Bernstein: Why The Cavs-Celtics Deal Is So Interesting

By Dan Bernstein

None of us know exactly what’s wrong with Kyrie Irving, and why he would suddenly want to play against LeBron James rather than alongside him.  It’s a puzzling decision to say the least, and one better left unsolved for now as we appreciate the kind of trade we almost never see in professional sports.

Whatever Irving’s inscrutable motivations may be, they succeeded in forcing a deal between the two best teams in the NBA East, a rarity of an intra-conference swap of star players on ostensible title contenders.  It also seems well considered on both sides, and may have succeeded in making each franchise better.

The sheer audacity of it is what’s so cool, the pure huevos of Danny Ainge in trusting not only the roster he has loaded up with all kinds of burgeoning talent, but the ability of his handpicked coach to make it all work.  Irving is also three years younger than Isaiah Thomas – he’s still just 25, remember – and the Celtics now have the only scoring point guard in the conference who may be a better finisher around the rim than the guy they gave up.  That neither is much of a defender makes that aspect a wash.  Jae Crowder provided a reasonable foil for James, but would already have been pushed for minutes by the acquisition of Gordon Hayward and the trajectory of Jaylen Brown’s development, not to mention some better-case scenarios for rookie Jayson Tatum.  In that sense, some lineup issues may have unlocked for Brad Stevens.

For the Cavaliers, newly-minted general manager Koby Altman did not shy away from the looming reality of a future that may not include James, who many observers believe is preparing to leave for the Lakers or elsewhere after this season.  Irving’s power-play allowed him to add not only the Brooklyn Nets’ unprotected 2018 first round pick in what is expected to be a top-heavy draft, but also center prospect Ante Zizic and in Thomas, a player with an expiring contract.  Put simply, Altman loaded his team up for one more run at the NBA Finals in 2017-18 while retaining roster flexibility for an accelerated post-LeBron bounce-back.  It’s a nifty little achievement, particularly while dealing with the wily and battle-tested Ainge on the other end of the conversation, and with so much currently still at stake.

Sports executives are all too often frightened of doing things like this, preferring to send players farther away, where any success is less likely to haunt them directly.  It gives them the cover of being able to wish some trade piece all the success in the world, all while knowing how unlikely it would be to have to confront him down the road.  This deal takes it head-on, though, with the first match-up scheduled for opening night in Cleveland on TNT.  There will be two more nationally-televised regular season games, and then another likely playoff showdown.

As so much talent has been drawn magnetically westward, the NBA getting even more fascinating at the top of the east counts as a very good thing for those of us who enjoy following the league, which is to say now pretty much everybody.  It’s refreshing to see two organizations that each was secure enough in itself to do what it had to do to get better, while confronting confidently the risk of helping a direct and already formidable opponent.

Dan Bernstein is senior columnist on CBS Chicago and co-host of “Bernstein & Goff” on Chicago’s 670 The Score.

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