The market (or at least Danny Ainge) thinks Kyrie Irving is worth a six-inch-smaller version of Kyrie Irving, a known-quantity 3-and-D guy on a dream contract, an untested young big, and one of the most precious draft picks in the league. That’s a hefty haul for the Cavs there—far better than what Jimmy Butler and Paul George got this offseason, though neither of those players, to public knowledge, forced a team’s hand quite the way Irving apparently did. Now the deal is done, and Kyrie’s return raised more than a few eyebrows, even those of true believers in his talent.
Forget the market then: what about critical consensus? Broadly it seems clear that the Cavs just made themselves viable and flexible for the near-future, but this trade is much harder to assess from the Celtics vantage point. No one is scrambling to pay an injured and aging Isaiah Thomas, but was Irving worth throwing all that other value overboard? Even a casual NBA fan could reel off five (okay, at worst, four) superior point guards: Chris Paul, James Harden, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, to say nothing of the trickier comparisons that Damian Lillard or Kyle Lowry might invite. In a prickly parenthetical, Rob Mahoney at Sports Illustrated asserted today that Irving isn’t even the best player on the Celtics roster, slotting him below Gordon Hayward, who was acquired with far less pain.
The on-paper résumé is remarkable, if totally warped by the distortion of playing with LeBron James. But by age 25 he has made an All-NBA team and three straight Finals, sunk his share of iconic shots, filled highlight reels with spurts of iso scoring that seem to accrue even greater value in the playoffs, which pose a grinding series of matchup puzzles. But what do you make of Kyrie Irving’s seasons before the arrival of one of the best basketball players ever? What do those three lonesome seasons of Eastern Conference bottom-feeding tell you about the future, if anything?
And what happens after he sets off on his own again? Will he be able to get his fill even after being unsatisfied with a 31 percent usage rate while standing next to LeBron damn James? Are his ball-dominant habits—his field-goal percentage skyrockets to 49 percent when he’s dribbled the ball seven times or more—out of sync with general NBA trends, and this new unselfish cast of teammates in particular? Can he be trusted to direct an offense, now that he has been separated from the man who always put the ball where it needed to go? Will he ever learn to play defense and justify his height advantage over the wee genius he replaced, or will he continue to hide wherever he can? Is he just a shoe- and ticket-selling sideshow with golden handles or one of the best players of his generation?
Any proximity to James or a similarly game-breaking player makes it hard to weigh exactly how much a player is worth; just ask any team who signed Mo Williams or people who bought Daniel Gibson jerseys. But now Irving is free to answer all these questions right as he enters what should be his prime. That he was swapped out for a very similar player makes this experiment even juicier. As someone with no particular emotional stake in the Cavs or Celtics as franchises, but who watched Irving play when none of this ever seemed possible, the most interesting part of this season will be seeing all these vague hypotheticals tested. The only thing I know for sure is that the Celtics open against the Cavaliers on October 17, and Irving will seamlessly fill Thomas’s shoes in this capacity: