Danny Ainge Saves the East from Boredom: Reviewing the Kyrie/IT Trade
by TRINI ANDREW
One of my favorite teams to follow in the early 2000s were the Sacramento Kings. They had an iconic star in Chris Webber and players who genuinely seemed to like playing with each other (Peja Stojakovic, Vlade Divac, Brad Miller, Doug Christie, Jason Williams and Bobby Jackson). While they are now a footnote in basketball history, the Kings teams of this era were one of the first teams to really integrate the pace and space ideology into their offensive system. After corralling a defensive rebound, one of their big men (Webber, Divac or Miller) could often be seen leading the fast break or facilitating the offense in a half court set. The entire starting lineup had players who were unselfish and skilled shooters. They had similar qualities to the present day Golden State Warriors teams except that they weren’t nearly as good on defense. The Kings were one of the most exciting teams to watch of that era. They routinely won 55 games or more and they pushed the Spurs and Lakers (eventual champions) in the playoffs. Unfortunately, they could never get over the hump and management hastened their demise by trading away Chris Webber, albeit on an expiring contract, and firing head coach Rick Adelman. They lost more of their identity with each passing season as they got younger with silky smooth scorers such Kevin Martin and Shareef Abdur-Rahim but they weren’t the same Kings. The spark was gone as well as their credo. They subsequently missed the playoffs and have yet to return.
I routinely think about this Kings team whenever a team trades away an aging star to recalibrate their future. In a vacuum, getting value for depreciating assets is a sensible move for an NBA GM but NBA players aren’t “assets” as much as they are in the NFL or MLB. The impact of certain NBA players, regardless of their skill level or scoring ability, leaves long lasting effects on a team’s culture that can be difficult to replace. In one offseason, Danny Ainge has fully bet against the importance of team culture and has finally erased “Ubuntu” – the us against the world team spirit the Celtics has had for the last 10 years.
To recap what has led to this point: The Cavaliers basically swept through the playoffs before getting dismantled by the Warriors after meeting them for the third consecutive year in the NBA finals. The Cavs then spent the majority of the offseason not so secretly trying to replace Kevin Love/ Kyrie Irving with one of Jimmy Butler, Paul George or Carmelo Anthony. Through a series of escalating leaks, it was revealed that Kyrie Irving, after learning that his name was involved in trade talks, requested a trade and his deteriorating relationship with his teammates was made public.
The Cavaliers decided to honor his trade request and his combination of skill, pedigree and contract meant that they held the upper hand in trade negotiations. Kyrie Irving was traded this week to the Boston Celtics (the Cavs’ presumptive rivals) for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the 2018 unprotected pick. Normally, when a team trades away an All-Star who has put in a trade request, they lose the trade, but ostensibly the Cavaliers are in a much better position post trade.
Post trade outlook for the Cavaliers
The Cavs have gotten much-needed flexibility both on and off the court with this trade. Isaiah Thomas has identical strengths and weakness as Kyrie and the Cavs have experience playing with a 5’9” scoring PG in Kay Felder. His contract is less of an issue as players rarely leave playoff teams for lottery teams in free agency (LeBron twice being a notable exception) and most playoff caliber teams already have their point guard position settled and also lack significant cap space. I defy you to name a team that has $30M in cap space next year who would be willing to give it Isaiah Thomas. For IT to get a full max contract next offseason he can either get it from the Cavs or engineer a sign and trade which would help the Cavs as well. If LeBron leaves, the Cavs can still resign him for the max to keep some scoring on the team or let him go as a free agent and begin a rebuild. IT has a significant hip injury scare which bears monitoring moving forward but the Cavs are only looking for him to contribute from later on in the season and the playoffs. There has been no indication that he will start for the Cavs and he could be a vital weapon running the second unit.
One of my friends called me to break the news of the trade and he said that the Cavs got Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the Nets pick. This met the previously reported requirements that the Cavs wanted someone who can help now (Crowder), a prospect (Zizic) and a pick (the Nets pick). I told him it was a great trade but the money doesn’t add up. When he told me that they also got Thomas I was flabbergasted. I believe Jae Crowder will have the most impact for the Cavs next year. He’s not a flashy player, not especially skilled but he provides the 3 point shooting and necessary toughness that all championship teams need. He will be coming off the bench and starting whenever Lebron, Love or Thompson needs a break. Perhaps most importantly, in crunch time we can see Lebron playing PG with Crowder as the SF. Originally drafted by the Cavaliers, Crowder will continue to carry the enormous chip on his shoulder after proving his worth in Dallas and Boston to twice be discarded as a throw in on a trade. The final physical piece of the trade is Ante Zizic a rotational big man, who if he gives the Cavs 10 minutes a game this season, will be viewed as a success. He will not be asked or required to do much but spell Tristan Thompson. He is a skilled and mobile big man prospect but expecting a tangible contribution from a rookie on a veteran team is foolhardy.
Lastly, the unprotected Brooklyn Nets pick is sorely needed by the Cavs either to keep or use as trade bait. The laws of averages dictate that it should not end up as the #1 pick next year but it should be a lottery pick which is extremely valuable in today’s NBA. We might even see DeAndre Ayton plying his trade next year alongside LeBron. The Cavs have also saved about $29 million luxury tax payments because of the repeater tax rule.
The Cavaliers are in much better place holistically after the Kyrie Irving trade. They currently have 17 guaranteed contracts which means that they are not finished dealing. Players such as Kay Felder, Walter Tavares, Channing Frye and Iman Shumpert are likely to be moved in a subsequent trade to clear up roster space. They are rumors that Dwyane Wade will be joining the Cavs at some point next season after he is bought out by the Bulls. None of these moves will make them favorites to win the title but they are better equipped to face the Warriors if they meet again in the NBA finals next year.
Post trade outlook for the Cavaliers
The Boston Celtics have had an image problem outside of New England ever since the dismantling of their title winning 2008 team. They simply do not move the needles in the national landscape. Their acquisition of Kyrie Irving has single-handedly changed this. Kyrie Irving is one of the most popular players in the league, a skilled scorer that has the most aesthetically pleasing dribble game in the NBA. He is one of the last true Alphas in the NBA and he has the capability of winning any game via his scoring ability. He should eclipse Isaiah Thomas’ usage rate next season and could mount a serious challenge for the scoring title. He will never lead the league in assists. It is easy to see why Danny Ainge made this trade from a commercial and competitive standpoint and if you squint hard enough you can see similarities with his trade for Kevin Garnett from the Minnesota Timberwolves. Apart from Al Horford, the entire Celtics roster is young and improving and they should have a bright future.
The issue with the trade is that they Celtics have been threading the line between winning now and being competitive later. Through a series of moves, they have gotten rid of most of their ECF final team either through trades or free agency. The loss of eleven players in one offseason cannot be ignored. There is always a steep learning curve when joining a team and even more so when you are young. The Celtics can expect immediate contributions from the nine players on their team on rookie contracts but can they rely on them for 82 regular season games and then the playoffs.
Kyrie will be tasked with carrying this Celtics team and cannot hide from the spotlight. He is expected to at least repeat the success of last season’s Celtics and does have the luxury of easing into the season as the first game is against the Cavaliers. He is also an injury-prone player who has not been comfortable when he was previously been asked to carry his team sans-LeBron. I believe he is more than capable of performing on both ends of the floor to lead the Celtics into the 1st seed but I question his desire to do so. Carmelo Anthony, James Harden and even Russell Westbrook have shown how huge a burden carrying a team into the playoffs is with a high usage rate, and with the exception of Westbrook, chose to not defend to preserve their energy for scoring.
The Celtics will trot out a big three of Kyrie Irving, Al Horford and Gordon Hayward which should be enough for a top five seed on its own in the Eastern Conference. They will be surrounded by high potential but not proven players and it bears repeating; it will take a substantial amount of time for the Celtics to become comfortable with each other. The entire team will need to stay healthy to prevent any learning setbacks and they will need to figure out a concrete starting lineup. I believe they will end up with starting a lineup of Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart, Gordon Hayward, Marcus Morris and Al Horford with Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Aron Baynes being most often called off the bench. Would that lineup make the playoffs in the Western Conference I wonder? Alas, that’s just conjecture but what we know is that the Celtics who are always poor defensive rebounders have possibly the worse rebounding team in the league now.
The Celtics have overachieved the last few year by doing the NBA version of “Moneyball”. They sought out undervalued players and got them to improve their skills while on cheap contracts. If it did not work out, they had the flexibility and picks to pivot in another direction. As such, every player on the Celtics, being acutely aware of their tenuous place on the team applied maximum effort on both sides of the ball. They fully bought into the sharing the ball and defending hard as a team ethos and were one of the best-coached teams in the league. They have lost that identity and grittiness except for Marcus Smart who will undeniably be playing for a max contract. They are basically locked into this team now and improvement will come internally. It is difficult to gauge their current roster’s desire to improve as they are either too young or have not made any significant improvements in the holes in their game.
Regardless of what transpires this season, the Celtics have truly gotten younger and more attractive to the casual viewer. The value of this trade is dependent on whether Kyrie Irving resigns in two years and that is a long time for big markets to woo him(the Knicks loom large). The Celtics may have taken a step back but ultimately it doesn’t matter as the NBA championship is still the Golden State Warriors to lose.