• Ryan Bernardoni

Evaluating My Analysis: The Kyrie Trade

Kyrie Irving unofficially became a Boston Celtic one year ago today. The trade wasn't finalized until after some drama around physicals, but the news broke on August 22.

At the time I was the editor of CelticsHub and so wrote a series of pieces with snap analysis and then some additional thoughts on what it meant for the team. One year on I'm here for self reflection on that analysis and the process I followed in developing it.

First, we need to separate trade grading from impact analysis. I believe in grading a trade based on what we knew at the time. Too much of what comes after is luck and what should be evaluated is the probabilities for levels of success or failure when the trade went down. I believe that the outcome of the lottery for the traded Nets pick doesn't factor into the trade grade, but where they fell in the lottery should be considered in evaluating the grading process. One is pure luck while the other could have been foreseen to some extent.

Evaluating the impact is an ever-changing thing. We can look back as of today and name a "winner" (Boston) but if everyone could see the future then there wouldn't be many trades, and sports wouldn't be interesting. If Kyrie jumps ship in free agency and Collin Sexton becomes a ten time All Star with the Cavs it changes the evaluation of the impact but not the trade grade.

Post 1: The Kyrie Irving Trade Seems Really Bad

Post 2: The Celtics Future With Kyrie and Gordon

Points Made:

  1. The trade seems bad

  2. The analysis assumes that Isaiah's hip will keep him out for the beginning of the season but then he'll be fine, and the trade does not seem so bad if it's substantially worse than that

  3. The trade, along with the Hayward addition, should get them about as far as they made it the previous season, and possibly to the Finals

  4. They're still a long-shot to win the title and that's what the franchise asks to be judged on

  5. Medium-term, Kyrie will be better than Isaiah even assuming good health for Thomas

  6. Tatum will likely replace Crowder's on-court value, but Jae is still a valuable piece

  7. Kyrie is unlikely to reach the level of "traditional best player on a title team"

  8. The franchise has pushed their contention window forward and into alignment with Golden State's peak

  9. Long-term,including the Nets pick is a massive risk that could alter the Celtics' future for a decade

  10. The Celtics weakened their future trade assets instead of waiting for a player more worthy of the price

  11. The combination of expense and age means that Boston's years-out profile is not as good as it was pre-trade

  12. The trade will most likely result in the Celtics being a very good team that is considered a contender but does not win any titles

The most obvious mistake here is the first headline. Even at the time, the argument I made was not that the trade was "really bad" but that it was a major risk for a result that did not seem to meet the lofty aspirations of a franchise with 17 titles that runs commercials about how titles are all that matter. "The Kyrie Irving Trade is an Unnecessary Risk" would have been a more appropriate title, or something similar.

Isaiah's hip was worse that had been let on at the time. If I had medical information showing how serious the problems were then the rubric of "trading Thomas for one season of Kyrie and then the rest of the package for the second season and his Bird Rights" would not have been used. I did note that in the first paragraph and so I think that holds up well enough.

Last season the team was better than I expected by a few wins. Their point differential was that of a 50-51 win team so saying they would win around the same as 2016-17 was about right, though had Hayward stayed healthy it probably would have been better, and they did factually win 55. It's hard to say how having a 2016-17 level Thomas instead of Kyrie would have changed that; most of the improvement came from Tatum over-performing reasonable expectations. Still, I undershot how good the team would be. If healthy, they probably win in the high 50's and do make the Finals.

The analysis of the gap to the Warriors was more questionable. Even healthy, they would have been major underdogs. However, Houston showed that Golden State was not invincible. The possibility of a healthy Celtics beating the Warriors was higher than I believed, though still not strong.

The medium-term analysis looks basically correct, though again it depends on how good you think the Warriors really are. Kyrie should have made an All NBA team had he stayed healthy, but separating him from LeBron did not turn him into the Top-25 All Time type player that leads 80+% of title teams. If he's your actual best player you're unlikely to hang a Championship banner.

Golden State is still the real question here. If Houston showed a true vulnerability, or if the rumors of some internal strife between the Warriors is true, then maybe they aren't unassailable champions through 2020. If they can be beaten in their current incarnation, or break up sometime before the 2020 Finals, then I will again have been too strong in my condemnation of the trade. If they roll through the next two Finals, even against Boston, without ever even facing elimination than my issues with the move will be borne out.

Long-term again looks better than I had initially read; more-so than the medium-term. I closed the follow-up piece with this, which I think is looking correct:

Ultimately, a person’s view of this team now hinges heavily on how you see Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum. If you believe Kyrie was stifled by LeBron and poor coaching and will now jump from All Star to MVP candidate, and that Tatum was a Tier 1 draft prospect, you should feel very good. If you think Kyrie is more hype than production and that Tatum is a Tier 2 prospect, this has been a troubling summer.

Kyrie may not have ascended to KG/Bird/Cowens/Russell levels but he was playing at an All NBA level and Jayson Tatum looks every bit like a Tier 1 prospect. It's both wrong to include analysis of Tatum in a grade for the Irving trade, but impossible to entirely separate the two.

The long-term value of the Nets pick was not as high as I expected. Brooklyn posted the seventh worst point differential in the NBA (and were 8th in the lottery) which is on the high end of how good I thought they could be. That pick should have been seen as one having a probability of jumping into the top-3 in the teens; I had pegged it closer to 25-30%.

The financial pressures of keeping this team together are real, but also would have been real had Isaiah been healthy. The team's trade profile is different than it would have been, though the lower level that the Nets pick came in at again means that the opportunity cost for future trades was lower than I thought.


In total, I think the analysis was generally good when factoring in Isaiah's health status, but overly negative and with a bad headline. In that way I was probably a worse editor than analyst.

Hayward's injury makes the short-term read a difficult one to square. Could they have beaten the Warriors? The odds seemed better than I believed but still not great, mostly because the Rockets took them to seven games.

The medium-term analysis looks correct. Kyrie would be the third best player in a matchup with Golden State so beating them requires someone to take a big leap (which Tatum may be able to do) or the Warriors breaking up before salary structures and age curves push Boston past their peak. It's possible though not hugely likely that the C's win a title in the next couple of seasons.

The long-term is certainly more rosy than I believed. The Nets were a few games better than projected, Tatum looks like a franchise changer, and the Celtics should be favored (though certainly not guaranteed) to keep Irving. If they can't retain him, Rozier's average future outcome is higher than Sexton's.

At the time I thought of the trade as something like a D+ move that would get upgraded to a C if Thomas was significantly more injured than publicly known. Had my reads on the strength of the Warriors, trade-on value or Crowder, and placement of the Nets been more accurate, I would have thought of it more like a B (including knowing that Isaiah's hip was a major problem).

The impact analysis could take years to be completely understood, and honestly may be determined by Ainge's draft record more than anything else.

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