That doesn’t mean Danny Ainge should part with any of them.
Nearly a full week since the Celtics and Cavaliers agreed to the jaw-dropping trade that will send Kyrie Irving to Boston, we’re still waiting for both sides to give an all-clear. The Cavaliers, sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, desire an additional asset after some concerns about the status of Isaiah Thomas’ hip injury following Friday’s post-trade physical.
The Celtics, having already paid a steep price for Irving, are almost certainly uninterested in adding to a package that included Jae Crowder, rookie center Ante Zizic and the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 unprotected first-round pick.
Sure, it would be easy for Ainge, Boston’s president of basketball operations, to toss in a protected first-rounder, especially considering the Celtics could have as many as five first-round picks in the next two drafts. Boston also could select from an assortment of future second-round picks to sprinkle on top.
Some will wonder — and fairly so — if it’s worth letting this trade fall through at the cost of something like a late first-round pick. Drafting beyond the lottery is often a crapshoot, and would the Celtics really let that potentially derail a deal for an established star?
But what if that late first-round pick is the next Rajon Rondo or Avery Bradley or Tony Allen? What if that second-round pick is the next Thomas or Crowder or Draymond Green?
More importantly, what if that pick could be a key piece in Boston’s next blockbuster, like, say, pursuing a player like Anthony Davis down the road?
But from this viewpoint, it appears the Celtics factored in the status of Thomas’ hip injury, as well as his impending free agency next summer, while putting together a package that included a valuable two-way contributor signed to a sweetheart of a deal and two assets that could be key to the Cavaliers’ long-term future.
So barring a lapse in communication about the status of Thomas’ health, there seems little reason for Boston to pay another trade toll, particularly when the Celtics already have passed that booth.
The NBA should be monitoring this situation with interest too, because the possibility of a team being encouraged by its trade partner to increase its offerings in the aftermath could be a slippery slope, setting a potentially uncomfortable precedent for future dealings.
Maybe this whole post-trade awkwardness simply ends with the Cavaliers passing Thomas’ physical sometime before Thursday’s deadline. And then everyone’s focus on the Celtics and Cavaliers can shift to the season-opening tilt in mid-October.
In the meantime, the lingering question is unavoidable: What if that doesn’t happen? What if both sides dig in and an impasse ends with the trade being dissolved?
To be absolutely certain here, that scenario seems unlikely. The toothpaste is out of the tube. But crazier things have happened with NBA trades.
The Celtics would get back two rather unhappy campers in Thomas and Crowder and a Croatian-born rookie whose head would be spinning before he has even played his first NBA game. Ainge and coach Brad Stevens would be tasked with finding a way to work through those bad feelings while also finding a way to get Thomas and Crowder to buy back into a franchise that tried to move them.
Ainge actually has some experience in this sort of situation, albeit not to this extent. Back during the lockout in 2011, rumors persisted that the Celtics were exploring another All-Star point guard swap, this one centered around sending Rajon Rondo to New Orleans in exchange for then-Hornet Chris Paul.
After the lockout lifted, Ainge was forced to answer questions about how the team would smooth things over with Rondo.
“Rondo will be fine. Rondo knows that we love him. He’s excited to come back and play basketball, in my opinion,” Ainge said that winter. “He gets a lot of attention. He’s a great player.”
Rondo clearly was irked by having his name invoked in trade discussions, but it didn’t affect his play. Rondo produced another All-Star season after the Paul rumors and, as Boston transitioned out of the most recent Big Three era, Rondo eventually emerged as team captain in Stevens’ first season at the helm.
Players know the NBA is a rather emotionless business. While hard to imagine, Thomas and Crowder could eventually embrace Boston again.
And if feelings were simply too bruised, Crowder remains on one of the best contracts in the league, earning an average of $7.3 million per season over the next three years, and Boston would have little trouble finding another team interested in his services. Alas, potential trading partners might not be willing to part with as much, knowing Boston has a disgruntled player.
The Cavaliers might find a similar situation with Irving, all the more reason they might want to be content with the haul that they’ve gotten in this deal.
Poor Thomas has unfairly been labeled as damaged goods throughout this process. The two-time All-Star is coming off one of the most brilliant offensive seasons in Celtics history, a mesmerizing campaign in which he finished in the top five in MVP voting and earned a spot on the All-NBA second team. He deserves better here, particularly the way he has always put his team before himself.
Thomas could have demanded the Celtics use their cap space this summer to explore a big money extension. Instead, he bet on himself and agreed to wait until next summer. Meanwhile, he trekked across the country from his home in Seattle to be part of Boston’s presentation that lured Gordon Hayward on a four-year, $128 million contract. Thomas did this one summer after he helped pitch Al Horford before his four-year, $113 million payday.
Next summer was supposed to be the payoff for Thomas, who playfully joked how the Celtics were going to have to “back up the Brink’s truck” when he reached unrestricted free agency. Another season like the one he had last year and Thomas would have been in position to seek a payday starting at upward of $30 million per season.
Even if forced back to Boston, Thomas would have motivation because of his impending free agency. Regardless of how this all plays out, he’s going to once again have to prove himself on the court. Recent history suggests he’ll rise to that challenge.
Still, the only thing more jarring than rivals trading with each other would be rivals trading with each other then sending those players back to their original teams.
Trading away Thomas and Crowder was an emotional decision that stung everyone involved and left a Boston fan base uncertain how to feel. Just as everyone started moving forward, this fiasco has slowed the painful peeling of that Band-Aid.
Boston and Cleveland can’t afford to go back on this deal, and it’s time to figure out how each side can finally move forward.
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