By Steve Lichtenstein
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Has there ever been an offseason of upheaval in any pro sports league like what has been going down all summer in the NBA? With these many superstars moving to new addresses?
Kyrie Irving is the latest to pack his belongings after getting traded from Cleveland to Boston on Tuesday in a megadeal featuring fellow point guard Isaiah Thomas. The Cavaliers also received wing Jae Crowder, Euro-stash center Ante Zizic and the rights to Brooklyn’s 2018 first-round draft pick, which the Celtics had acquired in the 2013 trade involving Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.
Irving and Thomas join Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Paul Millsap and Gordon Hayward among the 2017 All-Stars who will be wearing different uniforms this season. Oh, and Chris Paul, who is an All-Star in my book, was also traded this offseason.
Yet, with all these changes in the league’s decor, if you take a step back to look at the big picture, it changed … nothing.
The Warriors and the Cavs are still the prohibitive favorites to return to the NBA Finals for a fourth consecutive year.
The West may be wild, but it’s also predictable. No one is taking down Golden State this season. With two MVPs (Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry) in their primes, two subordinates (Klay Thompson and Draymond Green) who also happen to be All-Stars and role-playing veterans (Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, David West and Nick Young) who lined up to earn less money for a chance at a ring, the Warriors remain stacked beyond what any other team can configure.
And who’s going to knock off a healthy LeBron James in the East? The Cavs forward may be on the downside of a legendary career, but he breezed to his seventh straight appearance in the Finals last season. The conference has only gotten worse since.
The Celtics? They’re playing the long game with this trade, banking on Irving and free agent acquisition Hayward to still be the core when Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum — two prior gifts from the Nets — develop into primetime players.
In the meantime, coach Brad Stevens, as good as he is, will require at least a full season to integrate a brand new team. Boston has jettisoned all but four players from last season’s 53-win roster.
The Celtics are definitely more skilled, but they may have lost their identity in the process. Don’t underestimate the toughness and versatility that Crowder, who seems to be an afterthought in this deal, brought to Boston’s table every night. The same can be said for Avery Bradley, who was traded to Detroit in July for forward Marcus Morris.
The diminutive Thomas brought a certain mental toughness, but I’m not going to argue that Irving isn’t an upgrade. Irving does everything Thomas does well — handle the ball, shoot from distance and finish at the rim — even better. Both are notoriously subpar defenders, but Stevens was able to hide Thomas on defense the last few years, so I’m sure he has plans to do the same with Irving. Though they were in the same draft class (Irving was selected first overall while Thomas was chosen with the draft’s last pick), Irving is three years younger.
Thomas is still recovering from a hip impingement and labral tear he suffered during the playoffs. Celtics general manager Danny Ainge told the media Tuesday that “there’s probably going to be a delay for Isaiah as he starts the season,” which has been interpreted as an expectation that Thomas would be out at the start of training camp, and maybe beyond.
Thomas was also entering the final year of his contract and has made public his desire to get paid maximum dollars next summer. Irving, meanwhile, will be under the Celtics’ control for at least the next two seasons (he can opt out after the 2018-19 season) for a “reasonable” total of $39 million.
With all this uncertainty surrounding Thomas, Ainge can’t be faulted for pulling the trigger to get Irving. Even factoring in the other assets — including the Brooklyn pick — he had to surrender, Ainge seems to be playing chess. Looking into the future, Ainge may have thought that the Nets might not be so bad this year, devaluing the pick. Maybe he decided it wasn’t worth paying a 30-year-old with a questionable hip a contract in the neighborhood of $200 million starting in 2018. Irving is a proven champion — could the Celtics do better next year after failing to obtain George and Butler in rumored deals earlier this summer?
I’ve learned not to underestimate Ainge. Most of his moves, including those that were deemed questionable at the time, have panned out.
The problem, however, is that all these maneuverings won’t make any difference in the East this season.
Cleveland will also benefit from an injection of new blood. Thomas may be Irving-lite, but he is still quite capable of shouldering the offensive load on alternating possessions, giving James some breaks. On the other end, Crowder can similarly alleviate the need for James to guard the opposition’s top wing scorer.
The Cavs are locked and loaded for another showdown with the Warriors.
Sorry, folks. After a 2016-17 season marred by its inevitability, we were hoping this remarkable offseason would spread the good fortune around to other cities.
It won’t happen. Outside of Golden State and Cleveland, everyone else is still playing for second place.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1