Danny Ainge, who always ranks pretty high on the Annoyance Index, got even a little more annoying this week when the Boston Celtics pulled off an audacious swap with Cleveland, which sent point guard Kyrie Irving to a Boston team that was already putting itself in position for serious long-term contention.
Peering through the lens of the 76ers, that might not be all bad. When the Sixers are finally ready to compete with the big boys, someone in their division and their conference will be good at the same time they are, so it might as well be the Celtics. That would add a little more spice to the pot as it rekindles memories of the past rivalries between the teams.
That doesn’t mean what happened this week isn’t annoying, however, because it definitely is.
Four seasons ago, when the Sixers were 19-63 in the first season under Sam Hinkie, at the very start of so much suffering and bad basketball, the Celtics were lounging along at 25-57 and things could have gone either way there. Ainge had gotten out from under aging stars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce by trading them to Brooklyn for a bunch of other guys and a handful of the magic beans that are first-round draft picks (which can be very magical when they come from the Nets).
There wasn’t that much separating the Sixers and Celtics at that point. Both had assets. Both had cap room. Both had bad basketball teams. It was a question of which would turn the corner first and which would turn the corner best.
The answer to the initial question was never in doubt, particularly with Not-So-Sudden Sam intent on stashing the team’s future either in Europe or the trainer’s room. The answer to the second question is still unknown. If the race is to get a championship before the other guy – and why not make that the deciding factor? – it’s a coin flip whether Boston or the Sixers are really closer to that goal.
While the Sixers were finishing 14th or worst in the Eastern Conference for the fourth straight year, the Celtics won 53 games last season and advanced to the conference finals, where they lost in five games to the Cavaliers.
The Annoyance Index for that quick turnaround by Boston, at least from a Philadelphia perspective, was lessened because: (a) everyone knew they’d get dusted by the Cavs and wouldn’t get any farther; and (b) the Sixers were getting tantalizingly close to being truly exciting themselves. (Plus, everyone in town was distracted by the start of the Phillies season.)
Still, Boston has gotten that far already, and since the playoffs ended the Celtics added Jayson Tatum in the draft, Gordon Hayward in free agency, Marcus Morris by trade, and this week landed Irving, who wanted to get out from under the long shadow of LeBron James. Irving was so held back by the presence of James that he was only able to average 25.2 points per game last season, but, hey, a man’s gotta do.
It wasn’t as if Ainge pulled off a robbery to get the 25-year-old Irving. He had to give up the Nets’ 2018 first-round pick; point guard Isaiah Thomas, who merely led the conference in scoring and finished among the top five for MVP voting; and two other players. What he got, however, might be well worth it. Irving is young, versatile, sturdy, and six inches taller and three years younger than Thomas.
Ainge is moving quickly, but the Celtics are also getting younger, which is smart since it might be a while before Golden State puts the drawbridge to a title down again. The Celtics only have four players (Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Terry Rozier) still on the roster from the 53-win team that went to the conference finals three months ago. That’s crazy.
The Sixers, meanwhile, are very young, too. They have two first-overall draft picks in Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz who haven’t played a minute yet. They have another top-three pick in Joel Embiid who has played 59 games and 1,400 minutes of live basketball since leaving The Rock School in Gainesville, Fla., in 2013. They have four first-round selections in the next two drafts, one of which is already promised to Boston in exchange for swapping the first and third picks in order to get Fultz, even though it seems neither of the other two teams might have taken him. They have some very interesting piece players as well, and if they appear ready to start measuring themselves against teams like Boston and Cleveland, that might be deserved before long.
So, let the race continue. The Sixers might actually get into it this coming season, but the Celtics are way ahead. Even with the hefty price they paid to get Kyrie Irving, they are even farther ahead than they already were.
You can call it smart basketball. You can call it the demands of the marketplace. You can call it the natural ebb and flow of talent. I call it annoying, and maybe that’s because I’ve seen this team in green operate too many times before.