Flipping Isaiah (For Kyrie)

Four years after Danny Ainge broke the Big Three into shreds and sent Doc Rivers to the west coast, and began rebuilding, the Celtics have reaped both the good and bad of Ainge’s vision. Add one more piece to Ainge’s master plan. The gift he was handed when the Suns inexplicably decided to give up in 2015, (the Suns dismantled their backcourt at the trading deadline), that gift has been flipped for Kyrie Irving, All-Star, NBA champ and scorer extraordinaire.

Isaiah Thomas is on his way to Cleveland to play for the Cavs and with LeBron James, and more than likely Isaiah’s first NBA Finals. It’s an amazing story for Thomas, the last pick in the 2011 draft. On an August evening in 2017, he was traded for the first pick in that same draft.

A few years ago, Thomas was part of the Suns angst that was put in play when Goran Dragic wanted out. The Suns, then coached by Jeff Hornacek, decided to usher Thomas out of town too, to Boston.

It was in Boston where Thomas career was revived. He played 179 games. 32.2 minutes. 36.8% from three. 6.0 assists. 24.7 points. His offensive rating was 117.  23.7 points the last two playoff runs established Isaiah as a NBA star.

Isaiah Thomas breathed new life into the Celtics and he will put up numbers playing with LeBron James.

But the winner of this trade is Danny Ainge. Since the Kevin Garnett era ended, Ainge has done exactly what a GM is supposed to do. He took advantage of the weak, trusted the system and hit a free agency homerun.

Ainge, laughingly, emasculated the Nets and stole their franchise, plunging them into the depths of hell for years. And he helped himself to the bag of goodies. The 2017 first round pick belonging to the Nets he traded down and acquired Jayson Tatum. The 2018 first round pick belonging to the Nets he traded to Cleveland with Isaiah Thomas. It’s a pick worth giving up for the talented Irving.  And it allowed Ainge to hold on to Jayson Tatum who most believe will have a stellar career.

Last summer, Ainge made a tactical decision to find a star. Ainge knows you will never win in this league without a heroic figure, a two-way player, and the Celtics biggest star, their highest talent is the play caller, Brad Stevens. He rarely has off nights. With that as a backdrop, we have our general, the Celtics overpaid Al Horford over $100 million. Horford brings this stunning stat to the table: he has never beaten LeBron James in the playoffs and he probably never will. Horford isn’t a star.

Isaiah is a star but just not the right kind of star. As nice a player as Isaiah Thomas is, he can’t be the player. When he is the best you have to offer, you are going to lose.

Enter Kyrie Irving. The Kyrie who won the title for the Cavs in 2016 by drilling a clutch shot in the closing seconds over Steph Curry. The Kyrie who has wizadry around the rim. He can finish with his left or right. He seamlessly changes direction. He makes threes. He makes mid-range buckets. He is money at them rim and he wants the ball when it matters. The Celtics now have their go-to player.

The secret about Isaiah is that of all the All-Stars in 2017, he was the one who made the least money. His contract is so friendly at $6 million that the Cavs, I am sure, wish it was grandfathered in to some lifetime deal but lo and behold it ends in 2018. And then, what do you do Cavs?

For sure, Isaiah has saved the Celtics. This past season, Thomas led the C’s in 4th quarter points. Sometimes, it seems he has the biggest heart and cojones, a big game in such a small body but this is the NBA. Big always dwarfs small.

Once you move past empathy for Thomas in what had been an excruciating and emotionally gut wrenching post-season of personal pain- half grief, half faith- the clinical and cold eyes of several General Managers drew them to the conclusion he wasn’t worth a max contract in 2018.  Extract how he has made everyone proud with how he competed, and if there was an award given for grit and fighting through sadness and adversity, then Isaiah Thomas would win it hands down. But as a leader of the team eyeing an NBA Finals berth, both in salary, and game, Isaiah falls – excuse the pun-short. Not because of his size but because of what his size allows him to do and not do. Isaiah can be guarded and he can’t guard anyone.

It doesn’t matter in the regular season when you go from team to team, and city to city, and players are tired or bored, or, tired and bored. But in the playoffs, against a strong team like the Warriors, Thomas can be contained on the offensive end and his defense is a disaster.

Isaiah Thomas had the worst defensive rating of all Celtics players, 116. That just cannot be the metric from your best player and Danny Ainge knew that. On the Cavs, the lowest defensive rating of a key player, was J.R. Smith. His defensive rating was 112.

Despite the unpopularity of it, (Isaiah was such a fan favorite), Ainge had to pull the trigger. It’s Kyrie. Plus Isaiah on an expiring contract, his stock was sky high.

Ainge didn’t even have to let go of Jaylen Brown or defender Marcus Smart. Just next year’s lottery pick, an unproven, unknown entity.

And so here the Celtics stand. The time to say thank you Isaiah Thomas, you brought us this far, is right now. Much love to you and for you, Isaiah. You are heart and class. You persevered. You earned your money. But we want to win a title. We are desperate for a star. Gritty got us here. But time moves on. We are in the hunt for exceptional.

Kyrie is exceptional.

(But Isaiah will be in the NBA Finals.)

 

photo via llananba