Danny Ainge Fleeces Yet Another General Manager

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MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - DECEMBER 03: Isaiah Thomas (L) of Boston Celtics struggles for the ball with Rajon Rondo (R) of Sacramento Kings during the NBA Regular Season basketball game between Sacramento Kings and Boston Celtics at the Mexico City Arena on December 03, 2015 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Manuel Velasquez/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

After much commentary, opinions, and gasbaggery, it appears the NBA landscape is settling post the recent trade between the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers. While difficult, this article attempts to take yet another look at the Irving trade to the Celtics. In this version, Danny Ainge fleeces yet another general manager. The victim: rookie Cavaliers general manger Koby Altman.

Danny Ainge Fleeces Yet Another General Manager

Trade Recap

Yahoo’s NBA Insider Shams Charania broke the news of this blockbuster on Tuesday afternoon. In what could only be described as peculiar, the top two teams in the Eastern Conference engaged in a transaction involving two of their premier players. At the heart of this deal are Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas. In a bit of irony, the first player selected in the 2011 NBA draft (Irving) was traded for the last player selected in that draft.

A Brief View of the Stars

Irving is a highly decorated young star, blossoming into a superstar. Just 25 years old, Irving is a phenomenal success. He is a former Rookie of the Year, a four-time All-Star, All-NBA selection, NBA Champion, and finally Olympic Champion. Irving was drafted first overall after playing only eleven collegiate games for Duke University.

Thomas’ career path, on the other hand, showed a bit more meandering to it. After being selected 60th in the draft by the Sacremento Kings, Thomas finished seventh in Rookie of the Year voting. Thomas moved to the Phoenix Suns (after a sign and trade transaction) where after one year, he was traded to the Boston Celtics in 2015. As a Celtic, Thomas flourished under coach Brad Stevens. He was voted to the All-NBA second team, in addition to being a two time All-Star in Boston.

This trade sent shockwaves through the sports world. Many claim the Cavaliers won the trade. Several say the Celtics won this trade. Both opinions are ultimately useless analysis, as the purpose of a trade is not to win or lose but to improve one’s team. On one hand, the Cavaliers got rid of a disgruntled player while filling holes on its roster. On the other, the Celtics avoided a very tough decision in whether to pay an amazing yet flawed, diminutive player a king’s ransom. However, this trade was about Celtics General Manager Danny Ainge schooling his rookie counterpart Cavaliers Koby Altman.

Brooklyn Nets Draft Pick

As all Nets fans will scream, “The Nets are going to surprise many this season”. In this, the last debt to be paid from that ill-fated Billy King trade, the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round draft pick belongs to the Celtics. While many believe the Nets struggles will continue in the foreseeable future, many basketball luminaries like their trajectory thus far.

The Nets under general manager Sean Marks quietly improved its roster. With the acquisition of D’Angelo Russell, and Allen Crabbe together with draft selection Jarrett Allen, the Nets got younger and more talented. Add to that mix, the development of Caris LeVert, Isaiah Whitehead, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Perhaps most important, the oldest three players on the Nets roster are Jeremy Lin, DeMarre Carroll and Timofey Mozgov each younger than 32. This Nets team showed last season they are willing to outmatch their opponent’s effort to counter their own talent shortfall.

What does it all mean? The Nets are not expected to have the worse record in the NBA next season. While the ESPN Summer Forecast has the Nets finishing tied for 14th in the east, LeVert and Lin have more lofty aspirations. During an Instagram question and answer session in Taiwan Lin said, “We’re making the playoffs. I don’t care what anybody else says to me.”  Levert at a recent event said, “Last year, we were like top seven in the East when we had all our players healthy. Just building off that momentum with the pieces we’ve added — obviously we lost a great player in Brook [Lopez] — but I feel with the pieces we’ve added we’ll be in that conversation.”

Lin a devout Christian obviously believes the biblical scripture Proverbs 23:7 which stated: “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he”. Self-belief is often overlooked, but it’s the final ingredient to success. This young Nets team shows that belief and as a result, expect to perform with a desire and confidence that borders on lunacy.

Furthermore, the Nets pick won the draft lottery last year, so logically the chances of it repeating are slim. Given the current trade market where the Oklahoma City Thunder acquired Paul George from the Indiana Pacers for a second-year player and a salary dump, this Nets pick depreciates daily. With each Nets victory in the 2017-18 season, the Brooklyn Nets pick loses value, therefore Ainge chose to “sell high”.

Isaiah Thomas

In Brad Stevens, the Celtics have arguably one of the most astute coaches in basketball. Following Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, LeBron James spoke of Stevens.

“Yeah, like I say, we game planned — because their series went to [Game] 7 we game planned for both teams, and they’re a different team when IT (Thomas) is — I won’t say a different team, they run different things just because of IT being a huge piece of the puzzle for them offensively. So they had to kind of reshape, and that’s the beauty of having Brad Stevens as your coach. You’re able to reshape what you do offensively and still be in a good rhythm. It’s been challenging for us to kind of — plays out of time-out, kind of been killing us on ATOs [After Timouts] and keeping us off balance, but in the second half we kind of got a little bit of rhythm, and think we’ll be better in Game 5.”

Remember this was the game after Thomas was ruled out due to his hip injury. Questions remain about that injury. Celtics General Manager said the following when questioned about Thomas’ hip playing a factor in the trade. “Some. There’s gonna be probably a little bit of a delay for Isaiah as he starts the season this year, but I think that Isaiah should be fine and healthy as the season goes along.”

There is also the matter of Thomas’ impending free agency. In the 2017-18 Thomas is entering final year of his contract. Thomas made no secret of his financial expectations. At a 2016 summer league game in Chicago, Thomas said: “They better bring out the Brinks truck. They’re paying everybody else. I gotta get something.” Thomas did not shy away from those statements.  “I deserve it. I put the work in, and you can put me down against any guard in the NBA. … My numbers are up there with the best players in the world, and my team is winning. So, I mean, you have to reward that.” 

Thomas is listed at 5’9, which means he’s the shortest starter in the NBA. As an offensive presence, Thomas is lethal. He finished third in the league in scoring while leading the league in fourth quarter points. On defense, Coach Stevens strategically shielded Thomas. Thomas seldom guarded the opponent’s point guard.  Some suggest his very high usage rate inflated his numbers. In short, while all say Thomas is talented, his rise is due largely to Brad Stevens’ genius.

Whoever Gets the Best Player Wins the Trade

This is where things become muddled. Within this factor lie other factors, one huge one in particular. LeBron James. James remains as the league’s preeminent player. He has aided several players in their ascension up the pecking order. Remember, Matthew Dellavadova? J.R. Smith was no more than a court-jester before playing with James. Irving believes that he can lead a team. Well maybe so, however Thomas with James is a scary proposition. Added to the addition of swingman Jae Crowder as part of the deal and Cleveland may have gotten the better end of this transaction.

However, as ESPN analyst Lee Corso often says, “Not so fast my friends.” Irving’s age is a huge factor. He’s 25, while Thomas is 28. Also, Irving’s career achievements dwarf’s Thomas’ to this point. On the biggest stage, Irving showed all a fearlessness that greats like Jerry West, Rick Barry, Ray Allen and Michael Jordan provided when the championship was at hand. Thomas is yet to get to the biggest stage.

Salary Cap Implications and Team Wage Flexibility

Then there’s a matter of the contract situations. As mentioned earlier, Thomas is heading into the final year of his deal. However, Irving is under contract for the next two seasons at a relatively below value figure.

Altman and the Cavaliers made this deal in part to have a contingency in place if James leaves the team after next season. The Cavaliers in receiving Crowder also get a three and D player, which they badly need. The noticeable decline of Iman Shumpert, as well as the age of Richard Jefferson, was on full display throughout the playoffs. Crowder alleviates that issue. Crowder’s defensive abilities make it possible for him to match-up against any position from point guard to power forward.

Ainge and Celtics see this move as a necessary one, as they attempt to push for Conference dominance and a shot at the NBA Finals. Ainge showed earlier in the off-season a reluctance to have players on the last year of their deals. Remember, Ainge traded Avery Bradley to the Detroit Pistons rather than keep him in his final year. The addition of Al Horford in 2016, along with the prized get of Gordon Hayward this off-season mean Ainge was possibly looking at having to let a talented young player exit the team for nothing. Instead, this way Ainge swapped Thomas for what many believe to be a superstar (in Irving) at the expense of Crowder, Ante Zizic and potentially high draft pick. Not a very high price to pay if one believes Irving is a superstar.

Celtics Keep Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum

Most notably, the Celtics made this deal and kept prized young assets Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum. Brown continues to impress the Celtics immensely as he enters his second NBA season. Speculation is rife that Brown starts at guard alongside Irving this season. Bradley and Crowder in no small part because Ainge believes that Brown is a future star.

Remember when the basketball universe was certain the Celtics would select Markelle Fultz? That was three months ago. Ainge obsessed with draft picks traded down the draft board with Philadephia for the rights to third overall pick and a future first rounder. Ainge chose Tatum. Tatum began repaying this faith in the Summer League where he impressed.

Conclusion

Danny Ainge did it again. The Boston Celtics have a new version of the “Big Three”. This off-season, Ainge made the conscious though risky decision to dismantle a team that won. Of the 2016-17 roster, only four members remain. The team consists of young players, and the front office have even more assets to garner talent as needed. Consider this, in two years Marcus Thornton and a Cleveland first round draft pick landed Kyrie Irving to the Celtics. ESPN’s Stephen A Smith was correct when he said: “Danny Ainge is playing Chess, while everyone else is playing Checkers.”

Kudos to Altman, who saved face in this deal as well. Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and a presumed lottery pick for a talented yet flawed star is not a bad turnover. Should James leave Cleveland, the cupboard isn’t bare this time.

 

Main Photo:

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO – DECEMBER 03: Isaiah Thomas (L) of Boston Celtics struggles for the ball with Rajon Rondo (R) of Sacramento Kings during the NBA Regular Season basketball game between Sacramento Kings and Boston Celtics at the Mexico City Arena on December 03, 2015 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Manuel Velasquez/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

 

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