For better or worse, the Boston Celtics are now the employer of Kyrie Irving, one of the most offensively talented guards in the NBA, a top-30 player who can seemingly create his own shot at will. It’s frustrating to imagine what the Celtics could have been with all the other superstar movement that happened this offseason and Boston’s reluctance to pounce on better players. But with Irving, Danny Ainge believes he has a building block for the future of the Celtics, and that’s where this trade gets really interesting.
Perhaps most importantly, the 25-year-old Irving is not only a better player than Isaiah Thomas, but his contract situation is much more team-friendly. Irving is still playing under the extension he signed with Cleveland in 2014, and he is signed through at least 2019. Irving will make roughly $21 million in the final year of his deal (before a player option), which is a steal for a player of his caliber in the salary-boom era of the NBA. Thomas will earn a paltry salary this season on what is the final year of his contract, but Boston would have had a tough decision to make next summer: Let Thomas walk, or a sign a 29-year-old guard to a max deal starting in the neighborhood of $30 million per year.
With Thomas’s contract out of the way, the Celtics have a star point guard locked in for next year, and will likely enter next summer with a little cap space to make more moves. Which means, again, Boston will have flexibility to improve the roster. Ainge has tradeable chips in Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum or even Al Horford if he wants to go star chasing. And the wildcard is the 2018 Lakers first-round pick, which belongs to Boston if it falls between two and five.
Irving’s age is also important here. In a way, the Celtics went all in to get him by letting go of two of their best assets (Crowder’s contract and the 2018 Nets pick), but by acquiring Irving, Boston also extended their title window. Irving has yet to enter his prime, and now he will get a chance to do so under the stewardship of Brad Stevens, a more tactically brilliant coach than anyone Irving played for in Cleveland. Thomas would have been on the wrong side of 30 by the time Boston’s prospects (namely Brown and Tatum) fully blossomed. Now, Boston’s current and future youngsters should be playing with an in-their-primes Irving and Hayward.
In the short-term, Boston could see some struggles right out of the gate this season. Irving will have to find a way to mesh his game with Hayward. And Stevens will have to work around the departure of several useful role players, with Kelly Olynyk, Avery Bradley and even brief playoff hero Gerald Green all gone, in addition to Crowder. But the Celtics could only go so far with those players on the roster, and with Irving and Hayward, they have two stars whose games should still be on the upswing.
Why is the future so important for Boston? After all, they were only one round from the Finals last year. Well, while the NBA may be engaged in an arms race to take down the Warriors, the Celtics are finding a way to thread the needle to stay competitive now while creating a team that could outlast the Warriors’ dynasty. If LeBron leaves Cleveland next summer, the Celtics will almost definitely have the best team in the East. The next important offseason will come in 2019, when Klay Thompson can become a free agent, and the Warriors could be at an actual risk of dismantling. In 2019, Andre Iguodala won’t be the same, and Golden State’s best players will finally be over 30. This isn’t to say that the Dubs won’t still be a juggernaut in two years, but perhaps it becomes a bit more realistic for a team like the Celtics to compete with them at that stage.
Irving may not be the kind of superstar that carries a team by himself. But Boston basically paid a tax of Crowder and the Nets pick to extend their title window into a future in which the Warriors are possibly not as dominant. Is the Irving trade the best move the Celtics could have made this offseason? That’s certainly debatable, and there are probably better ways Boston could have set itself up for the future. But that doesn’t mean the Irving trade didn’t come with its own benefits for the Celtics.
It will be tempting to judge the Irving trade on opening night, when he and Boston will have to travel to Cleveland in a tantalizing matchup with the Cavs. But the real measure of this trade—like most trades, frankly—should be taken years from now.