In a mega deal, the Boston Celtics sent Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the Nets’ 2018 1st round pick for Kyrie Irving. I will break down this deal piece by piece:
Kyrie Irving vs Isaiah Thomas
These two players are near doppelgängers in the regular season, as they are both efficient scorers who give back much of their goodness on defense. But there are a few key factors in Kyrie’s favor that make him more attractive to the Celtics:
–Being the #1 pick vs Thomas’s #60, he has more natural talent that a coach like Brad Stevens may be able to help realize
–He is a bit more than 2 years younger and under team control for an additional year
–He has a stronger track record in the playoffs and clutch moments
–He is not coming off hip surgery
How much can Stevens help Kyrie?
The Celtics must believe Kyrie will explode under Stevens’ tutelage, as he already brought out the best in Jordan Crawford and Isaiah Thomas. And it is reasonable to expect some uptick, but how much upside is there?
Kyrie has been the same player for his 6 year career in Cleveland, and playing alongside LeBron he wasn’t leaving a bad situation. He has always struggled with passing and defense, and even if those improve slightly under Stevens it is difficult to envision those weaknesses going away entirely. And the shortest player on the floor cannot be elite without subpar passing and defense.
Further, it’s not like he is surrounded by a perfect cast of defense and shooting to maximize his scoring. This is especially true since they traded their best 3 + D player to acquire him.
In Boston’s favor, this is the most slippery aspect of the trade. Kyrie is outlier elite at creating his own offense efficiently, and his instincts are not broken. I was super high on him pre-draft, and he has been consistently above average without ever playing for a good coach ever since his 19 year old rookie season. He is still 25 and has some untapped potential, so there is some realistic chance he blossoms into a true star playing for Brad Stevens.
That said I wouldn’t bet on Kyrie being a top 5 PG next year, as he will likely remain inferior to Curry, Paul, Westbrook, Harden, Lowry, and Wall.
But He’s Clutch!
Kyrie’s isolation scoring ability tends to translate well to high leverage situations, and he has more potential to play competent defense in tense moments than Thomas who is 6 inches shorter. But in his 6 years with Cleveland, the Cavaliers overachieved at end games by a total of 3 wins, i.e. half a win per year. This is a nice tick to have but not overwhelmingly significant.
Further, the Celtics are left with a cast that has no prayer of winning a finals, let alone against a team like the Warriors. So whatever extra degree he has in the playoffs is hardly relevant as the base talent is not good enough to be a clutch play or two away from a championship.
At Least The Celtics Do Not Need To Max Isaiah
Giving Isaiah Thomas a big contract next offseason would have been a disaster, as he is not great now and speedy 5’9″ players do not age well. But Boston was never required to do so– they could always let him walk or trade him without including elite assets.
They only get 1 additional year of Kyrie under team control (at the cost of $33M extra since IT is discounted at $6.3M for 17-18), and then will need to offer him a max contract to keep him. That is not a favorable deal for Boston. He will not be a top 5 PG or top 25 player, and the Celtics will commit nearly $100M to Kyrie, Horford, and Hayward, which is a good but not great trio. They will likely not be able to add any meaningful pieces, and may have to let some current useful pieces go. Thus they are all in on their current personnel, which is not championship caliber.
How much more valuable is Kyrie?
Kyrie is an upgrade over IT in a handful of small ways, that collectively add up to a decent but not exceptional margin. Now let’s analyze the price paid:
There is an underlying assumption that Jae Crowder cannot be as good as his elite RPM suggests, as multi-year RPM rates him as the #21 player in the NBA. It is plausible that he is merely the 30th-60th most valuable player, but he is nevertheless very good:
–He can rebound and defend multiple positions well
–He moves the ball and avoids mistakes, with an excellent 1.8 assist:TOV ratio during his Boston career
–He has developed into a good shooter and is an efficient shot maker from 2, 3, and FT
–Advanced stats have ALWAYS suggested he is wildly underrated– from his college career to the draft to his Maverick days. It’s not like his RPM is a recent fluke.
Crowder’s sole weakness is that he cannot create a high volume of offense, so his strengths are less perceptible to casual fans. And while he is not a franchise centerpiece, the teams involved already have the necessary centerpieces.
When you factor in that he is wildly underpaid at $7M/year over the next 3 years, when he should be making $20M+, he is the ultimate asset for contenders. He fits perfectly within a star cast while tying up minimal payroll and flexibility.
Even if he comes in a less sexy mold, Crowder is similarly valuable to a contending NBA team as Kyrie Irving. And he will cost slightly more than a quarter of the price over the next 3 years. In this vein, his less attractive mold is more of a feature than a bug.
IT and Crowder on their own for Kyrie would be a bad trade for the Celtics and a good trade for Cleveland.
But Wait, There’s More!
The Celtics also gave up the Nets’ 2018 first round pick! There are ways to look at this as selling high on the pick. It is plausible that the Nets are much better than last year, and that this year’s draft class is much less hyped in a year by the time the draft rolls around.
A significant % of the time, this pick will fall in the #3 to #8 range and be used on a non-star.
But that is a the DOWNSIDE of the pick. High lottery picks are still valuable assets, and if it is a #1 or #2 pick and one or two of Doncic, Bagley, Ayton, or Porter performs better than expected, this suddenly is an elite asset that waffle crushes the value of Kyrie on his own.
It is more likely that the pick is merely a good asset than an elite one, but they are adding it to a deal that is already losing. Even if it was top 2 protected it would be an awful inclusion, the fact that they are selling some non-trivial % of monster upside is indefensible.
Also Ante Zizic was included for some reason. He didn’t look great in summer league, but he didn’t look awful either. He looked like a late 1st round pick who may be decent or may not be, but either way he is under cheap team control for the next 4 years and is a useful flier when loads of money are tied up in three players. There was no reason for the Celtics to include him when they were already crushing all other offers against a team with no leverage, but they did.
Where Does This Leave Both Teams?
The Cavs looked like they were doomed with LeBron likely to leave, but this rejuvenates everything. Crowder gives them a ray of hope vs. Golden State this year, and the Brooklyn pick is an excellent asset that can append the run and possibly entice LeBron to stay. If I were the Cavs, I would try to line up the best trade available and tell LeBron that it will be executed if he opts in for 18-19.
Meanwhile the Celtics are left with 4 above average players for ’17-18: Kyrie, Hayward, Horford, and Smart. And none of these players are top 20 stars, so even with a great coach like Brad Stevens optimism should be tempered.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown will be 19 and 21 this year, and neither are ready to be positive players this season, nor are they guaranteed to ever be. Tatum has star potential but it is unlikely he will carry a franchise on his own, and Jaylen Brown will be fortunate to peak as an above average NBA player.
I would guess the Celtics are building for 2020-21 when Tatum is 22, Brown is 24, Hayward is 30, Kyrie is 28, Smart is 26, and Horford is off the books. LeBron will be 36 and past his prime, and the Warriors may be vulnerable by then. And frankly things *COULD* work out for them at that point, as they get a few years where the beginning of Tatum + Brown’s prime intersect with the tail end of Kyrie + Hayward’s.
But why they would want to commit to 28 year supermaxed Kyrie 3 years in advance at the cost of an inferior current product, a possibly elite pick, and extremely limited roster flexibility over the next few years is beyond me. Danny Ainge normally trades well, but he completely bungled this deal and set back the franchise while possibly saving the Cavaliers from their imminent doom.