Raptors: Celtics leapfrog ahead in East succession with Kyrie Irving trade

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 15: Kyrie Irving /

Top end talent is required to walk the path of champions. It all made sense until Kyrie Irving was traded for Isaiah Thomas. Now the Raptors find themselves between the timelines of two teams they’ll never usurp.

Masai Ujiri opted status quo this offseason. Re-signing critical pieces to success in Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, means maintaining a Raptors core that brought 50+ wins to the city of Toronto. After achieving back-to-back 50 win seasons it’s hard to step away from a winning formula.

The Raptors got bounced by the Cleveland Cavaliers this year in four games, but they clawed it out for six the year before. They were the consensus second-best team in the East this year.

Maybe if the Raptors just stay the course for a few years, they can sneak up on the Cavs when (if) Lebron declines due to age, or has an unforseen (and at this point unprecedented) injury.  In the mean time, the Raps keep can keep racking up 50ish-win seasons and building fan fair, while they scrap it out against the Cavs for a chance at the finals every year.

It all made sense, until Kyrie Irving was traded to the Boston Celtics for the Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the coveted Brooklyn Nets 2018 first round pick (and possibly more?) in a block buster trade. Now the Raptors find themselves between the timelines of two teams they’ll never usurp.

With this Iriving trade, the Cavs actually got better. ESPN’s RPM projections bumped up from 49 wins to 53 and for good reason.The loss of Irving hurts, sorta. But Isaiah can give you about 80 percent of what Irving can, if not more.

It’s not like he was picking apart defenses with his passing or locking down other guards. Kyrie scores, which is something Thomas can do in droves.

In fact during the 2016-17, regular season Thomas was more efficient than Uncle Drew. He lodged 28.4 points per game on 19.4 FGA, resulting in a 62.5 percent true shooting percentage versus Irving’s 58 percent.

TORONTO, ON – DECEMBER 05: Kyrie Irving /

It helps that Thomas doesn’t do all of his work in isolation. Irving, a maestro in one-on-one, tallied 419 isolation possessions, while Thomas had only 248. And although Irving was 95th percentile in isolation last year, isolation is the most predictable play in the league and makes it that much easier for the defence to stop you (we see that first hand in Toronto).

Thomas was the third-best player in the pick and roll with 58 percent effective field goal percentage, using the league’s most effective play. Thomas also moves off the ball well, after playing in Brad Stevens’ system so he’ll add a layer of dynacism the Cavs never had.

Crowder gives the Cavaliers another wing to help guard, well, everyone on the Warriors, making them more flexible defensively. He shoots it decently from range and can play small ball 4 in a pinch.

And don’t forget the first round pick the Nets traded away. That shiny new trinket adds flexibility in the long and short term for the Cavaliers.

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If the Cavs want to push even harder this year because they see the gap closing between them and the Golden State Warriors, they can trade the pick. If the Cavaliers feel as though Lebron is going to leave, they can just keep it and start a rebuild immediately after competing in the Finals.

Undoubtedly, the Cavaliers just got further out of touch from everyone else in the East (at least in the short-term), which means the Raptors can only wait for a chance to pounce in the coming years or after an injury to the King himself. But the longer they wait, the more time the young Celtics have to level up.

The Celtics are fully set for a regrowth period after multiple years in stasis. The trade for Irving is a victory for the Celts, just not an immediate one. ESPN’s Kevin Pelton’s RPM projection predicts the Celtics falling from 49.4 wins before the trade to 43.8.

Obviously, losing Crowder and Thomas this off-season is a step back. But the C’s aren’t set to fall off a cliff – they are spring loading.

Top end talent is required to walk the path of champions. Coach Stevens and his staff are renowned for player development and getting players to buy in completely. Stevens and co. grind every single day to maximize everything from his players, and they toil blissfully. It’ll be the first time Stevens coaches a truly transcendent talent, and there is still room to grow. /

Despite his obvious success and talent today, Uncle Drew is 25-years-old, putting him in clear line with the rest of the young Celtics in Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart.  All of which are highly touted prospects with plenty of potential and finally a real chance to influence instead of inert. They’ll make mistakes and flubs like all young teams do, all the while Al Horford and Gordon Hayward will keep them afloat.

Then, slide the timeline forward two or three years. The Celtics have a prime Hayward and Irving (Allen Iverson 2.0) with flourishing young talent (possibly Paul Pierce 2.0 in Tatum) that’s already seen a ton of coaching and time on the floor.  All of a sudden, the Celtics look like legit contenders in the East.

North of the wall the Raptors youth is a litany of solid role players who are slated to keep the status quo. Dwane Casey is a good developmental coach, but he stilts originality and creativity with the offense he runs. His authoritarian style is great for young players who need guidance just leaving college, but can run players weary, like we saw earlier last season.

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Norman Powell is a standout among Raptors in bursts. But, with Powell’s height limitations and lack of threatening 3-point shot, it’s hard to see him becoming more than an efficient starter, let alone a star player. Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam are already the rough sketches of their actualized  capabilities and that’s rotational pieces.

Fast forward a couple of years and the Dinos stay the same. Demar DeRozan, Lowry and Ibaka are still the head of the snake and all of them will be on the wrong side of 30. Nobody whose young is projected to be better than any of this trio are now.

Monumental success requires supplementary pieces for framing  but without the larger slabs to form the foundation, prime time success is unfeasible. So how will they fair against a team with prime Hayward, Irving and burgeoning upstarts?

Ujiri committed three years to the core of DeRozan, Lowry and Ibaka, which makes for a strong team. Unfortunately strong isn’t enough the NBA to raise the Larry O’Brien trophy.

The Raps look like a second round, maybe Eastern Conference Finals team, but that’s their ceiling. We’ve seen this movie twice now. And when you come for the king you best not miss. Unless the young guns make an unforeseen leap, the Drakes don’t have the firepower to defeat the king.

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Cleveland and Lebron James are stronger than ever today and possibly tomorrow, but will inevitably backslide in the coming years. And when Cavs do, the Celtics are poised to snatch the crown off their head before King James has a chance to bequeath it. The Raptors only get a front row seat to the action.