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. He emasculated the Nets and stole their franchise, plunging them into the depths of hell for years. The 2017 number one pick that belonged to the Nets is in the Celtics eager hands- a win for them. But the rest of it, as witnessed by the Celtics absolute misery on a Friday night in May and their resurrection on Sunday, followed by a good try on Tuesday, is a slow your roll moment. The NBA legitimizes both the good and the bad and the best GM’s have to figure out which team is the consistent team. The one mauled by 40 points. Or the comeback Marcus Smart gritty hustlers.
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.
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 Celtics, 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? For sure, Isaiah has saved the Celtics. This 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 has 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 think he isn’t worth a max contract in 2018. Extract how he has made everyone proud with how he has 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, plus Thomas has Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley for covers. But in the playoffs, against a strong team like the Cavs, Thomas can be stopped on the offensive end and his defense is a disaster.
Isaiah Thomas has the worst defensive rating of all Celtics players, 116. That just cannot be the metric from your best player, one who is going to play 35+ minutes a night. On the Cavs, the lowest rating of a key player, is J.R. Smith. His defensive rating is 112. It was J.R. Smith’s confusion on the last play of Sunday night’s game that led to the Avery Bradley three and game winner and one more game in Boston.
Despite the unpopularity of it, Ainge has to consider a trade Isaiah Thomas scenario while his stock is high and everyone is in on the Isaiah love fest. Thomas is on an expiring deal in 2017-18 that is under market value, which teams find appealing enough to salivate over, especially those teams that are trying to clear cap space to add players. Trading Isaiah is easy.
The point is the financial favorability of adding Gordon Hawyard plus selling the number one pick to the Bulls or Pacers for Jimmy Butler or Paul George. Other players, like Jaylen Brown, may have to be included to make the money right but the Isaiah Thomas romance has to end only because of the long game. A max salary will damage the Ainge plan, narrowing options, and Isaiah cannot do it on his own. He is not his namesake, Detroit Pistons Isaiah Thomas. He can’t bring the Celtics to the NBA Finals as the highest paid player, the sun everyone revolves around. Marcus Smart demonstrated he has the size and toughness to lead the Celtics when supported by a deep team, despite Smart’s obvious offensive woes.
And so here the Celtics stand. On a precipice. 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.
photo via llananba