When the Boston Celtics traded for Kyrie Irving in the summer of 2017, the deal felt risky on a lot of levels.

Trading Isaiah Thomas was risky after he became an icon in Boston and led the team to the Eastern Conference finals in the wake of incredible personal tragedy.

Trading the Brooklyn Nets’ pick was risky because it was unprotected (and because the Nets had already surrendered so much bounty to the Celtics in the past).

Trading Jae Crowder was risky because of his two-way impact and his absurdly affordable contract.

Trading Ante Zizic … wasn’t that risky, frankly. That part was fine.

As it turned out, the package itself played in Boston’s favor. Thomas’ hip was shattered, which the Celtics clearly knew going in. The Brooklyn pick landed at No. 8, and the Cavaliers drafted Collin Sexton – a fine young prospect, but not an earth-shattering talent. Crowder’s replacement was supposed to be a healthy Gordon Hayward, a notable upgrade.

After a rough-but-inspiring 2017-18, which began with Hayward’s broken ankle and ended with a bunch of broken jumpers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, the Celtics felt poised to start the decade-long run of dominance their roster promised. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum had broken out. Irving and Hayward (and Marcus Smart) were back. An Anthony Davis trade loomed. The Celtics were legitimate contenders.

Then as quickly as it came together, Boston’s plan dissipated. Hayward was nowhere near his former self, and he spent much of the 2018-19 season struggling to get back. Tatum and Brown stagnated a bit in more limited roles. Terry Rozier chafed, although exactly whom he chafed at was never entirely clear (maybe even to him).

Kyrie Irving, center, and the Boston Celtics were eliminated in five games by the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Associated Press/Michael Dwyer

And perhaps most notably, Irving grew progressively more moody as the season went on, culminating in a disastrous performance in the Eastern Conference semifinals. After the Celtics were eliminated by the Milwaukee Bucks in five games, Irving calmly tossed a lit match at the propane-soaked internet (“For me, it’s just moving on to the next thing, and just seeing where that ends up”) before walking out of the building and into an offseason that could cripple what was once a promising future for the Celtics.

Rumors began to trickle. “Kyrie is in New York.” “Kyrie is in Brooklyn.” “Kyrie is buying a house.” “Kyrie is open to teaming back up with LeBron James.” At no point did it sound (or feel) like Irving was coming back to Boston, and while that still hasn’t been made official, the trickle of rumors has become a waterfall.

“There’s a domino that would fall if it was my world and wanted to do everything that I wanted but it doesn’t work that way,” Danny Ainge said in his first media availability following the season, referring to Irving’s pending decision as clearly as he could without mentioning the point guard by name.

Then the domino fell, and with it fell all of Boston’s carefully constructed plans. Irving was “focused” on Brooklyn. The Celtics couldn’t make a Godfather offer for Davis without Irving, particularly since he was less of a flight risk and more of a flight guarantee. Irving opted out, which was always going to be the case, but he did so practically shouting that he was leaving. Horford opted out, which was predictable, but on Tuesday evening, the bombshell landed: Even Horford planned to jump ship for a contender.

Even after complete disaster, the Celtics are still in a pretty good place. Tatum and Brown are still under team control for years, and both are still overflowing with star potential. Smart is in for the long haul. Boston has a boatload of picks, which they can either use or package in a variety of intriguing ways. If this is a teardown, the Celtics are well positioned to execute it.

But this wasn’t the goal. The goal was a super team led by Irving and Davis, and that goal felt not only attainable, but likely until relatively recently. The Celtics were in pole position to land the Pelicans’ superstar. They had the assets. They just needed something – anything – positive from Irving to pull the trigger.

“I don’t owe anybody (expletive),” Irving said when asked about his future in Boston in February.

He was referring to the media in the full context of his quote, but the statement applies universally. He doesn’t owe anybody anything now – not Danny Ainge, not the Celtics, and certainly not the media. He is an unrestricted free agent who fulfilled his contractual obligations to the team, and now he is well within his rights to leave.

But after dreaming of an Irving-Davis-(healthy) Hayward trio, the Celtics are now stirring the dregs of a quasirebuild. The chain of events traces back to Hayward’s injury, but the domino that toppled Boston’s best-laid plans was Irving.

“We made a risk by trading for Kyrie and, no matter what happens with Kyrie, I’ll never regret that,” Ainge said after the season. “You just move on to the next deal.”

As it turned out, however, the real risk wasn’t the package Boston sent out for Kyrie Irving. The risk was building all of the Celtics’ dreams from the foundation of an enigmatic young point guard – a true superstar for the millennial generation, trying to find himself and his individual happiness.

All along, the real risk was Kyrie Irving himself.


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