Danny Ainge has waited very patiently — too patient, for most Boston fans — but the Celtics’ president of basketball operations finally cashed in A-plus trade assets Tuesday to pull off a blockbuster deal for Cleveland Cavaliers superstar guard Kyrie Irving.
The Celtics will send All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas, forward Jae Crowder, rookie center Ante Zizic and the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first-round draft pick to Cleveland for Irving.
But this trade is more about what the Celtics didn’t give up.
Ainge was able to keep his last two No. 3 overall draft picks — Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum — out of the deal. Brown has the potential to be an elite perimeter defender and substantially improved his 3-point range since his freshman season at Cal. Tatum was heralded as the most polished scorer in the 2017 draft class, and he dazzled at the offensive end throughout the summer league.
Today’s NBA is all about swingmen — perimeter players who can score and defend at a high level. The Golden State Warriors have three of the best in Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Cleveland still has LeBron James, and the San Antonio Spurs have Kawhi Leonard on the wing.
Now the Celtics have Brown, Tatum and newly signed Gordon Hayward on the wings, in addition to a top-10 NBA player in Irving and a very good center in Al Horford.
Sure, giving up the Nets’ unprotected first-round pick is a bit of a gamble. It could end up being the No. 1 pick, but the 2018 class is not as deep or talented as the 2017 group, and Brooklyn made moves this offseason to improve its roster. The Nets still will be bad, but they certainly aren’t a lock to be the league’s worst team.
Another positive in this deal for Boston is the Irving-for-Thomas swap at point guard. At 25, Irving is three years younger than Thomas and signed for two more seasons, with a 2019-20 player option.
Thomas, meanwhile, can become a free agent next summer, and he’s coming off a tough hip injury that forced him to miss the last three games of the C’s 2017 Eastern Conference finals against the Cavs.
Irving also has averaged 25-plus points per game in each of the last two playoffs, and his 3-point shot at the end of Game 7 in the 2016 NBA Finals essentially sealed Cleveland’s first championship. He’s a proven playoff performer.
The Celtics, in this trade, have positioned themselves as arguably the best team in the Eastern Conference and a legitimate threat to give the defending champion Warriors a real test (Golden State clearly remains a superior team, though) in a potential NBA Finals matchup. They’ve also maintained their long-term flexibility by keeping Brown, Tatum, Marcus Smart, the 2018 Los Angeles Lakers’ first-round pick and other quality assets.
Ainge waited a while to pull the trigger on a huge trade. He found the right moment Tuesday.
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