Believe it or not, the Boston Celtics are in the middle of a rebuild. This remains true, despite earning the (fake) number one seed in the East and reaching their first Eastern Conference Final since 2012. Just three seasons ago, in Brad Stevens’ first year as head coach, the team finished 25-57 feeling the immediate repercussions of trading Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry to the Brooklyn Nets for three first round draft picks. In this short period of time, the Celtics have solidified themselves as one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, largely due to the 2015 deadline trade for point guard Isaiah Thomas from the Phoenix Suns. Over the next two and a half seasons, Isaiah would emerge as the center-piece of the franchise, leading Boston into the playoffs all three years. This 2017 season was different for Thomas, as the Celtics acquired big-man and facilitator Al Horford. The Horford signing enabled Boston to play an effective high pick-and-roll offense, capitalizing on a strong shooting season from Isaiah. This addition, coupled with Thomas’ development, helped the 5’9” powerhouse become the NBA’s third leading scorer in 2017, behind MVP favorites Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
Despite Isaiah’s impressive scoring season, the Eastern Conference Finals cast doubt on his future with the Celtics. Thomas was pulled out of game two with a hip injury, while the Cleveland Cavaliers were up by about 50 points. He was sidelined for the rest of the series, and is currently being evaluated to see if surgery is necessary. Down two games to none with their best player out, the Celtics stole game three in Cleveland, raising the idea of moving on from Thomas in the off-season. Not to say that the team is better without Isaiah at the helm, but deficiencies in his game, his expiring contract, and the need for the Celtics to develop young players makes a deal involving Thomas possible, if a team is willing to overpay based on his 2017 regular season performance.
The Case for Trading Isaiah Thomas
It is difficult to remember a time when the third leading scorer in the NBA was not on the trading block. This is because Isaiah Thomas is not the typical third leading scorer, and the Celtics are not the typical number one seed. At 5’9”, Thomas is tied with rookie Kay Felder as the shortest player in the NBA. In a tall man’s game, Isaiah’s height has held him back on the defensive end, making him a liability late in games. In an article written for Bleacher Report in April 2017, author Adam Fromal ranks Isaiah Thomas as the second worst defensive point guard in the league (out of players who play a minimum of 15 minutes per game) based on metrics. He stands dead last among those qualifying players in Defensive Real Plus/Minus and Defensive Points Saved. His defensive shortcomings are well displayed on the court. While Thomas has been embraced in Boston for his late-game offensive heroics, Brad Stevens is quick to take him off the floor in key defensive scenarios down the stretch, whenever he has the chance. During the regular season, Isaiah’s small stature did not impact his offensive game. Not only was he able to create separation and make jump shots, but Thomas was also successful in finishing around the basket. Despite being towered over in the paint, Thomas posted an NBA-best 12.7 drives to the basket per game, allowing him to get high-percentage shots.
Thomas’ scoring success came to an end during the Eastern Conference Finals. The increased defensive efforts of the Cavaliers, led by a dominant Tristan Thompson in the paint shut down the small-statured Isaiah. He shot 7-19 (.368) for 17 points in a 13-point loss in game one, and shot 0-6 before leaving with a hip injury in the second quarter of game 2, an eventual 44 point loss. If winning championships is the goal, Thomas’ performance against Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals should be weighed more heavily than that of the regular season in deciding his fate with the team. This season, Thomas proved that he is capable of being a prolific scorer in the NBA, but can he act as the centerpiece of championship winning team?
I do not believe that a player who is only capable of dominating one side of the court can be a championship winning franchise player, especially one who is 5’9”. While Isaiah may have the potential to be the number three player on a championship team, his ball-dependent style of play is best suited for an offense that runs through him. In a league where Mike Conley is the second highest paid player, Thomas is likely to receive max contract offers when his deal with the Celtics expires in 2018. Given the current landscape of the Eastern Conference, a Celtics team centered around Isaiah Thomas likely lacks the star power necessary to get past the dominant Cavaliers, even with the addition of a player like Jimmy Butler or Gordon Hayward. Locking Isaiah up for the future would only help the team compete in the short-run, and would not bring them any closer to winning their 18th title. Furthermore, it could possibly hurt the development of potential number one pick Markelle Fultz. Isaiah’s presence in the back-court is likely to take playing time away from the prospect, who has the potential to be a generational talent, and could even turn the team off from drafting him if the Boston thinks they have found their point guard of the future in Thomas. The Celtics should be more focused on winning a title after LeBron’s decline than on improving their current marginal success. In order to make way for Fultz’s development and to get some return on possibly losing Thomas to free agency if he demands a max contract (which the Celtics should not give him), they should explore the market for Thomas in a trade while his stock is the highest it has ever been.