In a vacuum, the Celtics’ trade for Kyrie Irving is a pretty good one. Boston upgraded at the point guard position, adding a playoff-tested scorer who can create his own shot nearly any given moment he’s on the floor.
To acquire Irving, Boston gave up a player who it probably doesn’t want to max out (Isaiah Thomas), a player for whom they have multiple young replacements (Jae Crowder), and a draft pick that could maybe never turn into a player as accomplished as Irving (the Nets’ 2018 pick.)
Of course, this blockbuster swap didn’t occur in a vacuum. After years of hoarding his assets to a comical degree, Danny Ainge’s decision to pull the trigger on the Irving trade is somewhat baffling. If the goal in Boston was to corral a star who could take the team to true Finals contention status, then Ainge seems to have waited for the wrong one.
Both Jimmy Butler and Paul George were available this offseason, and both are better players than Irving. Butler was probably the best star available this summer, thanks in large part to his incredible contract status. George would have been another solid acquisition, even if he is a flight risk for Los Angeles next summer.
Not only are Butler and George better players than Irving, they would have made more sense on the Celtics. Boston could have had an outstanding perimeter rotation, pairing Butler or George with Gordon Hayward, creating the kind of rangy, versatile group needed to compete with the Warriors. While Irving is an upgrade over Thomas, he doesn’t create huge matchup advantages for Boston against Golden State, or likely even Cleveland for that matter.
What’s frustrating is that guys like Butler and George were extremely attainable. An inclusion of the Nets’ pick would have blown away the offers Minnesota and Oklahoma City put together in their trades for the stars. If the Celts were also willing to part with Thomas this whole time, he could have been included in those packages as well, or perhaps even sent to a third team in a potential Butler/George trade.
Instead, Boston waited and waited, and ended up giving away the most value in a trade for a star this summer. In an offseason in which Chris Paul, Butler, George and Irving all switched teams, Irving cost the most to acquire, even though he’s the fourth-best player in that group.
The Cavs’ impending implosion plays an interesting role here. It’s possible Boston didn’t make those moves for a better star earlier this summer because Ainge felt LeBron still had a stranglehold on the conference. Trading for Irving sets the Celtics up to take over the East if and when LeBron bolts Cleveland for greener pastures next summer. But Ainge could have also just let the Cavs implode on their own. Irving would maybe have been shipped off West. LeBron maybe heads to L.A. And the Celtics still have the Nets pick, as well as the opportunity to trade Thomas for multiple useful parts in return.
The Irving trade does allow the Celtics to avoid having to make a decision on Thomas, who will command a massive max-contract offer next summer. And Irving could potentially add intangible value as a free-agent recruiter in Boston, provided he commits to staying there long term. But Boston could have also kept Thomas, kept the No. 1 pick and drafted his replacement (Markelle Fultz), and then still have packaged the Nets pick with other players for one of the better stars on the market. Out of all their available options, it’s possible Boston picked the worst one.
Where does the Irving trade leave the Celtics right now? You could argue, thanks to Crowder, that the deal actually made the Cavs a better, more balanced team. Boston will be a top-two team in the East this season, same as it was last season. The Celtics still won’t be favored in a playoff series against the Cavs. Moving forward, Boston becomes the favorites in the East if LeBron leaves next summer. But Irving doesn’t make them as much of a threat to the Warriors as Butler or George would have.
For years, it felt as if the permutations in Boston for acquiring a star were endless. Those combinations are now dwindling. The Celtics still have assets to make some splashy moves, though their first dive into the deep end of the trade pool was far from a home run. Boston still made a pretty good trade for a 25-year-old star with Finals experience. But it’s hard not to feel underwhelmed when great trades were there for the taking.