to name a few – become available, knowing they were also players the Celtics had some level of interest in previously.
Still, as the discussions for a big name began only to die a quick death, it wasn’t clear if Ainge would just stand pat with his war chest of draft picks and use them one-by-one, or whether he would eventually package them to go and get an elite player.
Ainge’s patience was rewarded when he engineered the trade for Irving, a deal that included what was seen by many at one point as being Boston’s most valued draft pick. As it turned it out, Brooklyn’s strong, gritty play last season pushed the pick they owed Boston (and was sent to Cleveland), further down the draft board. It wound up being eighth overall, which the Cavs used to draft Alabama point guard Collin Sexton.
BROWN, TATUM GROWTH
The emergence of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum as a tandem was something Irving talked a lot about prior to the season. He loved the effort, athleticism and focus on improvement he saw daily in Brown and was absolutely gushing about the potential for greatness he saw in Tatum, like Irving, an ex-Duke player.
Still, it wasn’t until he was out of the picture with an injury did you really see the impact of Irving on both players. From the very outset, he went about trying to empower them, make them believe that they weren’t just role players, but difference-makers for this team.
And that confidence each had in the playoffs was indeed aided by the words of support by Irving throughout the season. To have accomplished all that he has in such a short period of time, he understood the need for those two players to grow up in a hurry. It speaks to the value Irving provided this Celtics that went beyond points, assists – and ankles broken – per game.