The NBA world was turned upside down Friday afternoon following an ESPN.com report that indicated Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving had requested a trade last week. The four-time All-Star averaged a career-high 25.2 points per game in 2016-17, and Boston fans saw firsthand how lethal of a scorer he can be in the Eastern Conference Finals back in May.
Irving carved up the Celtics defense over five games by shooting 62 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point range during the 4-1 series win. Despite having one of the best individual defensive guards in the league in Avery Bradley, Boston simply had no way of slowing down Irving consistently, especially in Game 4 when he scored 21 of his game-high 42 points in the third quarter of a 112-99 comeback win by the Cavs.
The type of elite shot-making on display in that game will undoubtedly create plenty of suitors for Irving in the coming months if the Cavs elect to grant the point guard’s wishes and move him out of the shadow of LeBron James. While there’s plenty more to say about Irving’s request and the motivation behind it, for now we’ll focus on how this affects Boston. Will the Celtics make a run at him? And if not, how might Irving’s future affect Danny Ainge’s plans for the Celtics for next season and beyond? Let’s try to make sense of the particulars of a complex situation.
What’s Irving’s contract situation?
The 6-foot-3 guard is about to begin the third season of a five-year contract. In today's market, Irving will be underpaid for the next two years, earning $18.6 million in 2017-18 and $20.1 million in 2018-19. He also has a player option for 2019-20 of $21.3 million, which he will surely decline to become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2019 if he remains healthy. Irving will have eight years of experience in 2019, making him eligible for a max contract starting at 30 percent of the salary cap.
Should and will the Celtics take a run at him?
It would be silly for Boston not to inquire about one of the best isolation scorers in the league. There are few point guards in the league right now that would be an offensive upgrade over Isaiah Thomas, but Irving would arguably be one of them, particularly in the playoffs. He has averaged 25 points per game for the last two postseasons and has done so with incredible efficiency (41.5% 3-point shooting in playoffs on 5.7 attempts per game). It’s easy to look good when you have LeBron playing alongside you, but there’s no questioning Irving’s shot creation in crucial spots. Thomas is an elite scorer and had a better regular season than Irving last year, but the Cavs guard has a better track record in the postseason, in large part thanks to a half-foot height advantage.
Boston is not on Irving’s preferred list of potential destinations, but that shouldn’t really prevent Ainge from checking in. Irving doesn’t have a no trade clause, so his preferences should mean little to Cleveland at this point. The Celtics would have the talent to win the East right away if Irving came into the fold, and teaming up with Gordon Hayward and Al Horford instead of James and Kevin Love should give Irving a little more of the spotlight he reportedly seeks. With Horford already 31-years-old and Hayward under contract for the next three years, the Celtics need to be inquiring on any star that’s available. Even if it’s just an upgrade on one of their current ones in Thomas.
What would the cost be for Irving in a trade?
It’s one thing to want the Celtics to inquire on Irving. It’s another to find a trade package that would make sense for both sides in a hypothetical swap. Irving makes $18.6 million and the Celtics only have two players on their roster (Hayward, Horford) earning more than $6.7 million next season, making the trade math tricky for Boston from the start. Here's what Ainge would have to work with from a money standpoint.
Celtics eligible to be traded now
Al Horford: $27.7 million
Jae Crowder: $6.8 million
Isaiah Thomas: $6.2 million
Marcus Morris: $5 million
Jaylen Brown: $4.96 million
Marcus Smart: $4.5 million
Terry Rozier: $1.99 million
Celtic rookies that are eligible to be traded 30 days after signing rookie deal
Jayson Tatum: $5.65 million
Guerschon Yabusele: $2.25 million
Ante Zizic: $1.65 million
Semi Ojeleye: $1.34 million
Abdel Nader: $1.17 million
Celtic free agent signings that aren't eligible to be traded until midseason
Gordon Hayward - $29.7 million
Aron Baynes - $4.3 million
Daniel Theis - $815,615
Shane Larkin (unofficial, likely for league minimum)
A logical offer for Irving would start with Thomas ($6.2 million). Top 5 picks like Brown and Tatum aren’t going to be offered with an All-Star like Thomas in a deal (unless it's for Anthony Davis), so cross them off the list. Adding Crowder ($6.7 million) or Morris ($5 million) to the mix would get the Celtics a little shy of the required $13.6 million combined salary needed to send to Cleveland to make the trade work under NBA salary cap rules ($5 million within Irving’s $18.6 million salary). Ainge would need to throw in at least one more player to make the salaries match for both sides.
One of the non-Tatum rookies could also be included to match some of the salary, but it’s unlikely the Cavs would be looking for younger players like Zizic or Yabusele if they still hope to contend with LeBron next season, unless a third team was getting involved. Any of Boston’s five rookies could technically be traded 30 days after signing their contracts (they all did at various times in the last month). Free agents signed this offseason can’t be traded until December at the earliest, which takes Hayward, Baynes, Theis and Larkin off the table in any summer discussions.
The question the Celtics will need to grapple with when putting together any offer is this: How much better does Irving makes them as a team if it comes at the cost of an All-Star and another key rotation piece? That's probably what it is going to take to make the money work. Crowder is still one of the best value contracts in the NBA, earning an average of $7 million per year through 2019-20. Morris is a huge bargain at $5 million per year for the next two years. Affordable role players matter in the NBA, especially for a team that will be facing the luxury tax for the foreseeable future after next season. Whether it's Thomas or another star, the Celtics will probably be paying three players (Horford, Hayward, Player X) close to $85-90 million in 2018-19. In order to be a true championship contender, you need to fill out the rest of the roster with cost efficient pieces.
Giving up a Thomas/Crowder/rookie-type package for Irving is certainly a defensible move, but hardly a no-brainer from Boston’s perspective. The same goes for a Thomas/Morris/Rozier offer. Those are high prices to pay when you look at what other stars (Jimmy Butler, Paul George) have fetched on the trade market in the past two months. Does an Irving/Hayward/Horford core get you past a Thomas/LeBron/Love team in Cleveland next year? I still don’t think the Celtics will be favored in that matchup if they are also down a key rotation piece like Crowder or Morris. I also highly doubt that a Irving/Hayward/Horford trio will ever get past the Warriors juggernaut if they do advance to the NBA Finals and that's ultimately what the goal is here for the franchise.
All of this speculation doesn’t account for a number of other dynamics that will be in play here as well. Will Cleveland even be willing to trade Irving to a rival? Would Irving be happy in Boston sharing the limelight with Hayward? Would he be willing to re-sign in Boston past 2019? Is an Irving/Hayward/Horford core financially feasible from a team building and contending standpoint when they will all be making max money in two seasons? Would the Cavs even want to trade for Thomas, knowing they would have to pay him big money to keep him long-term after his deal expires next season? All of these moving parts here that make any hypothetical Irving swap between Boston and Cleveland a long shot at best.
What’s the domino effect for Boston of a Irving trade?
If an Irving trade fails to materialize in Boston, watching this situation play out from the sidelines may still end up being the best move for the Celtics. A LeBron-led team without Irving suddenly looks a bit more vulnerable when you consider the damage that Kyrie has done to Boston in head-to-head matchups. The Cavs could certainly find a top-line point guard replacement for Irving in a deal elsewhere, but it’s hard to find a player in the league that has regularly given Brad Stevens more fits than Irving in the past few seasons.
The Cavs could try to ride things out with a disgruntled Irving, fully knowing LeBron might be out the door at the end of next season. Then, it would be Irving's team in theory. But that’s a risky scenario for them as well when you consider that the point guard could walk for nothing in the summer of 2019. Either way, it’s hard to imagine this Cavs team having both LeBron and Irving in the picture beyond next season, and that’s good news for the Celtics. With a war chest still full of young assets and future draft picks still in place, Ainge can watch and wait for the Cavs to take a step back and face one less obstacle before making a strong push all-in towards contending.
All salary information via Basketball-Reference.com
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