By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Danny Ainge’s most rabid critics attack the Celtics president of basketball ops. for placing too much value on his collection of assets, and for his unwillingness to part with those pieces.
With one single move, those no longer apply. He went above and beyond on Tuesday night, paying a high price to acquire an all-world talent.
Ainge shipped the face of the franchise, one of the team’s grittiest players, a promising young big man and a potential No. 1 overall pick to their biggest hurdle in the East on Tuesday night, landing four-time All-Star Kyrie Irving. In sending Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and an unprotected 2018 Brooklyn Nets pick, Ainge has completely transformed the franchise.
It’s a heavy price to pay, no doubt. An extremely steep one when the Cavaliers had to trade a disgruntled Irving, who wants to be the man and not LeBron James’ sidekick. But it’s an overpay you make when you grab an absolute stud like Kyrie Irving.
The Celtics got the best player in the deal, a 25-year-old cold-blooded assassin who can put the basketball in the hoop like few others. He can hit big shots when they matter most. He can get to the hoop like only a select few humans on this earth can. He’s younger than Isaiah Thomas, and he’s signed for three years (the final year for the 2019-20 season is a player option for $21.3 million). The Celtics now own Irving’s Bird rights for when he’s due a new contract, and can pay him more than any other team. By all accounts, he’s psyched to be a Celtic and would be open to a long-term deal.
The trade isn’t perfect by any stretch. The Celtics paid a premium for a player who wanted off of a team that has been to three straight NBA Finals. He just so happens to be a little nuts and has a knack for getting dinged up, too. But he’s an all-world talent, and now he’s wearing green (he’ll wear No. 11, the same number his father wore during his career at Boston University).
There is no doubt Trader Danny took a gamble on this move. Gone is Isaiah Thomas, the face of the franchise, the heart and soul of a team that just won 53 games and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals before being trounced by the Cavaliers. It’s clear Ainge didn’t want to give Thomas a max contract after this summer, committing upwards of $30+ million to a 5-foot-8 guard who has a lot of miles on that little body and is just 18 months from 30 years old. Isaiah embodied everything you wanted from a Celtics player, evident from his playoff run while dealing a bad hip and a family tragedy.
Jae Crowder, as frustrating as he was at times, is no slouch either. He’s a solid defender and was a leader in the locker room, and will be great fit for a team like Cleveland. In the Brooklyn pick, Ainge is banking on Brooklyn being better this season, and the ping-pong balls not bouncing in their favor for a second straight summer (ESPN projects the Nets to be the fourth-worst team in the NBA).
There’s also a giant question mark on the defensive end and in terms of the Celtics’ chemistry, with only four players returning from last year’s 53-win squad. This will be Brad Stevens’ biggest test, getting talents like Irving, Gordon Hayward, and others to mix together while living up to some high expectations, and it’s likely going to take some time in the early part of the season. Come February, there will be no more excuses about a lack of star talent on the Boston roster. They have the stars and they should be back in the NBA’s final four again, if not better.
The Cavaliers still have LeBron James, so they are still the best team in the Eastern Conference next season. There is no real debate about that. But the playing field is a little more level, and after next season, if (when) LeBron takes his talents elsewhere, the Celtics are in a prime position to pounce on Eastern Conference supremacy for years to come.
The price Ainge paid for Irving was a hefty one. It’s hard to stomach the departure of Thomas, and parting ways with that Brooklyn pick will cause some indigestion throughout Boston if the Nets are once again one of the NBA’s worst teams.
But Ainge sold high on four of his assets, bringing in the star player the Celtics have needed, and one who will make the team better next season and much better further down the line. It’s a gamble, but one that was worth making.