Who won? Grading the Kyrie Irving trade from the Cavs to the Celtics 5 years later

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One of the most important trades in Cleveland Cavaliers franchise history took place on Aug. 30, 2017 when the team shipped star guard Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics.

Irving, who had helped Cleveland win an NBA title in the 2015-16 season, wanted out from Cleveland after spending multiple seasons in LeBron James’ shadow. The Cavs had lost in the NBA Finals in the 2016-17 season, and yet they were essentially forced into moving their second best player prior to the start of the 2017-18 campaign.

So, what did Cleveland get in return? Well, the Cavs received a few pieces from Boston, including guard Isaiah Thomas, who was an All-Star in the 2016-17 season and averaged 28.9 points per game.

Along with Thomas, the Cavs received forward Jae Crowder, big man Ante Zizic and a first-round pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

The pick that Boston traded was actually the Brooklyn Nets’ first-round pick that season from a previous deal between those two franchises. It ended up becoming the No. 8 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, where the Cavs took guard Collin Sexton. Fast forward to the 2022 offseason, and Sexton is a restricted free agent. He has yet to agree to a long-term deal with the Cavs.

Neither team has gone on to win an NBA title since the Irving deal was made, but both the Cavs and Celtics have made an NBA Finals in the seasons following the deal.

Cleveland has gone through a major rebuild following the departure of James for the Los Angeles Lakers, and yet, it finds itself back in a position to be a playoff team in the 2022-23 campaign.

As for the Celtics, well, they have learned that life after Irving is better than it was with him, making the NBA Finals in the 2021-22 season before losing to the Golden State Warriors.

Does that make either team a clear winner?

Let’s grade the Cavs’ Irving swap now that everything has played out for several seasons:

Grading the Cavs haul

Isaiah Thomas Cavs

Cavs received: Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, 2018 first-round pick (became Collin Sexton)

There’s no doubt that the Cavs gave up the best player in this trade, but they still went on to make the NBA Finals in the 2017-18 season (thanks to James).

At the time, Thomas seemed like a comparable player to receive for Irving, as he was coming off his best season of his career. However, a hip injury derailed Thomas’ time with the Cavs, and the rest of his NBA career.

Thomas played in just 15 games for Cleveland, averaging 14.7 points per game and was eventually dealt to the Los Angeles Lakers as part of a package that sent Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. to Cleveland.

Both of those players went on to have major roles in Cleveland’s playoff run that season, but neither player is still on the Cavs. Nance lasted longer with Cleveland than Clarkson, but he was dealt last offseason to help the Cavs bring in forward Lauri Markkanen.

Crowder’s stay in Cleveland was short as well, as the team traded him to the Utah Jazz at the trade deadline in the 2017-18 season. Rodney Hood and George Hill were the two players that Cleveland received in the deal that sent Crowder to the Jazz.

Crowder has since gone on to play a major role on two teams that made the NBA Finals recently (the Miami Heat and Phoenix Suns).

As for Zizic, he played sparingly for the Cavs for three seasons, appearing in 113 games. He finished his Cavs career averaging 6.0 points, 3.9 rebounds and 0.4 blocks per game.

Essentially, all three players that Boston gave up in the deal didn’t make a major impact for Cleveland. While some of the pieces that they were traded for did, none of those players remain with the team.

To give up Irving, who was a four-time All-Star when Cleveland made the deal, this certainly seems like an underwhelming return before you get to Sexton.

Sexton is by far the best piece the Cavs received, as they did about as well as you can ask for with the No. 8 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. Cleveland’s ultimate grade on this deal will be determined on what Sexton’s future looks like.

If he returns to Cleveland on a long-term deal and thrives, the Cavs will have gotten the best of this deal, since Irving moved on from Boston so quickly.

However, if the Cavs lose him this offseason or next offseason (he could take the qualifying offer to return for the 2022-23 season on a one-year deal), without getting anything in return, it would crush their final grade on this trade.

When healthy, Sexton has proven that he can be a top threat on offense, as he had a fantastic 2020-21 season for the Cavs. He averaged 24.3 points, 3.1 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 1.0 steal per game while shooting 47.5 percent from the field and 37.1 percent from beyond the arc that season.

However, a torn meniscus derailed his 2021-22 campaign, and it has changed his outlook with the franchise. Cleveland nearly made the playoffs without Sexton last season, and Darius Garland emerged as an All-Star in Cleveland’s backcourt.

There’s no doubt that Sexton is still a productive NBA player, but the question is whether or not he will be that player in Cleveland.

For now, the Cavs escape without a failing grade, but given the lack of long-term assets they received for a player of Irving’s caliber, they don’t pass with flying colors either.

Grade: C-

Grading the Celtics haul

Kyrie Irving Boston Celtics

Celtics received: Kyrie Irving

There is no question that Boston has been the better overall team since the Irving trade happened, but it isn’t because Irving led the team there.

Over two seasons with the Celtics, Irving appeared in 127 games. He averaged 24.1 points, 4.4 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game in Boston. The team came up short in the playoffs in both of his seasons in Boston, and Irving bolted for the Brooklyn Nets the second he became a free agent.

However, for the same reasons why Cleveland didn’t win this deal easily, Boston didn’t really give up much for Irving in the long run. The team held onto core pieces such as Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart, who ended up leading the Celtics to the NBA Finals in the 2021-22 season.

Sure, losing Irving after just two seasons couldn’t have been Boston’s original plan, but the Celtics have still been a perennial playoff team with or without Irving on the roster.

At the end of the day, neither team got exactly what it wanted in the Irving swap. Even Irving himself didn’t seem to get what he was looking for when he requested a trade from Cleveland, as he ended up teaming up with Kevin Durant in Brooklyn.

That era has gone just about as rocky as Irving’s time in Boston.

The Celtics are expected to continue to be one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference as long as Tatum and Brown are around and healthy, so the fact that they held onto both players in this deal makes this somewhat of a win.

Grade: B

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Peter is a graduate of Quinnipiac University where he covered the MAAC and college basketball for three years. He has worked for NBC Sports, the Connecticut Sun and the Meriden Record-Journal covering basketball and other major sports. Follow him on Twitter @peterdewey2.