In a trade that shakes up the Eastern Conference, the Cleveland Cavaliers dealt point guard Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics on Tuesday for a package including point guard Isaiah Thomas and a 2018 first-round draft pick. Irving had requested a trade last month, and with LeBron James also possibly leaving the team next year, the Cavs made a move aimed at both short- and long-term interests.
Irving, who has been with the Cavs since they made him the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft, will be joining the team he helped defeat in May’s Eastern Conference finals. In addition to Thomas, the Celtics are sending forward Jae Crowder, center Ante Zizic and the Nets’ 2018 first-rounder, The Washington Post confirmed.
“Kyrie is one of the best scorers in the NBA,” Celtics president Danny Ainge said. “He has proven that on the biggest stage, the NBA Finals, the last three years. He’s been an NBA Champion, an Olympic Gold Medalist, and a four-time All-Star. For all he’s accomplished, we think his best years are ahead of him.”
The 2012 NBA rookie of the year and a four-time all-star, Irving is considered one of the most gifted offensive players in the league. Last season, the 25-year-old averaged a career-high 25.2 points, adding 5.8 assists while helping Cleveland reach its third straight NBA Finals.
Thomas, 28, blossomed in his second full season in Boston, following stints in Sacramento, which made him the final pick in the 2011 draft, and Phoenix. The 5-9 player averaged 28.9 points and 5.9 assists, and he gained particular renown for fourth-quarter scoring prowess as he was named to his second straight all-star squad.
Thomas became a favorite in Boston, just as Irving was in Cleveland, and more than a few Celtics fans are likely unhappy to see the diminutive star sent away. However, the Celtics were in a tricky position with Thomas, who is heading into the final year of his contract and could have demanded a multiyear extension with annual salaries of around $30 million.
Instead, the Cavs may be inclined to let Thomas walk away at the end of the season, especially if James makes it clear that he is doing the same. In the meantime, Cleveland should be able to compete for a fourth straight Finals appearance and a second championship with those two stars, a rugged veteran in Crowder, and talented holdovers in Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith.
“Isaiah and Jae have been a huge part of our success,” Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck said. “Isaiah’s playoff performance under very difficult circumstances will live on in history, and we wish them all the best.”
The Nets’ pick should land in somewhere in the lottery, even if Brooklyn improves this season, as expected. Also helping the Cavs lay the groundwork for the future is Zizic, a 6-11, 20-year-old Croatian taken 23rd in the 2016 draft, who showed great promise while playing in Europe last season.
Irving has three years and $30 million left on his contract, with an opt-out clause before the 2019-20 season. A New Jersey native, he reportedly hoped to be dealt to the Knicks, after also listing the Spurs, Timberwolves and Heat as his preferred destinations, but he reportedly agreed to waive his trade kicker to join the Celtics.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Irving was “thrilled” with the trade to Boston and has already indicated that the team will have a “great chance” to sign him to a contract extension. In making the deal, which came at a high price, Boston was confident it could get Irving to stay past his current deal, according to Wojnarowski.
Having signed Gordon Hayward in free agency earlier in the offseason, the Celtics will have a reshaped backcourt featuring the former Jazz star and Irving, with Al Horford, Marcus Morris and Jaylen Brown likely forming the frontcourt. Boston held the No. 1 pick in the draft, again via the Nets, and it passed on a chance to select an offensively talented point guard in Markelle Fultz by trading back to No. 3, where it took forward Jayson Tatum. The Celtics also picked up an extra first-round selection in the process, which will come from either the Lakers or the Kings and could be a top-five pick, if expectations hold.
“Isaiah embodied what it meant to be a Celtic,” Ainge said. “He captured fans’ hearts not only with his spirit, but his personality. Jae’s toughness was contagious for our team. He improved his skills each year, but it’s his energy and fight that will be remembered. We wish them and their families the very best.”
The Celtics and Cavaliers open the season in Cleveland on Oct. 17.