The Kyrie Trade Was the Only Move Left for the Celtics
- The Nets Pick Celtics were the internet's favorite NBA team. But real life turned out to be more complicated than a trade machine, leading to a complicated Kyrie Irving trade.
Over the past two years I've spent an embarrassing amount of time wondering what the Celtics might do with their Nets picks. I don't think I'm alone here. The Nets Pick Celtics were the perfect team for the basketball internet. Everything the Celtics accomplished in the moment was just a prelude to what might come next. Three years of Nets lottery picks put them at the center of every trade rumor, and they breathed life into arguments that sustained us for months on end. Questions like, "Should Boston be looking to own 2018 or 2025?" were asked in earnest, and every amateur GM had a different trade machine answer.
It was the rich man's Process. It was perfect nonsense for a generation of basketball fans who are interested in team-building as they are actual teams. I miss it already.
Now that it's over—Kyrie's in Boston, and the latest Nets pick rumors are now emerging from Cleveland—let's talk about what happened. Yes, there's still a Lakers/Kings lottery pick twisting in the wind, a few more assets stowed away beyond that, and more rumors coming. But the Kyrie trade and the rest of the Celtics' summer went a long way toward defining this team for the foreseeable future. It comes with positives, risks, and one twist that puts a perfect bow on the Nets Pick Era.
Start with the positives. Kyrie Irving is younger than Isaiah Thomas, and if you're trying to beat the Warriors in 2019 or 2020, Kyrie should be peaking right alongside Gordon Hayward. Even now, he's one of the most explosive scorers on the planet.
Compare the first six years of Kobe Bryant's career to Kyrie Irving in Cleveland. Granted, Kobe played in a less efficient era, and he'd go on to make 12 All-Defense teams in addition to what he did on offense. But strictly as a scorer, Kyrie measures up well in elite company, and he's just beginning to enter his prime.
The Celtics could make him even more deadly if Brad Stevens can turn some of his long-twos into threes. Al Horford will help free Irving in ways that Cleveland couldn't. And he'll get more catch-and-shoot opportunities playing in the Celtics' ball movement offense, with Hayward and Horford on hand as above-average creators in their own right. All of these factors are reasons to like the trade for Boston. Kyrie is a specialist and he's going to a team that will be really smart about maximizing what he does well.
But it's also important to consider the risks. It's one thing to recognize that Kyrie will be dangerous wherever he plays, and even moreso in Boston. It's a little bit different to treat this summer's Celtics overhaul as an obvious win and start penciling them into the Eastern Conference finals for the next five years.
Kyrie's only 25 years old, yes. But he's been in the NBA for six years now. He's awful on defense, he's an average creator, he's never been interested in moving off the ball, and his regular season effort's been inconsistent as a rule. He's young and he'll evolve, but with due respect to Danny Ainge dreams, he's not going to magically turn into a different player halfway through his career. Kyrie has always been as much Steve Francis as he is Steph Curry, and that makes him complicated as a franchise player. (To wit: add Francis to the Kobe comparison and the numbers are still awfully close).
Maybe leaving LeBron's shadow will help Irving hit another level, but I'm not sure. Wasn't Cleveland the dream scenario? His biggest flaws—consistency and playmaking, mostly—were hidden next to a nightly triple–double machine, not to mention the best passer in the league. LeBron was an offense unto himself, and his excellence was routine. Kyrie could pick his spots to go off, and when he coasted, it usually didn't matter. As he's asked to play the catalyst for the Celtics every night, it could get trickier.
Speaking of tricky: as of this summer, the Celtics are paying more than $20 million per year to three players who aren't in the top five at their position. Not Horford (Davis, Gasol, Green, Gobert, Towns), not Hayward (James, Durant, Leonard, Antetokuonmpo, Butler), and not Kyrie (Curry, Westbrook, Harden, Paul, Wall). Kyrie could crack the top five over the next few years, but the others likely won't.
Those stars aren't quite as dominant as you'd hope considering how top-heavy the Celtics have become over the past two months. Avery Bradley's in Detroit, Jae Crowder's in Cleveland, Amir Johnson's in Philly, and Kelly Olynyk is in Miami. None of those players were irreplaceable, but along with Isaiah Thomas, the quality of the rotation was the backbone of the team for the past two years. All that's gone now. The Celtics will be counting on Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris to solve rebounding and defensive issues almost by themselves. Or maybe Jaylen Brown will take a leap forward? Or Jayson Tatum will grow up much faster than expected? It's not to say these things can't happen, but this year's season may be more complicated than expected.
Danny Ainge is betting on Brad Stevens's system and his ability to develop young players into quality rotation contributors, not to mention Kyrie's ability to headline a title contender and attract one more star. It's an interesting play. It could prove smart. If Kyrie eventually lures Anthony Davis to Boston, it'll be legendary. But the most interesting aspect of the Celtics' summer is that none of this was really a choice.
For all the possibilities the Nets picks offered us over the past few years—read the compendium of trade rumors here—this summer's options were limited as soon as Isaiah Thomas's hip gave out this spring. That complicated the looming negotiations with IT next summer, and it may have affected trades this summer. Consider Paul George. One of the most puzzling developments of the summer was Boston's failure to enter the PG sweepstakes.
But Boston was dealing with two factors that weren't known at the time. First, Paul George's agent reportedly made it abundantly clear to teams around the league that the Lakers are George's first choice next summer. Second, in the year the Celtics would have to recruit him, Boston knew that Isaiah Thomas could be sidelined for an indefinite amount of time. In that case, does it really make sense to forfeit assets to rent George? How effective would the recruiting be if he were playing with Terry Rozier for the first four months? Even if it worked, could you keep George next summer without also paying close to max money for Thomas, a 30-year-old point guard with a bad hip?
Those questions likely made the Celtics reluctant to give up too much for George. Likewise, Jimmy Butler was the other superstar linked to Boston for the past 12 months, but a source said that Gordon Hayward was lukewarm on playing with him. Butler's better than Hayward in a vacuum, but if the choice is between signing one All-Star outright and sacrificing assets to trade for another (while jeopardizing the chances at signing Hayward), the answer is clear. So Boston went with Hayward.
This June-July sequence left the Celtics in a tough spot. They had a core that looked good on paper, but they'd already lost Avery Bradley from last year's nucleus, and in light of his age and health, they knew they probably wouldn't want to commit too much money to Isaiah Thomas as the cornerstone of a post-Warriors contender. There was only one more Nets lottery ticket, and unless that pick landed at 1 or 2, it was unlikely to land them a superstar in the draft. Even then, a 19-year-old is not really the ideal sidekick for 27-year-old Hayward.
As for trades, Butler and George had already switched teams, and there weren't many other poachable All-Stars on the horizon. Once Kyrie became available—another star, and the most qualified Isaiah replacement who'd ever hit the market—of course they were going to trade for him.
Kyrie isn't a perfect player, and his personality against the backdrop of Boston sports will be its own adventure, but the alternatives came with far more unknowns and downsides. Paying Isaiah was scary. So was losing him without a replacement, and taking a step back while trying to recruit stars around Hayward.
This deal didn't happen because Boston thinks Kyrie Irving is about to turn into Kobe Bryant under Brad Stevens. He'll be very good, and maybe even as good as Isaiah last year, but the Celtics didn't steal an MVP out of thin air. The truth is funnier than that.
At the end of the Nets Pick Era, all of our hypothetical Celtics rosters were irrelevant, and real life was more complicated than the trade machine. Isaiah Thomas was hurt. Paul George wanted to play in LA. Jimmy Butler and Gordon Hayward were an awkward fit. Kristaps Porzingis wasn't available, and Anthony Davis won't be available for another year or two. It didn't matter whether buying into Kyrie's potential was actually Boston's best option. It was the only option.