How the Celtics Blew a 3-1 Lead

Last season the Boston Celtics won the Eastern Conference and ultimately fell to the Cavs in the Conference Finals. Of course, as Isaiah Thomas, their best player, was injured, they could use a Bill Simmons' Asterisk and enter this offseason optimistic. Then things got even better; the Celtics won the number one pick in the draft thanks to their lopsided deal with the Brooklyn Nets many years ago. With an aging LeBron and turmoil in the Cavs front office, the future looked bright for Boston. Then they blew it!

Let's run down four players from last year's Celtics: Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson, and Avery Bradley. The Celtics employed five above average players last season, and these names were four of them (Al Horford was the fifth) And guess what? All of these players are no longer employed by the Celtics! Let's do a brief numbers rundown of the players the Celtics lost.

Name Age 2017-2018 Salary (Millions) Contract Years 2016-2017 Wins 2016-2017 PoP48
Isaiah Thomas 28 $6.2 1 10.3 2.9
Jae Crowder 27 $6.8 3 7.6 1.8
Amir Johnson 30 $11 1 5.3 1.8
Avery Bradley 26 $8.8 1 4.6 0.7

Here's a rundown of why the Celtics lost each of these players:

  • The Celtics let Amir Johnson walk, likely to have the money to afford Gordon Hayward
  • The Celtics traded Avery Bradley to the Detroit Pistons for Marcus Morris, likely to get more money for Gordon Hayward.
  • The Celtics traded Jae Crowder, Isaiah Thomas, and a future Brooklyn Nets pick for Kyrie Irving.

And for comparison, here's how the new players the Celtics got looked.

Name Age 2017-2018 Salary (Millions) Contract Years 2016-2017 Wins 2016-2017 PoP48
Kyrie Irving 25 18.8 3* 6.2 0.6
Gordon Hayward 27 29.7 4** 12 4
Marcus Morris 27 5 2 3.2 -1.2

*Kyrie Irving's third year has an early termination option.

** Gordon Hayward's fourth year has an early termination option.

First, let's give the Celtics a little credit. I like Gordon Hayward a lot. He played star level last season, and letting Amir Johnson, an older fading player, walk to grab him was fine. Admittedly Hayward is 27 now, so he likely won't improve much more. Also, Utah does tend to help players look a little better, so I'm not expecting a huge jump out of Hayward. That said, he was a top twenty player last season, and getting one of those is always a plus for a franchise. While I don't mind losing Avery Bradley, who has only had one decent season in his career, I hate picking up Marcus Morris for him. In general, it's just not a good idea to have bad players on your active roster. Regardless, Amir Johnson and Avery Bradley's departures are forgivable, and Gordon Hayward's arrival is significant. Then the Celtics went off the rails.

The Celtics traded Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, and a Nets pick for Kyrie Irving! What? Let's start off with an uncomfortable truth. Last season Isaiah Thomas was a better player than Kyrie Irving, and it isn't even close. Check them out on the Comparison Engine here. Kyrie and Isaiah Thomas aren't great at many things. Both are below average ball handlers. Both are below average rebounders. And by both the box score and newer stats, they aren't great on defense. That boils down to scoring. Last season IT2 took more shots than Kyrie Irving and scored more efficiently.

While there are reasons the Celtics may have wanted to move on from Isaiah Thomas, such as:

  • Last season was his best season, so it was possibly an outlier.
  • Isaiah Thomas has recently had hip injuries.
  • Isaiah Thomas is in a contract year and is expecting a max deal.

Replacing him with Kyrie Irving is odd, as it's a downgrade. But the issue is adding Jae Crowder. While Crowder isn't even close to a star, he is dirt cheap. He'll make around $7 million a season for the next three seasons. If you're a team that has to pay a star player (like Gordon Hayward, or LeBron James) he's helpful to keep your team above average, and your roster balanced. And that's the crazy part, the Cavaliers upgraded Kyrie, filled another roster spot, and did it for less money than Kyrie will make!

Finally, the Celtics trading their Nets pick is just odd. The Celtics model had been to acquire draft picks, while seemingly also acquiring a good roster. Except, now they've let their good roster walk, and not spent their draft picks that well. In short, despite being in one of the best spots in the NBA (a competitive roster with a top pick), the Celtics managed to get worse and improve their competition. Ouch. The good news is they probably don't have to worry about facing the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals next season.