It’s hard to imagine a healthier relationship between star and system than what Isaiah Thomas shared with the Celtics’ offense last season. Boston often took the ball out of Thomas’ hands in many situations so that he might get it back when flying around some screen at full speed. Under these circumstances he is functionally unguardable. Yet if Thomas had come to Boston as an established star, the whole thing might have seemed rather backward: this dynamic, tenacious scorer was propelled forward by giving up many of the pound-the-rock trappings his peers enjoyed. The Celtics weren’t just better for it. They became defined, in many ways, by the extent of Thomas’s buy-in.
This is the backdrop for Thomas’s somewhat unexpected departure in a blockbuster trade, and the context in which Kyrie Irving will become a Celtic. Irving was traded because he requested it. He requested it for the sake of ambition. Whatever contentment Irving had found while working alongside (and, in many ways, under) LeBron James had faded. The championship, the acclaim, and the immortal Finals moment were already accounted for. What Irving reportedly sought next was the chance to lead a team of his own—the only real means for a star to see what his talent is worth.
There is little doubt around the league for what Irving can do with an opportunity like this. The pertinent questions tend to center around what he wants—and namely, whether a player whose instinct is to dominate the ball as he dances around defenders is really done a service by superstar privilege. Irving might be the closest player in the league to Thomas when it comes to the shape of his skill set. Where they diverge is in their application. Irving used 418 possessions last season out of isolation, according to Synergy Sports. Thomas used 248 while playing slightly more minutes. The two actually spent a similar amount of time every game with the ball in their hands. The caveat, of course, is that Thomas was deferring to the likes of Al Horford and Avery Bradley while Irving played second to the best basketball player alive.
Irving asked off a team that all but guaranteed an annual trip to the NBA Finals—and reportedly gave up $3 million to make it happen—because he wished for a different kind of role. He finds himself slotted into one that affords very different freedoms than conventional superstardom. Brad Stevens doesn’t have his team run basic pick-and-rolls if he can help it. And why would he when his teams so consistently outperform their talent level by taking a little off-ball movement such a long way? Thomas playing the way he did was as propulsive to his own offense as it was to his teammates’. Irving has the game to fulfill that same purpose, though everything his play and posturing has told us over the last six years suggests he would rather not.
As it was, Boston needed Thomas to surrender some of the shots and possessions that facilitated his breakout season to newcomer Gordon Hayward. Thomas’s acceptance of this fact was implicit in his recruiting efforts. Players like Hayward and Horford, accommodating as their games are, tend to be underserved by a simplistic, dribble-heavy style. Their play sings when a team is in motion, whether that leads to Hayward whirling around staggered screens to catch a pass or Horford reading his teammates’ choreography to make one. Where Irving fits in all this is entirely up to him.
This is part of what makes Irving one of the most divisive players in the league. If called upon to attack in the same complex way that Thomas did, Irving could absolutely deliver. But certain ornaments are important to him—otherwise he wouldn’t be a Celtic in the first place. Perception plays a fascinating role in this, given the way Irving bristled at the prospect of spending his prime in LeBron’s shadow. Boston will be seen by some as Irving’s team, no matter that he isn’t the best player on it (it's Hayward) and that the Celtics might play in a way he hardly prefers. How Irving digests this—or rejects it—will go a long way in deciding whether he’s fully capable of being the kind of player Boston needs him to be.
The Celtics have banked a very good team on their optimism. There were fair reasons to trade Thomas (from his age, to his defense, to his hip, to his impending free agency), but to also give up Jae Crowder, who might have the best contract of any player in the league? And the Nets’ unprotected 2018 first-round pick, which could end end up slotted for the top selection overall? This was a shocking haul under the circumstances, particularly to those other teams who had engaged the Celtics on other deals in recent months. Crowder and the Nets’ pick were sticking points in more than a few trades. Here they become symbols of the Celtics’ confidence—confidence that underneath his growing aspirations and complicated instincts, Irving might ultimately prove as adaptable as Thomas.