The Boston Celtics sacrificed a future asset to land All-Star guard Kyrie Irving Tuesday evening, emphasizing the Philadelphia 76ers‘ challenge of being patient in a league engulfed by a win-now mentality.
Last year’s Eastern Conference Finalists, the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers, sent shockwaves through the NBA when the two agreed to swap All-Star point guards, Isaiah Thomas and Kyrie Irving, on Tuesday. While a trade involving Irving felt inevitable at this point, given the various reports of a splintered relationship between LeBron James and the four-time All-Star, the Celtics emerged as a somewhat unlikely destination, especially considering their previous unwillingness to trade away the Brooklyn Nets 2018 first round pick.
After falling short in his pursuits of DeMarcus Cousins, Jimmy Butler and Paul George in the past year, Celtics President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge was eager to land a superstar-caliber player. For much of the past six months, Ainge has remained steadfast in his refusal to part with the Nets pick, wishing to roster a formidable team in both the present and future. Ainge, leading a franchise rich with trade assets, likely grew impatient as he watched the New Orleans Pelicans, Minnesota Timberwolves and Oklahoma City Thunder all acquire a superstar at a discounted price.
Although the newly signed Gordon Hayward is a talented player in his own right, Irving is the type of superstar Ainge so desperately coveted. Irving has a signature shoe, is the NBA 2K18 Cover Athlete and has both a championship and championship-winning shot to his name. These are the characteristics of a modern-day superstar.
Irving, at 25 years old, is just now embarking upon his prime, possessing both the talent and marketability to take his brand and game to uncharted heights. But even so, after a significant amount of roster turnover, how much better does he make the Celtics? Such a question is important considering the seemingly diminished market for stars, as evidenced by the Cousins, Butler and George trades.
Gone is Boston’s heart and soul Isaiah Thomas. Gone are strong perimeter defenders Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley. Gone is promising rookie Ante Zizic. Gone is the crown jewel Nets pick. In their place stands Irving, Hayward and Marcus Morris, talented pieces, but are they enough to take down the Warriors in the near future, let alone the Cavs next season or contend for a championship down the road? More importantly, is a core of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown talented enough to lead Boston to a title in the next decade?
Both Irving and Hayward possess the talent to keep the Celtics near the forefront of the Eastern Conference for years to come. Though neither player is likely good enough to lead the Celtics to a title. The 2018 Nets pick would have likely yielded Michael Porter Jr., Marvin Bagley III or Luka Doncic — franchise-altering talents seemingly capable of leading a team to a championship. As are Cousins, Butler and George, all players Ainge passed on, feeling as though the price was too steep — it wasn’t, as later revealed by the pieces sent in return for these stars. With slim odds to land the Los Angeles Lakers 2018 first round pick, a mid-lottery pick from the Sacramento Kings in 2019 is unlikely to produce a potential superstar, placing a substantial burden on both Tatum and Brown to deliver on the hype.
Deservedly so, Ainge was praised for refusing to exist in NBA purgatory when he shipped off Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn for a king’s ransom, seemingly setting them up to emerge as contenders in the future. Yet here we are four years later and the Celtics do not roster a single consensus top 15 NBA player, serving as faux-contenders in a depleted Eastern Conference.
Ainge played hardball with the rest of the league and lost. Irving is by no means merely a consolation prize, but his ability to impact the game on both ends of the floor pales in comparison to Cousins, Butler and George. These were all players available to the Celtics had Ainge not been paralyzed by what the Nets draft picks might be rather than what Cousins, Butler or George actually are: perennial All-Stars who significantly move the needle for Boston. Ainge landed neither a two-way superstar nor retained the tantalizing Nets pick, opting instead to carry out a glorified point guard swap (apologies for the extreme reductionism), losing the draft pick in the process.
As the Philadelphia 76ers begin leg two of their climb to the NBA mountaintop, they should field a formidable team ripe with talent and intriguing young pieces. There will inevitably come a time when a perennial All-Star grows unhappy in his current home and becomes available via trade. Said player will be flashy; he will be talented, but he likely won’t lead the Sixers to a title. Barring health, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz all possess the upside to lead a championship squad. The Sixers must remain true to The Process and place their faith in these players. Dealing one for a tier II, win-now star could significantly damage the team’s long-term outlook, forcing them into the unenviable position of fringe-contender.
The goal of this rebuild is a championship, not numerous Eastern Conference Finals appearances. It is imperative that Sixers President of Basketball Operation Bryan Colangelo remembers this and keeps the current core intact, continuing to Trust the Process and eye the next decade as an opportunity for prolonged Sixers dominance. Nobody remembers four-time Eastern Conference Finalists; everyone remembers an NBA Champion. Without a championship, The Process is all for not. Win-now superstars are intriguing; dynasties are historic.