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How Danny Ainge took the Celtics from Paul Pierce to Kyrie Irving in 5 trades

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Boston pulled off the biggest trade of the offseason, but it didn’t happen overnight. Instead, it’s a product of Ainge’s years of wheeling and dealing.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

The Boston Celtics pulled off the blockbuster trade of the year Tuesday night, trading Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the prized, unprotected 2018 Brooklyn Nets’ first-round pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving.

The move brings Irving — a bonafide offensive superstar, NBA champion, four-time all-star and Olympic gold medalist — to Boston at the tender age of 25 years old. But this summer’s biggest trade didn’t happen overnight.

Rather, it’s the product of more than four year’s worth of wheeling and dealing from Celtics general manager Danny Ainge.

Here is a timeline of the key deals along the way:

July 2013: Celtics rob the Nets

Milwaukee Bucks v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

The trade

Nets get: Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry, D.J. White, 2017 first-round pick, and second-round pick (Kyle Kuzma and Aleksandar Vezenkov)
Celtics get: Keith Bogans, MarShon Brooks, Kris Humphries, Kris Joseph, Gerald Wallace, Nets’ 2014 first-round pick (James Young), 2016 first-round pick (Jaylen Brown), 2017 first-round pick (Markelle Fultz), and 2018 first-round pick

This is the trade that buried the Nets for years and effectively sealed general manager Billy King’s Brooklyn career in an airtight coffin. In exchange for two years of middling play from Pierce and Garnett, the Nets’ mortgaged their future, giving Boston the picks it needed to both compete in the present and build for the future.

Boston eventually traded off the players that didn’t fit into their timeline. The Nets’ 2018 first-round pick used to acquire Irving was an integral piece of the deal to Cleveland that landed Irving.

December 2014: Celtics move on from Rondo

Boston Celtics v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The trade

Mavericks get: Dwight Powell and Rajon Rondo
Celtics get: Jae Crowder, Jameer Nelson, Brandan Wright, 2016 first-round pick (Guerschon Yabusele), 2016 second-round pick (Demetrius Jackson), and $13 million trade exception

In past trade negotiations with both Indiana and Chicago, the Celtics were unwilling to part ways with Jae Crowder. Crowder was Boston’s most versatile defender and an efficient spot-up shooter on an incredibly team-friendly contract. They had thoughts of putting him next to Paul George or Jimmy Butler, not trading him as part of a deal for either player.

But when Irving became available, Ainge eventually relented on his stance and included Crowder into the deal. It is unclear if this deal gets done if Boston never acquires Crowder in the first place.

July 2014: Ainge in the right place at the right time

2016 NBA Finals - Game Seven Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The trade

Celtics get: Marcus Thronton, Tyler Zeller, and 2016 first-round pick
Nets get: Jarrett Jack and Sergey Karasev
Cavaliers get: cap space

LeBron James had just made the announcement that he wanted to leave Miami to come back to Cleveland. There was only one problem: the Cavaliers needed to create cap space — and fast.

So they quickly orchestrated a three-team trade that shed the contracts on Tyler Zeller and Jarrett Jack. To absorb Zeller’s contract, Boston asked for Cleveland’s 2016 first-round pick — a late-first-rounder given that Cleveland won its first-ever championship that season.

What the Cavaliers didn’t know, however, is that Ainge would later flip that pick in a trade that landed an integral piece to the Irving trade.

February 2015: Ainge gets his star point guard

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics - Game Five Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The trade

Suns get: Marcus Thornton and 2016 first-round pick (Skal Labissiere)
Celtics get: Gigi Datome, Jonas Jerebko, and Isaiah Thomas

Between Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas, Phoenix had more point guards than it could handle. Thomas wanted a bigger role and the Suns couldn’t give it to him.

So they traded him to Boston in a three-team deal GM Ryan McDonough later admitted was a mistake.

“If there’s one (decision) that stands out, if I could get a mulligan, that’d be it,” McDonough said.

Thomas became an all-star and one of the league’s most feared fourth-quarter scorers in Boston. He also became the central piece of the deal that landed Irving in Boston.

June 2017 — Celtics trade the Nets’ pick to Philly

2017 Las Vegas Summer League - Philadelphia 76ers v Golden State Warriors Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The trade

76ers get: No. 1 overall pick in 2017 (Markelle Fultz)
Celtics get: No. 3 overall pick in 2017 (Jayson Tatum) and either Lakers’ first-round pick in 2018 (protected outside of picks 2-5) or the better of Philadelphia or Sacramento’s 2019 first-round picks

This trade made it possible for Boston to part ways with the Nets' pick without abandoning the future.

Ainge said the Celtics were going to draft Jayson Tatum all along, but the threat of Boston taking Fultz No. 1 scared Philadelphia into giving up two picks for one.

The Lakers’, 76ers’, and Kings’ picks each project to be enticing top-five selections in the coming years. Meanwhile, the Nets made small steps in the right direction this summer to improve their roster; and there is no guarantee Brooklyn is the league’s worst team this season.

Ainge added onto his pile of assets while setting himself up for this summer’s biggest deal.

August 2017: The trade

Celtics get: Kyrie Irving
Cavaliers get: Isaiah Thomas (via PHX), Jae Crowder (via DAL), Ante Zizic, and 2018 Nets pick

A culmination of all Ainge’s wheeling and dealing, Boston lands an all-world scorer and former All-Star Game MVP. The Celtics form a new-look Big 3 of Irving, Gordon Hayward, and Al Horford with a deep, talented supporting cast of Marcus Morris, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, and Aron Baynes.

The cost was high: Cavs GM Koby Altman is from Brooklyn, after all. He lands a current all-star point guard in IT4, a versatile defender and three-point shooter in Crowder, a promising young big man in Ante Zizic, and likely one of the top five or six picks in next year’s NBA draft. Altman’s deft dealing positions Cleveland to compete both now and later.

But for Ainge, his years-long barter paid off: he got the star he wanted. And to get top players, you have to pay top dollar.


Jae Crowder could be as key for the Cavs as Isaiah Thomas