Danny Ainge unplugged: Celtics GM weighs in on Isaiah Thomas-Kyrie Irving trade


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Fans went nuts on Twitter over news that the Cavaliers sent Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics for Isaiah Thomas, two players and a 2018 first-round pick.
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When Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge finalized a trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving on Tuesday, one of the NBA’s most interesting questions had finally been answered.

Yes, as it turns out, Ainge and his ever-patient front office colleagues would finally loosen their grip on that 2018 first round pick he acquired in the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce trade with the Brooklyn Nets back in 2013. It went to the Cavs alongside some other precious Celtics cargo: All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas, veteran small forward Jae Crowder and young big man Ante Zizic. And with yet another bold stroke during what has been a daring offseason for Ainge, the Eastern Conference got a whole lot more fascinating.

Ainge – who works alongside longtime assistant general manager Mike Zarren and his son, director of player personnel Austin Ainge – discussed his latest blockbuster deal with reporters via conference call on Tuesday afternoon. After swapping the No. 1 pick with Philadelphia for No. 3 (which became Jayson Tatum) and a future first round pick in mid-June, then landing small forward Gordon Hayward in free agency and finding a way to add Irving, the team that earned the top seed in the Eastern Conference last regular season before falling to Cleveland in the conference finals might enter the 2017-18 campaign as the prohibitive favorite in the East. Still, this was clearly a tough call for Ainge.

Thomas had become a beloved part of their program and as good an underdog tale as you could find in the NBA. From the 60th pick in the 2011 draft to uncertain times in Sacramento and Phoenix to stardom in Boston, the mini-mite point guard was the driving force behind their recent renaissance. But when the opportunity arose to swap him for a player in Irving who is not only more accomplished and three years younger (25 years old vs. 28) but whose contract had one more year remaining as compared to Thomas (through 2018 vs. 2019), Ainge couldn’t resist.

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There are a lot of layers to this deal, but the following conclusions can be drawn after hearing Ainge analyze the trade:

1. It wasn’t easy saying goodbye to Thomas

When asked about his conversation with Thomas, Ainge was careful with his words.

“Those are private conversations,” he replied. “As you can imagine, I’ll leave it to your own imaginations to realize how difficult that conversation might have been – for me, and for Isaiah. And I will say that Kyrie was very excited about coming to the Celtics.

“Trading both (Thomas and Crowder) was tough. But Isaiah had just an amazing season this year, and entertained us all – the whole city of Boston, and everybody fell in love with him. You know, he’s such an underdog because of his size, and his heart, and his spirit in which he plays. It was very challenging to make this decision.”

Thomas, meanwhile, did not respond to a request for an interview.

2. Thomas’ hip, and contract situation, were a concern

Not only did Thomas miss the last three games of the Eastern Conference Finals with a right hip problem, but Ainge told CSN New England just hours before the trade went down that the Celtics had planned on administering additional testing prior to the start of training camp in order to gauge his status. When asked about the part the hip played in his decision – this after the Celtics and Thomas had considered surgery only to determine that it wasn’t necessary – Ainge stammered a bit before indicating that Thomas might not be ready for the start of the season.

“Um, I don’t – you know, it, some,” he said. “There’s going to be probably a little bit of a delay for Isaiah as he starts the season this year, but – um – I think that Isaiah should be fine and healthy as the season goes along.”

Add the hip situation to the question about Thomas’ next contract, and you have yourself a challenging equation. With free agency fast approaching next summer, Thomas – who averaged 28.9 points (third in the NBA) and 5.9 assists last season – would be looking to land a five-year, $179 million deal that would pay him $40.8 million in the final season (2022-23).

“I think that contracts do play a part in trades,” Ainge said when asked about the contrasting contract landscape between Thomas and Irving. “No question about it.”

3. Irving’s age and acclaim were key factors

In the course of the 15 minutes that Ainge spoke, he mentioned Irving’s age by number no fewer than six times. Translation: He’s in his prime.

“His age is a great fit,” Ainge explained of Irving, who averaged 25.2 points and 5.8 assists last season before requesting a trade in June. “His age and experience is a great fit for us, with where we are with some of our younger players. His ability to score in a variety of ways – shooting from the three, getting to the basket – are elite. He’s shown that the last three years in the NBA Finals, and at a young age of 25 it’s very unique and very special what he’s been able to accomplish against the best competition in the world.”

The impressive part, of course, is that Boston should spend the next couple years contending for a title while restocking their shelves with young talent too. In the next two years alone, they are slated to have five first round picks.

“I mean we have a player (in Irving) that has proven to be a sure thing,” Ainge said. “We know how unpredictable the draft can be, and we have a 25-year-old All-Star, Olympian, World Champion, top-notch scorer, at age 25. That is very rare. You do pay a heavy price for a player of that age and that caliber.”

4. The Celtics may not be done just yet

When The Boston Globe’s Gary Washburn asked Ainge to summarize the Celtics’ summer, his answer was enough to make you wonder if we won’t be analyzing another big-time Boston move in the not-so-distant future.

“Why don’t we talk about (how he evaluates the summer) when the summer’s over Gary?” Ainge said with a chuckle. “Let’s wait and see what else happens…Gary, we never know.”

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