Regardless of what anyone says, it was a trade which caught everybody off guard. Sure, we all knew that Kyrie Irving was leaving. He was done playing second fiddle to LeBron James at the Cleveland Cavaliers. But Isaiah Thomas was the Boston Celtics. He was the soul of the team which beat the Cavaliers to the No 1 seed in the Eastern Conference last season. Even with tears in his eyes after the death of his younger sister, he showed up to play. The 5'9 livewire was easy to love. And loved him Boston did.
On the other side, Irving wasn’t looking at Boston as his destination. His wishlist included San Antonio, Minnesota, Miami and New York. None of them seemed like a particularly good trade though. Irving is probably too much of a hothead to be a Gregg Popovich kind of player, Minnesota had already made their blockbuster trade when they brought in Jimmy Butler, and Miami and New York would surely be too big a step down for a man who has been to the last three NBA Finals.
But in the end a deal was struck. Irving moved to Boston. In exchange, Cleveland picked up Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the rights to the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 first-round pick.
Kyrie Irving > Isaiah Thomas
If you look at it as a one-for-one deal where Irving and Thomas swap teams, there is no question that Boston come up trumps. While both are heavy-volume scorers who can create their own offense but struggle on defense, Irving is the bonafide superstar while Thomas has just come into his own. They both were drafted in the same year with Irving being the first pick and Thomas the last. It is a testimony to how much Thomas has overachieved that we can talk of them as major components of the same trade but he is still not at Irving’s level.
Irving burst into the league and was almost immediately counted amongst its best players. He won Rookie of the Year in his debut season and is a four-time All-Star in his six seasons in the league. He has dipped below 20 points per game only twice in his career. During the same time, Thomas made the All-Star team twice and hit 20 points per game in just three seasons. Quite frankly, Thomas has only had two monster seasons, and amazing though they might have been, they are not proof of consistency.
Further, Thomas is three years older than Irving and will be 29 next year. He makes up for his lack of size with impressive athleticism but once that tapers out in his 30s, it’s difficult to see what will remain. He also takes a lot of hits while getting to the basket and his injury record does not exactly inspire confidence. It is quite possible that Thomas’ best basketball might already be in the past.
On the flip side, Irving is in his prime at 25 and pretty much guarantees All-Star seasons for the next three years. He also relies more on his ball handling, which degrades at a much lesser rate with age. And his style of finishing at the rim is much less abrasive than Thomas’ as he almost glides through opponents and finishes from all sorts of angles (his reverse layups in particular allow for lesser contact). And lest it be forgotten, this is the man who has scored at will against the Golden State Warriors in the last three Finals.
He is also almost half a foot taller than Thomas and should he actually care to up his defense, he has the physical tools to do it. Thomas on the other hand, as The Ringer puts it, "could only guard bigger and taller NBA players if someone gave him a broomstick."
The other components in the trade
Luckily for Cleveland though, the deal netted things apart from Thomas too. Crowder is a solid 3-and-D player who will give James some much needed rest on defense. The second-round pick has significantly upped his numbers in the last two seasons and his defence plugs a hole that was exposed in the Cavaliers last season. Zizic is at best a rotation player and his value in the trade is minimal.
The first-round pick however is an interesting part of the puzzle. It is an unprotected first-round pick which originally belonged to the Nets. The Nets are not winning the NBA anytime soon but they are a team on the up with pretty good point guard (D’Angelo Russell) and significant experience (Timofey Mozgov, Trevor Booker and Allan Crabbe) around him. They are by no means guaranteed to be the worst team in the league and the pick could become a whole less valuable if the Nets play anywhere close to their potential.
Cavaliers got a lot of ifs, Boston got a perennial All-Star
There is a universe where Boston manage to keep Thomas and still sign Irving and Hayward. And that is the trade which would match up Kevin Durant joining the Warriors. Alas that was not to be. But while many have declared the Cavaliers as the winners of the trade, it is in fact Boston who have come up trumps. The Cavaliers have gotten a lot of ifs in the trade. If Thomas plays at last year’s levels, if Crowder’s defence is as good as promised, if Zizic amounts to anything at all, if the pick ends up in the lottery and so on.
Boston got Irving. Once he is integrated in the system along with fellow new signing Gordon Hayward, it could be the start of something special. Hayward is one of the better two-way players in the league and can light up games on his own. Then there is this year’s No 3 pick Jayson Tatum, passing big Al Horford and last year’s No 3 pick Jaylen Brown. Coach Brad Stevens has issues to solve — shoring up the defence after the departures of Crowder and Avery Bradley, assimilating Irving's isolation plays in the system and sorting out rebounding — but if he can make this roster work, the Celtics might just visit the NBA Finals this year.
Updated Date: Aug 24, 2017 18:18:51 IST