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Three major questions in wake of Kyrie Irving trade to Celtics

In the wake of Tuesday night’s league-shaking trade that sent Kyrie Irving from the Cavaliers to the Boston Celtics in exchange for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 first-round pick, we can draw a couple conclusions with virtual certainty:

This is one of the craziest summers in NBA history.

Cleveland is dancing in the streets over this deal.
After that, there are still a ton of questions as we start to process what this deal means not just for the Cavs and Celtics, but for the league as a whole — both now and in the future. In no particular order, here are three major ones:

Does this trade increase Cavs’ chances of keeping LeBron?

Yes, and it’s all about that 2018 Nets pick. Before this trade went down, it didn’t look like the Cavs had many options left for immediate improvement. They’d struck out on Paul George.

Struck out on Jimmy Butler. They had zero cap room, no draft picks available for trade until 2021, and with all these other teams making power moves, it was going to be a tough sell to walk into a meeting with LeBron next summer, with nothing to show except virtually the same Cavs roster that clearly isn’t good enough to beat the Warriors, and convince him to spend the last few remaining years of his prime playing for second place.

But that Nets pick could — could — change everything. In the immediacy, the Cavs could look to package it up with, say, Kevin Love and make a play for another star. Perhaps you go after DeMarcus Cousins should the Pelicans struggle out of the gate. Maybe the Thunder would flip George around the deadline if it doesn’t look like they’re going anywhere and are looking for a future building block to entice Russell Westbrook to stay. There’s a reason the Celtics clung so tightly to that pick. It’s a huge leverage piece, and it gives the Cavs a lot of options — none of which they had a few days ago — in their ongoing mission to arm LeBron with enough weapons to earn another year or two of his services.

If they end up keeping the pick throughout the year, it’s still a bargaining chip for LeBron to stay in that it doesn’t lose a ton of value as an asset once it becomes an actual player. Look at it like this: The Celtics had a ton of leverage with that open No. 1 pick in hand this year, but don’t think for a second that the Sixers couldn’t still get a major haul for Markelle Fultz — the player that pick became. The Lakers could get a ton for Lonzo Ball. The Celtics could get a ton for Jayson Tatum. The Suns probably could’ve gotten Irving had they been willing to part with Josh Jackson.

So, let’s say the Cavs land Marvin Bagley or Michael Porter — the top two players in Reid Forgrave’s 2018 mock draft — next year. Those two players would bring virtually unlimited options into play. Even if the Nets improve and that pick falls, leaving the Cavs with a pick somewhere, say, in the 5-7 range, that pick/player still has a lot of value. You don’t think the

Kings could get a lot for De’Aaron Fox right now?

The point is, wherever that pick ends up falling, the Cavs would have a high-leverage asset in storage, an ace up their sleeve so to speak, which would mean LeBron wouldn’t ever have to feel totally boxed in with the Cavs’ current roster. More firepower would always be one move away.

All of this said, and the Cavs are probably already better after this trade even without that pick. Right now, Thomas and Irving are roughly equal players, at least on paper — meaning from a production standpoint, the Cavs essentially got Crowder and whatever Zizic offers for free. Crowder’s tough, versatile defense alone makes the Cavs far more equipped to compete with the Warriors’ perimeter attack than they were with Irving.

None of this means LeBron is going to stay. Not by a long shot. He has already won Cleveland the title he promised and change is always enticing, particularly when any team you join is going to do everything it can to surround you with every asset possible. Still, this trade gives the Cavs a much better pitch than they had a few days ago, which in turn gives them a better chance to keep James. There is really no way to argue that.

Will Irving sign an extension with Boston?

In a lot of ways, this is the most important question for either team involved in this deal. The Cavs almost had nothing to lose because Irving said he wanted out anyway and was unlikely to re-sign, and if they didn’t make some kind of move, they were likely sealing their fate to lose LeBron, too. So this is almost a no-risk endeavor for Cleveland.

But for Boston, there is a ton of risk — and much of it resides in this one simple question: Will Kyrie stay long term? If he does, then you’ve got a 25-year-old star who, as Danny Ainge said in his media conference call Tuesday night, “fits [Boston’s] timeline.” Two or three years from now you’ve got Irving, Hayward, Tatum, Horford and whoever the Celtics get with the Lakers’ 2018 pick (which could be another high one), all under contract as the post-Warriors/post-LeBron era looks to get started.

If they can stretch out the process four years, Horford’s money will clear and they can even go get another star.
If Irving doesn’t re-sign, this trade is a bust. No way around it. If Boston and Cleveland were to match up again in the playoffs next year, the Cavs would still be favored. This is not about next season for Boston, and even if LeBron leaves Cleveland in 2018 and the Celtics assume supremacy of the East, they still wouldn’t be ready to truly compete with the Warriors. If Irving doesn’t re-sign, Boston basically just traded an MVP-caliber player and a potential No. 1 overall pick for two years of 50-55 wins with a couple conference finals exits — which is the exact same team they were before the trade.

Gordon Hayward did not sign with Boston to be the only All-Star on the team three years from now.

If Boston did this trade for Irving, why not for Butler?

This is a really interesting question, because by almost any measurement Butler is the better overall player at this point, and Chicago surely would’ve jumped at this deal with the Celtics over the one it got from Minnesota. Plus, unlike George, who was a flight risk after one year, Butler has two years left on his deal, same as Irving. In fact, he actually makes a little less than Irving.

The only thing here is the age. Butler is going to be 28 before next season begins. Irving, as Ainge mentioned over and over on his call, is just 25. Again, while this might feel like an in-the-moment power move for a star player, the Celtics are still slow-playing this thing.

Still, for so long the Celtics refused to move Thomas or one of those Nets picks. Heck, Ainge seemingly clung to Crowder and Avery Bradley like they were his own children. Over the years, the Celtics have passed on a lot of potential action to hang on to these guys — particularly Thomas and that pick. Now that we know they were willing to move both of them, it’s only fair to wonder whether Irving was the right player to do it for.