last night, the Boston Celtics traded Isaiah Thomas to the Cleveland Cavaliers along with Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the 2018 Brooklyn Nets pick for Kyrie Irving and in doing so they not only broke my heart, they also got further from their dream of another championship. It is a strange result to come out of an obvious go-big trade but there is no way to really come to any other conclusion.
In discussing the utter nihilism of this terrible deal in my more personal reaction, I wrote this after enumerating the joys of Isaiah Thomas’ 2016-17 season-
“You don’t trade that easily. You certainly don’t trade that for a minor upgrade with an extra year of control.”
And that is certainly true. It is hard to imagine Red Auerbach looking at Larry Bird’s 1985-86 season and thinking, “hey that was a great season Bird just had, maybe we can deal him for Wilkens.” But what you really, really, never do is trade the kind of player who brings that one-of-a-kind-history-in-the-making-season to the table along with another chip-on-his-shoulder grinder, an international prospect and a projected top-5 pick for a guy who isn’t happy on a team that contends for the title every season, the very team that you can’t get passed in your conference and who now has that insanely-driven King-in-the-Fourth guy your fans love so much playing next to the best player in the game. When you do that, you lose in every possible way there is to lose.
The fan thing I wrote about in my first piece on this deal is fickle. I get that. Sure, Isaiah Thomas, IT4, King in the Fourth, titles, titles, titles… was a fan favorite, but fans don’t stick with guys who don’t perform and he was beaten to a pulp in the playoffs and too close to thirty to be worth the max deal it would take to keep him a year from now. We are all adults here. But while most of the basketball world* believes that Kyrie is superior, the cold hard numbers are not so sure. Win Shares prefers IT’s best seasons over Kyrie’s. By Box Plus-Minus, Thomas has been slightly better than Kyrie over the past three seasons. Irving hits three’s at a slightly higher percentage and has a serious advantage in assists, but Thomas is actually better per-100 possessions and has played a bigger role on worse teams without the advantage of Lebron James as a possible assist target. I’ll buy that Irving is slightly better and that being younger, he is a better bet long term, but the deal is just two years for one. With that reality in mind, it is impossible to see how Thomas-plus-Crowder doesn’t far out value Irving alone. Add in Zizic and the 2018 Nets pick and the math becomes unwinnable for Boston.
*Including Danny Ainge, apparently
The losing math on the trade might matter less if the deal wasn’t being made with the team that stands directly between the Celtics and any chance at the right to lose to the Warriors in the Finals. Adding IT to Cleveland is just about the worst thing Boston could do right now. As things stood, Boston was entering the season with a new star, a top draft pick and all the trade-deadline-buying power on earth. The Cavs were dealing with a team that wasn’t on speaking terms, had a star demanding a trade, no cap space and no tradable assets. Now they have replaced a malcontent with an equivalent player who runs on disrespect and just got his BALCO-grade B12 shot of the stuff, added a tough three-and-D guy, a rookie big and an asset they can trade at the deadline for just about anything available. I’m really going to enjoy watching Isaiah go for 40 on the Celtics for four games in the Eastern Conference finals while Crowder shuts down Hayward and LeBron just laughs at Kyrie and “his own team as they get swept.” Good stuff. Well worth it.
There is a theory I have that I call the Pujols-Pedroia Principle. It is basically this: when you are a star player and you can choose between leaving for a huge payday or staying with the team that you became a star with for a slightly smaller payday, it is usually correct to stay where you are. Doing this has two major advantages. First, you keep all the good will you have earned over the years on your way up and second, your deal is recognized as a sacrifice, making you seem more noble in your decline and earning you the kind of slack that money just can’t buy. This Celtics deal necessitates the inverse of this theory. Let’s call it the IT-Irving Imperative. This rule says that if you are choosing between a player that you have, that you know and that your fans love and revere, and a similar player worth slightly more (be that value in contract, age, etc), you must pick the player you have because failing with him is righteous while only extreme success can justify going against your own guy.
We are familiar with the consequences of violating the Pedroia-Pujols Principle. It is easy to imagine what Alex Rodriguez’s narrative might have been if he stayed in Seattle for less money or how much more grace would have been given to Pablo Sandoval in the Bay Area instead of the Back Bay. Teams don’t do what Danny Ainge has done that often. For one thing, there aren’t that many chances to do so. But really, it is because the calculus of front offices includes the IT-Irving Imperative. The best GMs know they are better betting on the devil they know. Danny Ainge has forsaken that convention and gone to an extreme with this deal. Only winning big will justify it. He doesn’t have the numbers on his side here, which makes this deal particularly hard to swallow in light of how much IT4 meant to Boston these past three seasons.
It is possible that the Celtics will win this deal, but it isn’t likely. For a GM who has been so patient and calculating, this move is a shock. For a fan, it is mostly just a slap in the face.