By Jason Keidel
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It’s quite rare that a big trade between NBA teams — particularly those including All-Stars — benefit both clubs. But in the case of this blockbuster deal between the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers, that’s precisely what happened, which is the goal of every exchange of hardwood talent. So kudos to both clubs.
But since we only view sports through the vivid prism of victory and defeat, we are urged to take a side. And while it’s trendy to say the Cavaliers got the best of Boston, they did not.
The Celtics won this deal.
We can talk about depth and draft choices, but the stark truth is that Boston traded its best player from last year and got a better player for this year. Not only is Kyrie Irving superior to Isaiah Thomas, he’s also three years younger.
To the Cavs’ credit, they didn’t get hosed, which is almost always what happens when you trade a perennial All-Star. But there’s a difference between win-win and no one really loses. And another truth is that LeBron James could leave Cleveland after this season and could be followed by Thomas, which would leave the Cavs with no stars and a draft pick. Thus the Cavs would go back to being a 20-win club, which they were before James was drafted and then again during his extended spring break in South Beach.
Not only did Boston get the best player in this deal, the Celtics will enter 2018 with Irving, Al Horford, Gordon Hayward and hot prospect Jayson Tatum. Cleveland could be a last-place franchise by then.
There’s one caveat, of course. And that is the first-round pick the Cavs got in the deal. If that pick — which Boston got from the Brooklyn Nets — turns out to be a franchise-caliber player, then Cleveland can lay claim as the trade’s winners. Especially if they can convince James to stay home and extend Thomas a couple years.
It’s a bit silly and myopic to declare a clear winner before the participants play a single game with their new teams. But that’s what we do — project our hopes, experiences and, occasionally, an objective metric to the world. A trade can’t be measured like an NBA game, with a clear victor and vanquished.
But the general measure of any big sports trade is who got the best player. With all due respect to Jae Crowder and Ante Zizic, this deal revolves around the two premier players, Thomas and Irving. Oklahoma City got Paul George, who is better than any player the Indiana Pacers got. The Rockets got Chris Paul, who is better than any player the Clippers got.
And there’s a reason the Knicks — the most inept team in team sports — balk at trade talks involving Kristaps Porzingis. Even a team as dumb and dysfunctional as the Knickerbockers knows there’s greater value in a young star than an older star and a few role players. In fact, you could argue that for all of Irving’s splendor and playoff pedigree, the Knicks were well-served not trading Porzingis for the all-world point guard.
There’s merit, value and victories in drafting a great young talent and keeping him, in smoothing out whatever troubles sprout from inside the locker room or front office. Porzingis has already blown off the brass and made overtures about his future, which may not include the Big Apple. And the Knicks better listen. It’s time to get their Latvian Unicorn back in the fold, get him paid and keep him happy.
Irving was bashed for his desire to leave the Eastern Conference champions, for wanting to get a fresh start somewhere else, for spreading his personal and professional wings. In other words, for doing exactly what James did seven years ago and may well do again in 10 months.
We’ll see if it works. But it’s hard to blame Irving for trying his version of upward mobility, and harder to blame Boston for welcoming him.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel