The trade deadline deal that brought Isaiah Thomas to Boston proved to be an emphatic turning point for the Celtics. Their season was spiraling down the drain while general manager Danny Ainge looked to unload expensive veterans to gather assets he could use to rebuild the franchise, as the team continued to sink toward the bottom of the standings.
Then something happened that we never saw coming. The Phoenix Suns were making a player Ainge had long coveted available and the Celtics pounced on the opportunity to steal Thomas at a more than reasonable price. The trade seemed counter-intuitive to the path that their rebuilding effort was taking, which led many to question why Ainge would risk improving the team just enough to cost them valuable ping pong balls in the lottery. Instead of inhibiting the team's development by weakening their lottery positioning, Thomas proved to be the spark that ignited the rebuilding effort to take a leap forward, fueling a stretch run that landed the Celtics back in the playoffs ahead of schedule.
The Celtics were 14-7 to end the regular season with Thomas in the lineup (he missed 8 games due to injury and sat out the final game of the regular season to rest). It's been well documented that Boston won more games than anyone in the Eastern Conference since the beginning of February, despite losing 4 of the 5 games to start the month prior to the trade.
The two best teams in the East the last two months will meet in the first round. pic.twitter.com/vnvwRnjBkI— Sean Grande (@SeanGrandePBP) April 15, 2015
Part of the credit for the team's turnaround has to go to coach Brad Stevens. The team struggled with a roster that was constantly in flux, but once Stevens was given the chance to work with a settled roster that quickly began to gel, the team took off. As the most valuable addition to this revamped roster, Thomas gets his share of the credit as well.
Despite being limited to 26.0 minutes off the bench, Thomas led the Celtics in scoring with 19.0 points per game following the trade that brought him to town. Of the players that still remain on this roster, only Evan Turner averaged more assists (5.5) than Thomas' 5.4 per game in a Celtics uniform.
Thomas is one of the only players on the team capable of creating his own shot. His shooting ability makes him a threat on the perimeter that opponents have to respect, which provides opportunities for him to blow past defenders on drives to the hoop. He is proficient at getting to the rim, drawing fouls to put him on the line, or kicking the ball out to an open teammate when the defense collapses on him. A player with these attributes is vital in today's NBA and nobody on this team does it better than Thomas.
Thomas' role heading into next season remains a bit unclear. He's ideally suited to come off the bench, where his explosive scoring can give the team a spark. The 5-foot-9 point guard's size disadvantage also won't be exploited as much if he's getting significant minutes against the opposing team's second unit. On the other hand, he may be the team's best player right now. He certainly would prefer to start and probably deserves to. This decision will be heavily influenced by the development of Marcus Smart and how the point guard duo meshes with any additions the team makes to the roster this offseason.
Regardless of if he starts or not, Thomas will still finish games. He was 6th in the league in 4th quarter scoring with 6.2 per game and he's fearless when it comes to taking big shots in close games.
While his exact role may be unsettled, one thing we do know is that Thomas is a keeper. He's owed about $19.75 million over the next three years on a contract that depreciates in value each year, making him one of the league's best bargains.