The question after each of the Boston Celtics’ summer transactions — and there have been a lot of them — has been the same: Is Boston better than it was last season?
The Celtics continued a dizzying summer overhaul with Tuesday’s blockbuster that sent Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 unprotected first-round pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for Kyrie Irving.
Boston now has just four players on its roster from last season’s team that won an East-best 53 games. That’s 11 players gone from a roster that advanced to the Eastern Conference finals before bowing to the Cavaliers in five games.
It was that loss to Cleveland in May that served as a sort of barometer for judging Boston’s summer moves. With each transaction, Celtics fans wondered if the gap had been closed a bit.
There have been so many moves, though. Goodbye to key contributors such as Thomas, Crowder, Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk and Amir Johnson. Hello to Irving, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Morris.
The “are they better?” question got a whole lot murkier Tuesday, when the two teams at the center of that query swapped All-Stars.
Celtics fans had seen the headlines about unrest with Irving and LeBron James and hoped that maybe the Cavaliers would be forced to make a franchise-altering deal. Few Celtics fans figured it would be Boston on the other end of that swap. Even fewer would have thought it would be such an aggressive haul going the other way.
Now, in the same summer in which the GM boldly traded away the No. 1 overall pick, the “In Danny [Ainge] We Trust” motto that Boston fans have clung to throughout this four-year restructuring will be tested yet again.
Are the Celtics better today than they were at the end of last season? Ainge certainly hopes so, but even he would admit that’s an impossible question to answer at this point. Asked during a late-night conference call Tuesday about all the changes this summer, Ainge politely asked to delay his assessment. When a reporter wondered if the team could possibly make any more moves, Ainge playfully responded, “We never know.”
Here’s what we do know:
The Celtics traded:
(1) A two-time All-Star who led the Eastern Conference in scoring and finished in the top five of the MVP voting, in Thomas
(2) One of the best contracts in the NBA belonging to a player who served as a key two-way cog in Boston’s rebuild after being viewed as a throw-in part of the Rajon Rondo swap, in Jae Crowder
(3) A raw 7-footer who spent last season stashed overseas — coincidentally, spending time with former Cavs coach David Blatt in Turkey — and could blossom into an impact player at the NBA level, in Ante Zizic
(4) A pick that, if it’s anything like the 2017 version that Boston traded away, could be a gem come May
In return, the Celtics got a 25-year-old four-time All-Star with an NBA title and an Olympic gold medal on his résumé. They got a player who was brazen enough to demand to be removed from the shadow of the best player in the league, seemingly so he can show that he is ready to be the face of another franchise.
“Acquiring a 25-year-old perennial All-Star, a player that fits a timeline for us and is a fantastic offensive player, one of the best offensive players in the league, you have to pay a heavy price,” Ainge said.
Ainge is betting that all the big-splash moves he made this summer will deliver upgrades to key areas of his team.
Given the haul he sent out, Ainge clearly believes that Irving is a transcendent talent capable of being one of the league’s top players. Thomas put together one of the most brilliant offensive seasons in Celtics history last season, and for a team that has featured the likes of John Havlicek and Paul Pierce, that’s saying something. But there were concerns about the injured hip that forced Thomas out of the East finals last season and about whether Thomas, who endures so much physicality and expends so much energy for his size, can maintain his level of production moving forward.
Crowder’s stat line doesn’t tell the full story with his play, and the Celtics have routinely thrived with him on the court since his arrival in December 2014. But Boston added Hayward this season, and there were sure to be some redundancies in their games. Hayward is an offensive upgrade, however, especially with his ability to handle the ball and create his own shots — all while impacting the game at the other end too.
In swapping from No. 1 to No. 3 in June, the Celtics picked up a potential 2018 first-round pick (they get the Los Angeles Lakers’ pick if it’s in spots 2-5). Boston fans will root hard against the Lakers (as usual) and pray the Nets improve (after rooting hard against the Nets since 2014).
Rumors swirled in the weeks before Tuesday’s deal that the Cavaliers were interested in a young talent, someone such as Boston rookie Jayson Tatum, who showed an NBA-ready offensive game at summer league. It was notable that the final version of the deal included the Nets pick and not Tatum.
It would seem that Ainge values what he has seen from Tatum and believes Tatum, alongside Irving and fellow Nets-aided selection Jaylen Brown, could be the future core of this team.
It’s impossible to know with all the new faces how Boston’s new-look roster will perform. Coach Brad Stevens will be tasked with figuring out how all the pieces go together and getting the team to hit the ground running in September. Stevens will be excited for the chore, but it’s a daunting task for a coach who craves continuity.
He has just four familiar faces now: Al Horford, Brown, Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier. There will be 11 new faces — though Stevens knows Hayward pretty well from the past — and there are going to be some adjustments.
Are the Celtics better than they were last season?
Possibly. They’ll be different, for sure. Thomas, Crowder and Bradley were blue-collar guys with chip-on-their-shoulder motivation. Now there’s more surefire All-Star talent in Irving and Hayward that must propel this team to the next level.
Ainge would clearly prefer to answer that “are they better?” question a little further down the road — maybe in April, after he has the chance to see how everything fits together over 82 games. But he has to believe his team is better.
And if it isn’t, he’ll simply continue his trading ways in a relentless quest to put together a team that’s a certain title contender.
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