When the NBA season gets underway early on Wednesday morning (UK time), it will do so with a genuine blockbuster.
A repeat of last season’s Eastern Conference Finals would have been an entertaining spectacle under any circumstances, but after an unprecedented trade that sent the disgruntled Kyrie Irving from Cleveland to Boston in exchange for fellow All-Star Isaiah Thomas, there now exists that crucial ingredient to any stand-out rivalry: bad blood.
In a league where it has become commonplace, perhaps to the detriment of the NBA as a whole, for superstar players to join forces in an attempt to maximise their chances of glory, Irving’s decision to request a trade away from the Cleveland Cavaliers should be respected.
Ever since LeBron James returned to his hometown team in 2014, Irving has had the easy life.
James remains the best player in the NBA, and his unselfish playing style and likeable personality have drawn an outstanding ensemble cast to the Cavaliers, resulting in three back-to-back trips to the NBA finals, with an NBA Championship coming in 2016.
But all of the success left Irving feeling somewhat marginalised. Drafted by the Cavaliers in 2011, he spent his early NBA career as the unquestioned leader and star of the team, before being firmly pushed into a number two role upon ‘King’ James’ triumphant return.
And so Irving chose to cast off on his own, saying publicly it was his best chance to develop as a player.
“It was my time to do what was best for me in terms of my intentions, and that’s going after something bigger than myself and being in an environment that was conducive to my potential,” he said.
“Now [I’m] taking that next steps as a 25-year-old evolving man and being the best basketball player I can be.”
But despite it being refreshing to see a player in Irving’s position want to lead his own team, it would be a stretch to call the news of his trade request truly shocking. The real surprise was his destination.
‘I want them to see how my getting traded — just like that, without any warning — by the franchise that I scratched and clawed for, and bled for, and put my everything on the line for. Loyalty – it’s just a word’
Isaiah Thomas has always been the underdog. Whereas Irving was the prized #1 draft pick when he entered the league in 2011, the 5ft 9in (yes, really) Thomas was taken with the 60th and final pick by the Sacramento Kings.
Seen by most as a talented player without the physical profile to ever grind out his place in the land of giants that is the NBA, Thomas has improved his game by leaps and bounds each season. He has defied the perceived limits of his diminutive frame to average a remarkable 29 points per game for the Celtics in the 2016-17, a tally good enough for 3rd highest in the league.
The 28-year-old point guard has always worn his emotions on his sleeve, and that passion resonated strongly with the hardcore Boston fanbase.
That connection between player and franchise has rarely ever seen a better example than April of this year, when Thomas’ sister Chyna tragically died in a car accident just one day before the start of the Celtics’ play-off series against the Chicago Bulls.
Thomas chose to suit up and play that very next day, and despite being visibly emotional throughout, managed to lead the Celtics to a 4-2 series win against the Bulls, eventually falling short against the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals.
But in the often cold, analytics-driven world of the NBA, loyalty between player and franchise can often be a one-way street. When Irving, a younger player on a longer contract, became available, Thomas was the key asset in the Boston offer that persuaded Cleveland to do business.
Thomas, never one to disguise his feelings, has since voiced his thoughts on the trade.
“That s**t hurt. It hurt a lot… I get it: this is a business. Danny [Ainge, Celtics general manager] is a businessman, and he made a business move. I don’t agree with it, just personally, and I don’t think the Boston Celtics got better by making this trade.
“I think my trade can show people. I want them to see how my getting traded — just like that, without any warning — by the franchise that I scratched and clawed for, and bled for, and put my everything on the line for. Loyalty – it’s just a word.”
Unfortunately, Thomas is unlikely to play in the season-opener due to a nagging hip injury that many feel was a key factor in Boston’s decision to trade him.
But with Irving’s immediate return to his old stomping ground will serve as the perfect introduction to what is sure to be one of the most dramatic NBA seasons in memory.