When Kyrie Irving's trade request from the Cleveland Cavaliers went public last month, it was all but expected. At 25, the rising basketball star wanted to grow beyond LeBron James' shadow on the court. But of all the teams to trade with, few expected the Cavs to hand one of the NBA's most important players to their biggest rival in the Eastern Conference – the Boston Celtics. Unless there was a very good reason for doing so.
The Cavs needed a succession plan for LeBron James. And in return for Irving, they got three players (the Celtics' Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic) and a first-round pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. While it's less starpower, the trade ensures – regardless of James' decision next season – the team will continue to compete and quickly rebuild if necessary.
Isaiah Thomas is also an incredibly similar player to Irving. He's a shoot-first point guard who can create his own shot and space on the floor. In Jae Crowder, the Cavs filled a need for the type of 3-point shooter and defender they'd need against the Warriors. Together, Thomas and Crowder provide a volume scorer in the backcourt to replace Irving and a 3-and-D wing to complement LeBron James. It's a combination the Cavs need to get to the NBA Finals next season without Irving.
The Cavaliers acquired future assets in 20-year-old Zizic as well as Brooklyn's 2018 first-round pick that is expected to be in the lottery of the upcoming NBA Draft. In the event that LeBron James and Isaiah Thomas leave the team next summer, they will give the Cavs stability to rebuild immediately. And if James stays with the team, they can flip the 2018 first-round pick for another proven star or add a promising young rookie to their core.
Ironically, the Celtics' acquisition of Irving is in some ways, the greater gamble. As gifted a scorer as Irving is, he has yet to prove he's capable of being the Number One option on a contender team. The Cavaliers were a much better team with him on the court, but Irving still struggled when James was on the bench. (For example, last season the Cavs were outscored by 8.0 points per 100 possessions when Irving played without James. On the other hand, they outscored teams by 4.6 points per 100 possessions with James on the court and Irving on the bench).
Yet Irving's track record shows that now is an optimal time to invest in him. He spent his earliest NBA years on one of the worst teams in the league and then played on a team built entirely around the strengths of James. Now that he's won an NBA championship and learned from James, Irving has the potential to become a true, standalone superstar on the Celtics. Thomas' noted transformation under the guidance of Celtics head coach Brad Stevens last season also bodes well for Irving, who will play alongside two All-Stars (Gordon Hayward and Al Horford), who can compensate for Irving's lack of playmaking.
Overall, the trade benefits both teams. The Cavaliers got a three-player succession plan for their team-carrier, LeBron James. And the Celtics got a young star, poised to come into his own on the court. But how those players actually react to these opportunities, as with any trade, can only play out in real-time. And with both teams competing in the Eastern Conference, they'll each bear witness to which team actually got the better end of the deal.