Tim O’Sullivan: Making sense of the Boston/Cleveland blockbuster

  • Celtics General Manager Danny Ainge has reshaped the Boston roster that finished as the East’s No. 1 seed last season. AP file

  • Kyrie Irving (left) is guarded by Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry during the first half of Game 3 in the NBA Finals in Cleveland. Irving will be a Celtic this season after Tuesday’s stunning blockbuster deal. AP file

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Even with a full day to digest it, Tuesday night’s blockbuster trade is still stunning. Maybe repeating the details like a mantra will make it less shocking – Kyrie Irving is coming to Boston, Isaiah Thomas is headed to Cleveland along with Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and one of Danny Ainge’s golden assets, Brooklyn’s 2018 first-round pick.

Nope, that didn’t do it. The trade is still a stunner.

Let’s start with the fact that teams which have met in the most recent conference finals, like Boston and Cleveland just did, have never traded players in the following offseason, according to Elias Sports. Regardless of what happens in the future, this trade is already historic.

Quickly comprehending the deal is also tough because, for now, there is no clear-cut winner and loser. The Celtics upgraded their point guard position with a better, younger, bigger and healthier four-time All-Star, NBA champion and Olympic champion who is only now coming into his prime. Irving makes the Celtics better now and given his age, just 25, he will make them better in the future.

The Cavaliers also set themselves up for now and later. They moved a player in Irving who was demanding to be traded and still managed to land Thomas, a Second Team All-NBA pick who just led the conference in scoring and can join LeBron James and Kevin Love in Cleveland to form a new Big Three, which is practically a prerequisite for winning a title these days. Plus, the Cavs acquired a draft pick that will probably be near the top of the lottery and can be part of a rebuild if James decides to leave Cleveland after this season, which many think is a foregone conclusion.

As a Celtics fan, I like the trade. Cavaliers fans should be feeling the same way.

But there’s no denying the shock waves, many of which come from the heart, at least on Boston’s end. The city embraced Thomas and he embraced it back. Young Celtics fans adored him and he adored them. He played with the grit and spirit that Boston loves, a feeling that multiplied when he played through tragedy this spring.

Thomas made us jump out of our seats with his performance. He made us cry tears of sympathy after the death of his sister. It was a truly remarkable combination, and it’s truly remarkable that a few short months later he was traded.

Still, Ainge was right to pull the trigger. Irving is a clear upgrade.

Yes, Thomas’s numbers last season (28.9 points per game, 46.3 field goal percentage, 37.9 3-point percentage, 5.9 assists per game, 2.7 rebounds per game) were slightly better than Irving’s numbers (25.2 ppg, 47.3 FG, 40.1 3-pt, 5.8 apg, 3.2 rpg). But remember, Thomas was the focal point of the Boston offense while Irving was playing second fiddle to James. Plus, Thomas was playing for Brad Stevens, a coach considered by most to be among the best in the league. A coach known for making his players better and putting them in the absolute right spots. Irving was playing for Tyronn Lue, who doesn’t have any of those reputations.

And Irving has been doing this for years. He has career averages of 21.6 ppg, 5.6 apg, 45.7 FG and 38.3 3-pt. Those numbers are all a tick better than Thomas’s has career averages of 19.1 ppg, 5.2 apg, 44.3 FG and 36.7 3-pt.

There’s also playoff performance to consider. Thomas’s production and efficiency dipped in the 2017 postseason (23.3 ppg, 42.5 FG percentage, 33.3 3-pt percentage). Maybe that’s because he was hurt, but maybe 5-foot-9 point guards who draw lots of contact are bound to be hurt come playoff time. Or maybe it’s because 5-9 point guards have a harder time producing in the postseason when teams have extra time to scheme and defenders are extra motivated. Either way, it was a concern.

Irving’s scoring went up slightly in the 2017 playoffs (25.9 ppg). His shooting numbers dipped (46.8 FG, 37.3 3-pt), but only slightly. And he’s proven that he can deliver in the highest pressure situations with titles on the line. He didn’t just hit a championship-winning shot in 2016, he hit a championship-winning shot in the face of the two-time MVP (Golden State’s Steph Curry) to beat a team that had just won the most regular-season games in NBA history (73) and deliver a title to a city that hadn’t won one in 52 years.

Not only is Irving three years younger than Thomas, he’s also signed for two more years. Thomas was probably going to want maximum money to re-sign with the Celtics after this season, and maybe Ainge didn’t want to spend that kind of cap space on an extra-small player with an existing, and scary, hip injury. It would be hard to blame him.

While Crowder helped revive Boston’s fortunes and was a key to the team’s hard-nosed identity, his departure feels like addition by subtraction. Now his minutes can go to Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, young talents who need playing time to have the best chance of reaching their respective ceilings, which are rather lofty. Not to mention the hard feelings Crowder may have been harboring for the newly-signed Gordon Hayward, who was cheered in Boston while wearing a Utah uniform, much to Crowder’s disgust.

Losing the Brooklyn pick is also difficult for some Boston fans to digest. But the Nets will likely be better this year than they have in the past, so that pick could be in the 5-10 range as opposed to 1-4, like the last two Brooklyn picks Boston used. Giving up the unknown commodity pick was better than trading the known commodity Brown, who flashed tantalizing potential last year, or Tatum, who already looked more advanced than Brown, albeit in summer league.

It will take time for Boston to adjust to Irving, but the 2017-18 Celtics were already going to need adjustment time. Even before this trade the team had lost nine players from last year’s roster and brought in new faces like Hayward and Marcus Morris.

By the end of the season, however, expect the new-look Celtics to be back in the Eastern Conference Finals, where they will likely be facing Thomas, James and the Cavs. Maybe the shock will have worn off by then. And with Irving, 27-year-old Hayward, 20-year-old Brown and 19-year-old Tatum in the fold, it would be shocking if deep playoff runs don’t become an annual tradition for these Celtics.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20)