I did not write about the Isaiah Thomas/Kyrie Irving trade the night the story first broke because I felt too close to it as a fan of Isaiah Thomas. In two and a half seasons, he became the most universally popular Celtics player among casual Boston sports fans–more so than Paul Pierce–since Larry Bird. Personally, I wrote about Isaiah in his relatively brief tenure almost as much as I have about David Ortiz, Tom Brady, and Patrice Bergeron, three titans of the City of Champions era that Boston has been enjoying since February of 2002.
I did not write about the Isaiah Thomas/Kyrie Irving trade in the week that followed, as the teams first acknowledged the trade on their various social media profiles, but then the trade did not get finalized right away. The Cleveland Cavaliers were skeptical of the integrity of Isaiah Thomas’ injured hip (a concern that admittedly did not get talked about enough once the Celtics’ season ended) and asked for more assets to complete the trade. It was not a one-for-one swap of two star point guards to begin with: the Celtics also gave up Jae Crowder, Ante Žižić, and the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 1st round draft pick, the last unrealized asset from the Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett trade to the Nets in 2013. To complete the deal with Cleveland’s concerns about Thomas’ hip, the Celtics also had to add a 2020 2nd round pick from the Miami Heat.
I did not write about the Isaiah Thomas/Kyrie Irving trade after the trade was finalized, and after the Celtics held their introductory press conference with Irving and free agent signing Gordon Hayward. While I understood that it was a huge trade, and objectively a good trade that will help the Celtics in the long run, I was not sure I could bring anything else to the table that had not already been said in the week between when the trade reported and when it became official. That said, I do have quite a few thoughts on the matter, and I have been writing about the Celtics in this space since the days of Pierce, Garnett, Doc Rivers, and Rajon Rondo, and if I never write about it, then why am I writing about basketball at all?
Bill Simmons pointed out on various podcasts that trades like this hardly ever happen. Two conference rivals, the two Eastern Conference finalists from 2017 just swapped point guards. The last time contenders of this caliber traded players of this caliber within the same conference was in 1980 when the Phoenix Suns dealt Paul Westphal to the Seattle SuperSonics for Dennis Johnson. But with the looming threat of LeBron James’ free agency next summer, these were desperate times for Cleveland. And with the looming threat of having to sign a guy under six feet in his late 20s with an injury history to a maximum contract, Boston was acting from a point of desperation in its own right.
I wrote in the spring about my worry that Isaiah would get the Malcolm Butler treatment from the Celtics, and in September, Butler is (for now) still a member of the Patriots, and Isaiah has been dealt. My worry was the Boston Sports Media would use any success in the Eastern Conference Finals after Isaiah went down with his hip injury to take him for granted and put the ball in motion towards running him out of town. I was admittedly emotionally attached to Isaiah, but I really did think he could be one of the three stars on a championship team. I did not think the Celtics would be able to get anything in return comparable to Isaiah, considering the asking prices at the deadline for Paul George and Jimmy Butler, and later, given the returns Indiana and Chicago got for George and Butler when they traded them during the summer. Of course, I thought all of that before I knew Kyrie Irving would be available.
In Irving, the Celtics landed another dynamic point guard who can score at will, but while both are injury-prone, Kyrie is taller and younger. Some have argued that the Celtics were not able to land a player who has proven he can be the best player on a championship team, but the only players who fit that description are LeBon, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and Kawhi Leonard that are still in their prime (sorry, Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki), but Kyrie is the next best thing. He performed well in the Finals against Golden State, and even though he already has a ring, seems eager and poised to win outside of LeBron’s shadow.
The Celtics turned over their roster a lot for a team that was just in the Eastern Conference Finals. For some context, the Celtics had six players from the very bad 2006-07 team (Pierce, Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, Brian Scalabrine, Leon Powe, and Tony Allen) that contributed to the 2007-08 championship team, while they now only have four players (Al Horford, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and Jaylen Brown) left from three months ago. For even more context, the Bruins currently have six players (Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, David Krejci, Brad Marchand, Adam McQuaid, and Tuukka Rask) left form their 2011 Stanley Cup team, and they won the Bruins won the Cup six years ago! Danny Ainge knew the Celtics were still far off from where they wanted to be, and he made the moves he needed to make if they wanted to move forward. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward might not be enough to get past the Warriors, but they have certainly narrowed the gap between them and Cleveland, with Cleveland’s future in jeopardy beyond 2018.
It’s really incredible how quickly Danny Ainge rebuilt the Celtics going out with a whimper against the New York Knicks in 2013. They only went into the lottery once with their own pick, made the two biggest free agent signings in franchise history, and got good returns in trades for Pierce, Garnett, Rondo, and Thomas. While the post-Kobe Lakers continue to toil in the lottery, Ainge reminded everyone that he is one of the best GMs in the game. A decade after bringing Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to Boston, the Celtics have reloaded once again. He made a move I could not have made (and that’s one of a hundred reasons I don’t run the Celtics), and improved the team’s championship odds, and expanded their championship window.
While I have my doubts about how quickly the Celtics will come together early in the season–I would not be surprised if they go through early struggles like the 2010-11 Miami Heat–the long-term future of the team is much brighter and clearer than it was even six months ago. From a local perspective, the NBA season got a lot more interesting.
When LeBron James infamously “took his talents to South Beach” in the summer of 2010, it was the biggest sports story of the year (in a year with Tiger Woods’ sex scandal and the Giants’ first World Series victory since moving to San Francisco more that half a century earlier, no less) for all the wrong reasons. When LeBron James decided to back the the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team that drafted him and played in his home state of Ohio, in the summer of 2014, it was the biggest sports story of the year for all the right reasons. James is still the best player on the planet, as he was four years ago, but now he has two championship rings, two more MVP awards, and has grown up immensely since ripping Cleveland’s collective heart out on ESPN the way he did. This changes everything.
When LeBron did The Decision, it set a bad precedent for the NBA. Small markets like Cleveland had a short windows to win championships because star players would just leave when they hit free agency. If LeBron, a native of Akron, Ohio, wouldn’t stay in Cleveland, who would? During LeBron’s four years in Miami, the Cavs never made the playoffs, and earned the #1 overall pick three times. LeBron is now returning home, but there is more talent on the roster now than when he left it. He can be the veteran leadership the Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins need, but those guys are good enough that he won’t have to do it all on his own. It’s about time things started to look up for Cleveland.
Even before LeBron went to Miami, Cleveland was a sports punchline in this country. They have not won a championship in any sport since the Browns were NFL Champions (before the Super Bowl Era) in 1964. The Indians last won the World Series in 1947, and the Cavaliers have never won it all. Bill Simmons popularized the phrase “God hates Cleveland” in his columns, and not even the futility of the Chicago Cubs or the Buffalo Bills could top the city of Cleveland. The only time the Cavs got close was in 2007 when a much younger LeBron James took a Cavs team that had no business being there to the NBA Finals, only to get swept by the San Antonio Spurs, the most dominant and most complete team of the current NBA era.
A big part of why LeBron left wasn’t just because the weather was warmer and the taxes were lower in Florida, but in Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, James would have the opportunity to play with consistent All-Stat caliber players for the first time in his career. Basketball stars may have the most impact on a team’s success than individual players in any other sport (including quarterbacks in football, but with the possible exception of hockey goalies in certain cases), but even the biggest stars can’t do it alone. It’s still a team game. Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippin, and later Dennis Rodman. Magic Johnson had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. Larry Bird had Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Nate “Tiny” Archibald, Dennis Johnson, and Bill Walton as Hall of Fame teammates on championship squads. Tim Duncan had David Robinson, currently has Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, and Patty Mills and 2014 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard could very well be in the early stages of Hall of Fame careers as well. LeBron had no one like that in Cleveland for his first seven NBA seasons. The Cavs were one of the most poorly run organizations in basketball who got bailed out by their superstar every year to save face, and I’m still shocked that ex-Cavaliers GM Danny Ferry ever got another front office job (sorry, Atlanta Hawks fans).
Now, LeBron is coming back to make things right. He’s showing the kids of northeast Ohio that it’s not just a place to leave and never come back. He’s finishing what he started where it all began. Nothing like this has ever happened before in basketball, and I’ve been struggling to to find a comparable situation in the other sports. I superstar leaves in free agency, but goes back to the same small market where he started out while he’s still in his prime? The never happens. I’m also thrilled that he’s leaving Miami as much as I’m thrilled he’s returning to Cleveland. For four years the Heat acted like they were this innovative basketball powerhouse with a proud history because of their current success. That team could have happened anywhere, but Dwayne Wade was already in Miami, and he got James and Bosh to join him. Also, their fans were really lame. What kind of hard core fan base leaves early in an NBA Finals game when the team is down by five points, only to have Ray Allen drain a three to force overtime in front of a half-empty arena. Cleveland may not be a basketball town the way Boston or New York or Los Angeles or San Antonio is, but they’re still great fans. They keep showing up for the Browns every year. That takes dedication. LeBron is one of the ten best players in NBA history on anyone’s list, and the Cleveland fans will appreciate him more than Miami ever could.
More than anything else, the Re-Decision has fundamentally changed the way I view LeBron James. I can’t think of an athlete as established as LeBron having public opinion sway this much this late in their career for the better. Usually when there is a change of opinion this dynamic, it’s something like Lance Armstrong’s doping downfall or O.J. Simpson’s murder trial or Pete Rose’s gambling revelations, but this time LeBron changed the narrative on us, and it’s a good thing. The King is coming home, and we are all witness.