Last night, the Celtics traded Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic(!), and the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick for Kyrie Irving. I have a lot of thoughts that I’m having a tough time organizing, but as a Celtics fan I need to come to terms with – and eventually love – this deal for my team. If I want the Celtics to win another title, I have to be good with this trade. So, let’s talk me into it.
The #1 thing you need to keep in mind with this trade – and this is something I have been saying for years (in person, not here – I don’t think I’ve ever published a basketball post) is that the Isaiah Thomas Celtics were (“are”) a bridge to a championship team, not a championship team themselves. The intent of this rebuilding process, which started with the infamous Brooklyn trade for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, was to build a young, long-term, championship-caliber team. That is a very difficult concept to accept when your team is good and not 76er-ing their way into that young core. It is a much less difficult concept to accept when you are Danny Ainge, and you scripted this plan, and you know that you need to strip emotion from the equation to get to that place.
That’s what is holding me (and I assume a lot of other Celtics fans) back this morning from absolutely gushing about this deal. I knew that bridge was still just a bridge in my head, but Isaiah stole all of Boston’s hearts, and we wanted him to be there on the other side of the bridge as part of the future-champion Celtics. He’s an icon in Boston. He’s a tall tale. He was a legend in the making. Unfortunately, because of how good Isaiah became over the last two seasons, he wrote himself out of that script. He could never be the best player on a championship team, for a number of reasons that smart basketball people will write about – his size, his inability to play defense, his hip, etc. – but as a free agent in 2018, he is going to command the money a team would usually pay its best player. That equation would mean a ton of happy fans, but maybe zero championships. Unacceptable for Celtics management.
Buying into Isaiah for the long-term would mean the Celtics saw him as a championship-caliber point guard 2-3 years from now. They didn’t. I don’t know exactly why they didn’t – some combination of those items I already listed, plus also some smarter things – but they didn’t, and Celtics fans have to trust that. This is the Celtics now. This is the Celtics core they intend to use to win an NBA title. With Kyrie, they have a guy who is supposedly yet to hit his prime, rather than Isaiah, who probably already had the best season he will ever have. Who knows if those concepts will pan out, but those are the narratives I have to roll with.
Back to that timeline…2-3 seasons from now. The bridge ends 2-3 seasons from now. Heck, it may even end this season. The players that made up that bridge – Isaiah, Jae, Al Horford, Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, Kelly O’Buckets, Evan Turner, Jonas Jerebko, Jared Sullinger, Rajon Rondo, Brandon Bass – are nearly all gone now. They did their job, and because of Brad Stevens, they did it all too well.
The remaining few players from the bridge years are intended to get the Celtics a championship (I assume…but they could trade Marcus in an hour for all I know). What you are looking at now with the Celtics is a championship-caliber team. Will they win the title this season? Highly doubtful. Will they be the best team in the Eastern Conference from 2018-2021, and maybe even beyond that? I’d say they’re in pretty great position for that.
This Celtics team 2-3 years from now could have 5 or 6 All-Star caliber players. That is objectively insane. They’ll have enough talent to match the Warriors, and more than enough to topple the Cavs in the East, with or without Lebron. Right now the Celtics have 3 All-Stars in Kyrie, Gordon Hayward, and Horford. They think Marcus Smart still has a shot to be one. They feel a lot stronger that Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are on their ways there. If those two develop into the players they are expected to become, the Celtics may end up running the East for the next decade, which is just a few years after Kyrie will be past his prime, and maybe past his time as a Celtic.
Okay now I’m pretty excited for the Kyrie era.
The bridge was more entertaining than it was supposed to be, more competitive than it was supposed to be, and as fans we all got caught up in that and thought maybe this team could compete for more than just a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals. Heck, I’m still caught up in it. I won’t think this was a good trade until the Celtics win a championship.
I want Isaiah Thomas to be a Celtic. I want Jae Crowder to be a Celtic (partially out of fear). I want the Celtics to still have their 2018 Nets pick, which could end up being the #1 pick again. I don’t really know what to feel about Ante Zizic, but I spent a bunch of time getting hyped up for him, so sure, I want him, too. But they’re all gone now. The Celtics are probably better for it, as dirty as that feels to say. I’m going to be sad about Isaiah not being a Celtic for a while, but I’ll keep coming back to that – the Celtics are probably better without him, especially in the long-term.
All that said, I don’t want to lose sight of the most important thing about this trade. Kyrie Irving is an unbelievable talent that consistently looks like a god who descended to earth and decided to play basketball because he saw the human race is doomed anyway so why not just have fun? What he can do – what he will do – on the court for the Celtics will make this a lot easier to swallow in a very short amount of time. I have been rooting against Lebron for like, a million years now, and Kyrie made it really, really tough to root against the Cavs in the playoffs. He is 25 years old. He is a 4-time NBA All-Star with a championship-winning shot under his belt. (Do you know how little I had accomplished by the age of 25?) It’s going to take me a little time to get comfortable with losing Isaiah and Jae, but they have one of the most unique talents in the NBA now, and once I get over this hump I’m going to get super jacked up to see him in green.