LeBron James has had a stranglehold on the Eastern Conference for what feels like an eternity.
As a member of the Heat and Cavaliers, he’s been to the NBA finals the past seven years in a row.
But the latest NBA megadeal could mean King James’s reign is coming to an end.
The Cavaliers fulfilled Kyrie Irving’s wishes and traded him so he could be out LeBron’s shadow.
The Boston Celtics have acquired All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving from the Cleveland Cavaliers for point guard Isaiah Thomas, forward Jae Crowder, center Ante Zizic and Brooklyn’s 2018 unprotected first-round pick, the teams announced Tuesday night.
Irving, 25, requested a trade during a July meeting with Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert. At the time, Irving said that he wanted to play in a situation in which he could be more of a focal point and that he no longer wanted to play alongside LeBron James, sources said.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge noted the bittersweet nature of Tuesday’s trade.
“This has obviously been a roller coaster of a day for us, trading away Isaiah and Jae and Ante, especially Isaiah and Jae, who have been such a big part of our team and our success and our Celtic culture as leaders of our team. Very, very difficult day,” Ainge said. “At the same time, a very exciting time [to add] one of the best offensive players in the league.”
Ainge said that it was a very tough phone call to inform Thomas, who had emerged as the face of the franchise since he arrived at the trade deadline in February 2015.
Ainge also said the Celtics did their homework on Irving after his falling out with James in Cleveland and said Irving is “excited” to be joining the Celtics. Ainge also acknowledged that Irving’s price tag was high.
“It is a high price tag,” he said. “But acquiring a 25-year-old perennial All-Star, a player that fits a timeline for us and is a fantastic offensive player, one of the best offensive players in the league, you have to pay a heavy price.”
Pressed on the difficulty of giving up the unprotected Brooklyn pick, Ainge noted, “We valued it from the time we got it, and it’s still very valuable. Obviously, we value Kyrie more. It’s that simple.”
Irving has three years and $60 million left on his contract, but he can opt out of the final year before the 2019-20 season. The Celtics posted on Instagram that Irving will wear No. 11, as his familiar No. 2 is retired in Boston for Red Auerbach.
Thomas, 28, led the Celtics to the best record in the Eastern Conference last season, averaging 28.9 points and 5.9 assists over 33.8 minutes per game during the regular season.
Thomas has spent the offseason recovering from a right hip injury that kept him out of the final three games of the Eastern Conference finals. He opted not to have surgery.
Ainge said Thomas’ injury did play “some” into his making the deal. Celtics coach Brad Stevens said Monday that he is not sure Thomas will be ready for the start of training camp.
Thomas will become a free agent at the end of the 2017-18 season. He has said that he believes he’s worthy of a maximum contract.
The Celtics and Cavaliers open the season against each other Oct. 17 in Cleveland.
“Opening night should be interesting,” a Cavs player who requested anonymity told ESPN.
The Cavaliers may not be weakened in the short term–Thomas is a very capable scorer and Crowder gives them a rugged wing defender to throw at Golden State if they meet again in the Finals–but with LeBron’s and Thomas’s impending free agency, it’s unlikely the team will stay together long-term if they can’t topple the Warriors.
There have already been rumblings James will move on next off-season. Cleveland landing the promising Zizic and Brooklyn’s unprotected 2018 first round pick was a hedge against James leaving; they’ll be well-positioned for a rebuild.
Despite the public declarations that there’s no “beef” between LeBron and Kyrie, there’s very clearly some tension.
Another interesting storyline is Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas are the first players drafted at the opposite ends of the same draft (Irving picked first in 2011, Thomas picked last) to be traded for one another.
If things play out as expected, Cleveland and Boston will meet again in the Eastern Conference Finals, and it will be a spectacle.