One down, two to go. At least theoretically.
While it remains to be seen how it plays out on the floor, the Celtics just got substantially better offensively in the by adding the best pick and roll ball-handler they've had in quite some time. Isaiah Thomas' efficiency over the past two seasons are particularly encouraging when viewed within the context of the situations he's been asked to perform in.
It is common for young players to push hard to prove their individual talent early on in their careers. These efforts lead to validation of one's skills as well as helping to establish their position in a team's hierarchy...and the pay is better too. A player with Thomas' background -- undersized and unheralded -- lends itself well to the "fighter's mentality" he has displayed since day one in the NBA.
Eight Track Flashback
However, circumstance has often invited Thomas to display tendencies that are somewhat self-serving and not always within the context of the "right play" in a vacuum. Coming out of the NBA talent-rich environment of Tacoma, Thomas had to fight his way into the University of Washington due to academic issues. Thousands of miles from home, Thomas had to buckle down and succeed without proximity to the family support structure most teenagers enjoy. His bedrocks during this time period? Nate Robinson and Jamal Crawford, two players whose games and team at the time -- the Knicks -- suggest that Thomas got an early lesson in being mentally tough and looking out for number one.
In college, Thomas was instantly successful. However, he put in three solid seasons a Washington before declaring for the draft. Taken at 60, he knew he'd be in for a fight. But he showed a confidence and perspective beyond his years during the pre-draft process, belaying a maturity in understanding that few possess. (I sat with him and spoke at some length during the New Jersey group workout that he attended and was impressed.)
His player development environment in Sacramento boasted of a highly dysfunctional ownership group, a carousel of coaching changes, and a constant barrage of challengers to his role and opportunity. For a player conditioned to fight for what's his, this level of ambiguity helped him navigate his way to the top of the dog-pile, but at some cost to his decision-making processes.
In Phoenix, the three ball-dominant guard offense that made for an intriguing sound bite in the preseason failed to account for the various agendas of two of that three-headed monster. Thomas took the money that was there, but it's not hard to imagine that he had designs on proving himself worthy of more by playing at a high level of a competitive team. When you add in Goran Dragic's reduced ball-handling responsibilities, the hit on his production, and his impending free agency at age 29, that is not a mix that is designed to breed an "all for one and one for all" mentality.
More on Isaiah Thomas
More on Isaiah Thomas
While Thomas still has a lot to prove as a player, his age, accomplishment, and history are all strong indicators that the best may lie ahead. The fact that the Celtics desperately need the skill set that he provides should do wonders for his ability to synchronize his interests with those of the team. His personality and back story have common undertones with some of Boston's other current "core" players.
Once roles have been defined and territory has been established, it would not be shocking to see Thomas make quicker decisions with the ball and increase his level of ball distribution. Boston's front court trio of Tyler Zeller, Kelly Olynyk, and Jared Sullinger have the highest collective basketball IQ of any group he's played with to date. They are all adept at the "roll-man" half of the pick-and-roll equation, as well as good "pop" and "spot up" options.
It'll ultimately be up to Thomas to recognize the differences between the organizational direction of this team versus his past employers. But both coach Brad Stevens and Danny Ainge are excellent communicators who have had success gaining trust through clarifying expectation, opportunity, and encouragement. How the guard rotation of Bradley, Smart, and Thomas plays out should have far more to do with understanding the goals and motivations of each player than any lack of minutes or usage based opportunity, so the table is set for maximizing the return on this investment.
Thomas may be a small piece to a larger puzzle but, if he takes advantage of this situation, he has a chance to write a more compelling story line than either he or his current team have enjoyed to date.
Next Item Up for Bids
The team still is top-heavy at the 4/5, though current injuries will mask that issue for a while. Thomas will have to apply himself diligently to the team's defensive schemes in order to continue to mask the issues Boston has with protecting the paint. Regardless of how this plays out, it is highly likely that Boston goes into the summer targeting another "true center" with defensive aptitude, while paring off a couple power forwards along the way.
Boston could also use an upgrade offensively at the 3, barring the acquisition of a two-way center who can man a primary scoring role or the rapid assent of either Olynyk, Sullinger, or Bradley. Each of these three has shown flashes in their early career development, but certainly not enough for the team to avoid targeting challengers.
Evan Turner has been a very nice addition overall, but scoring efficiency and scoring volume have been an "either, or" proposition thus far. Crowder remains an excellent two-way role player and Jonas Jerebko holds some intrigue as a potential situational 3 with his length and shooting, but there is certainly room for improvement.
Fortunately the draft is deep on both center and wing talent, which could create options for how Boston approaches free agency and asset management going into the summer. This summer's crop of unrestricted free agents might not be worth it, but it's comforting to know that Boston has the assets to shed salary and recruit multiple established players if needs be.
Options Package: Fully Loaded
Depending on how this end-of-season experiment plays out, Boston should be well-positioned to target nearly anyone it wishes to acquire in the draft. With the potential to have as many as 5 first round picks in the next two drafts, it is not out of the realm of possibility that Ainge could make a "Godfather offer" to a team in the low lottery if he was absolutely sold on a particular prospect.
Centers are typically well-paid in free agency and offensive impact is typically harder to find from a draft pick early on. Following that logic, it may be more cost-effective to pursue a "rim protector" in the draft and save that salary cap windfall for impact offense down the road. Of course, circumstance is everything. If team-defined "value" is at another position, there will certainly be logic to that choice relative to the big picture.
What's key in all of this is the steady progression upwards. Team building is art in the salary cap era - like one of those puzzles that has one piece missing and you have to move all the pieces around in a certain order to complete the picture. Once you've committed your big dollar contracts, your options become limited. Draft picks and young developing players provide liquidity, but "cash is king" when it comes to making end-game maneuvers.
Whatever Boston does this summer, it would be highly beneficial to address one of its primary needs through a cost-controlled rookie asset, if possible. For example, Willie Cauley-Stein and Kristaps Porzingis are two names that stand out as players whose skills could fill a necessary role from day one.
It is early in the pre-draft process, but it is certain that the Celtics as an organization have their own target list of players that will ultimately be refined as circumstance dictates leading up to the draft. They will be prepared. And for the first time in a long time, they will have assets at their disposal to increase the range of possibilities come that time. With a little luck and a lot of due diligence, Boston should be in a position to utilize their cap dollars shrewdly from there -- either this summer, the next, or a combination of both.
All of this is somewhat moot, however, if their isn't tangible improvement over the second half of this season. There is still plenty of room for internal growth within the current roster. How much of that is realized over the next 30 games will have a significant impact on the value of the propositions above.
For now, we all get a shiny new toy to keep us amused and engaged as we wait for a warmer spring.