Out of nowhere, Isaiah Thomas and Kyrie Irving have swapped uniforms. It's a shocking trade for both sides, although there will be plenty of upside for both teams. The upside is money.
The Boston Celtics have traded Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the 2018 Brooklyn pick in exchange for Cleveland Cavaliers star Kyrie Irving. Yes, this is real life.
The Celtics built their entire team, hell, their entire culture around Isaiah Thomas. Why was he shipped out so soon? Does having one of the greatest offensive seasons of all time not justify giving him a max contract? While it all comes as a shock, there are two key upsides for Boston.
1) Irving is only 25 years old.
2) Irving has three years left on his contract (a third year is a player option).
Had Isaiah Thomas been signed to a super-max next summer, the Celtics would have FAR more money invested in their starting lineup. During the 2019-20 season, Irving is owed about $21 million, a steep hike from the $6 million Thomas is making this year, but also much less than the $30+ million the super-max would pay him. For comparison, Stephen Curry will be making $40 million in 2019-20. Emotionally, this trade stings my soul, but it has some objective benefits.
Jae Crowder, also on an unbelievably team-friendly contract, has shipped out. What is the upside there? My glass-half-full take is this: Crowder’s defense has regressed and the Celtics simply have too many forwards. Over the last two seasons, his defensive rating jumped from 102 to 108, and his defensive box plus/minus dropped from +1.3 to +0.2. The most important statistical change, in my opinion, was 126 steals recorded in the 2015-16 campaign dropping to 73 steals in the 2016-17 season. Crowder was never an all-around defensive savant, but I certainly had him tagged as a steals specialist for years to come, with his instinct to invade passing lanes for easy picks.
In losing Crowder, Boston forfeits their leader in real plus/minus. His 3.89 RPM was 20th in the league. It’s not a stat you can put much weight in when you consider that Amir Johnson was 21st, but it hurts to lose players that will almost inevitably be positive influences on the floor every single game.
The real kick in the pants for Boston is giving up the unprotected 2018 Brooklyn pick. I’m surprised that Boston would part with it, but with Thomas still possibly hampered by a hip injury, I think it meant that Boston had to pay a hefty price to get the deal done. With Boston’s situation of competing now and building for the future at the same time, I think it becomes inevitable that any player being traded will look like a key piece is being lost. It would be near impossible for a trade to resemble a win-now and a win-later move simultaneously.
And finally, Ante Zizic. He was decent in the summer league, but clearly not ready for the NBA. He’s an absolute hulk in size, but still slow, clumsy, and obviously very young. He’ll find his way, but I don’t see him keeping up with the pace of today’s NBA with his current stamina.
Cleveland likely got the better end of the deal, but I could be convinced that Boston, once again, could come away as the sneaky winners. If you consider that they may have let Thomas walk next summer, you could frame the trade as just Crowder, Zizic, and the Brooklyn 2018 pick for Irving. The impending contract negotiation for Thomas is now a bridge Celtics GM Danny Ainge will no longer have to cross.
Now if you’ll allow me to sound like a broken, sobbing, dejected record for a second - The NBA is a business. Cash rules everything, and sometimes you need to end the folk hero story in exchange for financial stability.