Why the Kyrie Irving-Isaiah Thomas deal wasn't 'ever in real danger'

Kyrie Irving works against  Isaiah Thomas during a game last November. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

Nine days after word of the blockbuster trade between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics first leaked, and it’s finally official: Kyrie Irving is headed to Boston, with Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 first-round pick Cleveland-bound. A week’s worth of bellyaching over Thomas’ injured hip threatened to scuttle the deal, but the inclusion of a 2020 second-round pick late Wednesday night was enough to satisfy Cavs officials.

It’s a good thing, too. For days, Boston officials wondered what the Cavs were up to. The Celtics believed they had been above board with Thomas’ hip, sharing all relevant medical data, and made Cleveland fully aware that the injury that ended Thomas’ season in the middle of Game 2 of the conference finals could cause him to miss the start of this one. Boston had zero interest in sweetening the offer with another first-round pick, much less coveted prospects Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum. If the Cavs didn’t come down from those demands, league sources told The Vertical, Boston was ready to walk away.

They did, and isn’t that good for everybody? The Cavs don’t have to re-open the Irving trade talks and hope that someone comes forward with a better offer. It’s hard to see it. The Cavs get an All-NBA point guard to replace Irving, a defensive-minded small forward in Jae Crowder, a potentially serviceable big in Zizic and a high lottery pick if they have to reboot this whole thing a year from now. Nobody, not Milwaukee, not Phoenix, not Minnesota, was offering something better, and the Cavs knew it.

“I don’t think this deal was ever in real danger,” a rival team executive who had contacted the Cavaliers about Irving in recent weeks told The Vertical. “Isaiah’s hip might have scared them a little, but [Cleveland] wasn’t blowing this up.”

Boston didn’t want to lose this deal, either. Trading Thomas was painful. He was a beloved figure, both inside the organization and out, as much responsible for Boston’s remarkable rise to the top of the conference standings as president Danny Ainge or coach Brad Stevens. Thomas came to Boston midway through the 2014-15 season as an overachieving sixth man. He leaves two-plus years later as an All-NBA point guard with a top-five MVP finish in his pocket and well-earned status as one of the NBA’s best fourth-quarter players. What Thomas did last spring, flourishing in his first extended postseason run while dealing with the tragic death of his younger sister, Chyna, stands as one of the most inspiring postseason performances in NBA history.

Yet the NBA is a cold business, and in recent weeks Boston was relentless in its pursuit of Irving, one of the NBA’s premier point guards. As much as Boston loved Thomas – and make no mistake, it would have paid him a hefty annual salary next summer – it may be selling high here. A healthy Thomas is still an All-Star, but is he a consistent All-NBA player in a league steeped with talented point guards? It’s doubtful Boston would have blinked at a $30 million-plus annual salary, but the idea of paying Thomas that over four or five years made more than a few people in the organization nervous.

Isaiah Thomas’ season ended in the Eastern Conference finals last season. (AP)

Surrendering the Nets pick hurts – R.I.P., Nets pick era in Boston, by the way – but the Celtics were not getting Irving without it. Fears over LeBron James leaving next summer are real – some in Cleveland are flat-out expecting it – and the Cavaliers wanted to be sure they were in a position to draft the next franchise player to build around. Easing Boston’s pain here is a sneaking suspicion that Brooklyn may not be league-worst bad next season. The Nets added some pieces, have no reason to tank and play in the JV conference. That first pick the Cavs are hoping for could be fourth or fifth – or lower.

Irving is a brilliant talent. At 25, he is three years younger than Thomas, and the two years he has left on his contract give Boston time to sell Irving on the franchise long term. There’s a strong belief Irving is in this for the long haul. He has expressed excitement about playing for the Celtics, a league source told The Vertical, and Boston believes leading a storied franchise deep with talent will be appealing.

Irving isn’t flawless, but suggestions that he’s a chucker, that he’s selfish, that he can’t win without LeBron James on the floor will fall on deaf ears in Boston. The Celtics see a stone-cold killer in Irving, a souped-up version of Thomas who will thrive in the countless pick-and-rolls Stevens draws up for him. Al Horford’s presence will help keep the ball moving while Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart are solid secondary ball-handlers who double as willing passers. Two rival coaches told The Vertical that the Celtics are now clearly the best offensive team in the conference.

The Celtics have unflinching faith in Stevens here, too. The core of a 53-win team has been gutted; 40 percent of that starting lineup will wear Cavaliers jerseys next season. Yet Stevens has proven adept at incorporating new pieces on the fly and has a strong track record for maximizing players’ strengths – with Thomas and Crowder standing as evidence.

The Celtics shouldn’t have any illusions: The Cavs are still the class of the conference. If Thomas is close to what he was last season, the offense shouldn’t skip a beat and the addition of Crowder gives Cleveland another defender to deploy in Warriors-Cavs IV next June. Boston may be Cleveland’s heir, but it likely won’t take the throne next season.

Still, this was a no-brainer. Hoarding draft picks is fun, but eventually you have to do something with them, and even with the loss of the Nets’ pick, the Celtics still have a deep well of assets to trade if another superstar (see Davis, Anthony) becomes available. They have two All-Stars in their 20s, a former All-Star in his early 30s and a pair of compelling young forwards with the talent to develop into stars.

Boston will forever be indebted to Thomas for how far he took them, but dealing him was a necessary step to help them get a little further.

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