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What the Kyrie Irving-Isaiah Thomas trade means for the Raptors

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An out-of-nowhere mega trade between the East’s two top teams means a lot to Toronto, but it’s mostly not good news.

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

You’ll forgive Raptors fans their glee as news trickled — exploded? — out that Cavaliers All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving wanted out of Cleveland. Despite three runs to the Finals, the miraculous 2016 title, and a fearsome choke hold on the entire Eastern Conference — not to mention getting the chance to play with the best player on the face of the planet — Irving was apparently unhappy. We’ll never know the exact reasoning behind Irving’s feelings, but we do know that in the wake of this news, Toronto rejoiced. If there was no clear path on which the Raptors could ascend the ranks of the East, then it made sense to root for the descent of other teams, namely the Cavaliers.

Ah, would that it were so simple though. As you no doubt know by now, after apparently deliberating on Irving’s request (while trying to hire a new GM, natch), the Cavaliers did finally agree to trade their 25-year-old guard and former number one draft pick. But instead of banishing him to some outpost like Minnesota, the scorched earth of Phoenix, or one of his other preferred locations, they did a very Cavs-like thing and traded him to — oh god no — their immediate rival: the Boston Celtics.

Now you’ll forgive Raptors fans (or maybe just me?) their newfound despair at this latest update. Here’s why this is bad news for Toronto.

As we head towards next season, the Raptors’ hopes are pinned on two basic tenets: their investment in developing young players will pay off, and their ability to capitalize on any instability demonstrated by their rivals. To put some names to these sentiments: the Raptors really want and need Norman Powell, Delon Wright, and Jakob Poeltl (and, sure, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby) to show enough growth to push the team up a level. They’re also praying for Cavs owner Dan Gilbert to do just enough to piss of LeBron James, while also willing Celtics GM Danny Ainge to continue to sit on his hands. The rest of the East is eroding, so some combination of these events would at least keep the Raptors in the top half of the conference, and on the horizon of the contending conversation.

For most of the summer, these ideations have felt possible — Norm was coming off another heroic playoff effort, Gilbert let his masterful GM David Griffin walk which did not appear to sit well with LeBron, and Ainge was still lovingly caressing most of his team’s assets. But everything congealed into something concrete with the news of Kyrie’s trade demand. This was the break the Raptors needed. If the Cavs kept Kyrie, maybe the acrimony on the team would be too great, and Cleveland would falter. If they traded Kyrie, surely it would be to an out-of-conference rival, or for a mere hodge-podge of future assets — useful stuff in the NBA economy, but maybe not useful enough in the immediate future. It was perhaps a slim, naive hope, but it was something on which to build.

Instead, the Cavaliers and Celtics swapped All-Star point guards. This is the worst possible outcome to this whole debacle. Both teams finished ahead of Toronto last season, and now both have, at worst, maintained their position as the top teams in the conference.

For the Cavs, Thomas can, at minimum, replace the offense lost with Irving’s departure. He can shoot, he can run the pick-and-roll, he can take over a game for stretches. Yes, there are concerns about his hip, and yes, he’s a free agent next season. But this is still a top-10 player from last season, one who has shown heart well beyond the proportions of his frame. The Cavs also got a 3-and-D wing in Jae Crowder who, while no Jimmy Butler or Paul George (thank god), is still a useful player. As mentioned, a top draft pick, which is presumably what the 2018 Nets’ pick will be, is maybe not immediately useful to the Cavs and their usual LeBron-centric short term thinking. But it’s not nothing to have it in the team’s back pocket, especially if James decides to leave Cleveland again. In all, the Cavs may take a modest step back with Thomas, but this is still a top line point guard, paired with LeBron, Kevin Love, plus Crowder and the rest of Cleveland’s strong supporting cast.

Meanwhile, the Celtics get Irving, the best player in the deal, who neatly slots into the Celtics’ new-look backcourt. We can split the numbers here all we want, but it’s hard not to see this as an upgrade for Boston — even if it’s just a modest one next season. Irving has proven himself a star at the highest levels of the NBA, he’s three years younger than Thomas, and, most importantly, while he’s no defensive wizard, teams can’t target him on D in the same way they could with Thomas. (Also, Thomas was already rumbling about a max contract that Ainge probably didn’t want to have to give him, while Irving is locked in for at least the next two seasons.) Plug him into a lineup built around Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, Marcus Morris, Marcus Smart, and Jaylen Brown (plus Jayson Tatum), and it’s clear the Celtics are onto something.

Which is to say: this sucks. The Raptors’ window for true contention is three years. That’s when the deals for Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka expire, and DeMar DeRozan heads into his contract’s final year. At that point, Toronto will need a new direction. In the mean time, Masai Ujiri appears to be doing what he can to construct a roster as best he can with the star players he has and the limitations he’s working under. We largely know what this roster is capable of though. There will be modest tweaks here and there, I’m sure, but it remains at its core a known quantity. There is still that first hope — that the Raps’ young players begin to blast off next season — but the second hope has been given a serious blow. There will likely be no grand implosion (yet) of the empire in Cleveland, and the Celtics look stronger today than they did two days ago. Obviously, anything can happen next season, and maybe in 2018-19 things will be different. But that’s another year off the clock and Toronto’s hopes get dimmer by the day.