The culture of the NBA has changed drastically. And for top-level players navigating this new hyper-competitive landscape, nothing is more important than strategic positioning. To earn a shot at NBA stardom, players now have to best their rivals both on and off the court, both in season and off.
This cutthroat race to the top has led elite players to make bolder (and thus more intensely scrutinized) career moves. As much as all-star caliber players may try to soften these decisions to leave behind the city that adopted them, there is no doubt that free agency culture has finally outplaced team loyalty.
In what has been the exclamation point on the wildest offseason of all-time, the Kyrie Irving-Isaiah Thomas trade, purely based on its colossal shock value, best exemplifies the mindset of the new NBA.
Never before have two players coming off seasons averaging 25-plus points per game been traded for each other. Never before have two teams both sitting side-by-side at the top of a division rivalry swapped their stars.
Ultimately, never before have players and general managers been this unafraid to risk it all to win it all.
Since the deal has been completed, most of the talk by pundits and around watercoolers has been dedicated to who won the trade.
This is the great debate that is entirely unprecedented in the NBA. Most trades are clearly one-sided and display obvious motives, with one team positioning themselves towards an immediate championship run, while the other dumps their unwanted contracts in preparation for the long-term future.
Although the rarity of this type of trade makes it very tempting to focus discussion on prematurely picking a side, it is much more valuable to analyze the uniquely ambiguous motives of the mega deal, the influences that made it happen, and what it means for the future of the league.
To begin to unpack the trade, let’s start with Kyrie Irving. Just by scratching the surface, it’s hard to believe why a player, possessing already one of the highest usage rates in the league, would want to leave a team destined for their 4th straight Finals appearance.
A deeper look shows that Kyrie is taking a calculated risk that bets on his long term future. By stepping out of LeBron James’ shadow, Irving gains the chance to be the face of a franchise. He leaves a declining team riddled by chemistry and management issues for a team with a warchest of assets and no place to go but up.
Irving preempts a potential LeBron departure, and dodges the unfortunate outcome where he is the last one to turn the lights out in Cleveland. Irving hurts his brand in the present to protect it in the future.
Through the eyes of the Celtics, the trade is a divisive step in continuing their upward trajectory.
On the plus side, Boston picks up a franchise player that is destined for all-star consistency over the next decade, and avoids inking a monster contract for Isaiah Thomas, whose size might prevent him from ever turning the corner into superstardom.
In the same breath, the Celtics turn their back on the player who changed their franchise, and who also fully embodied and embraced their city.
To his credit, and also his fault, General Manager Danny Ainge cuts out his heart in order to build himself a better hand.
Considering his keen eye to see that last year’s Celtics, a ragtag group of misfits united only by great coaching, could never move past the meticulously constructed Warriors, Ainge was wise to the pull trigger. Ainge’s best hope is that by the time the Warriors inevitably blow up (all empires inevitably fall), Boston will boast two superstars, and players like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum would have developed into all-stars.
On the other hand, Boston’s new group of players might turn out to be ill-fitted. Kyrie Irving, a player who thrives off of isolation plays and ball dominance, might not buy into the detailed Brad Stevens offensive system.
A player like Gordon Hayward may be destined for decline, as he joins a team in which he is no longer the offensive focal point and must now work under the shadow of a perennial ball hog in Irving.
While Boston takes a gamble, Cleveland takes an even bigger risk.
Cleveland ditches their disgruntled superstar, fixing their team chemistry issues and replacing him with the next best point guard available. Although less talented, the Cavs stay relevant and come out more intact, making it that much harder for LeBron to leave town after next season.
The risk that Cleveland takes factors in when their talent pool is reevaluated. Isaiah Thomas is unlikely to put up the numbers he did last season, as his new role and small size might prevent him from thriving in Cleveland’s isolation offense.
The mega-deal holds new risks and rewards for both teams, created in one fell swoop. In a league where players are now unafraid to chase titles, general managers are forced to adjust and take their own calculated risks. Thus, the Cleveland-Boston trade finally breaks the ice on the mega-deal, moving blockbuster trades into the realm of reality.
As this new NBA continues to progress, expect to see more mega-trades off seasons to come.
In the meantime, expect to see a very intriguing Eastern Conference Finals.