Danny Ainge called Isaiah Thomas "one of the top point guards in the league" when asked about the sixth man's desire to be a starter, but the rest of his comments suggest that the Boston Celtics would still prefer him to come off the bench going forward.
"What makes him great is he's a driven guy who really wants to be the recognized as one of the great little guys that has ever played basketball," Ainge said to the media during his end of season press conference. "And I guess to encourage him to feel like he can still do that by coming off the bench, a la John Havlicek and Kevin McHale, Cedric Maxwell, and many of the Celtic greats that came off the bench. But like right now for our team, Isaiah is more suited for a bench role."
More on Isaiah Thomas
More on Isaiah Thomas
Thomas was Boston's go-to scorer since joining the team at the deadline, averaging 19 points per game. He immediately filled multiple team needs with his aptitude for creating in the pick-and-roll, drawing fouls, and fourth quarter production.
The Celtics scored 9.9 points per 100 possessions more with Thomas on the floor than they did with him riding the bench, but those numbers don't tell the whole story.
In the first quarter of games, the Celtics had a minus-4.3 Net Rating with Thomas, which suggests he wasn't making as much of an impact. But they did have a ridiculous plus-10.3 from the second quarter and beyond, and a plus-13.3 in the second half and overtime.
"What he does is provide an amazing spark off the bench. He was obviously our best offensive player and I thought Brad did a magnificent job of utilizing him at the most needed times of the game," Ainge added. "We feel like we're sort of maximizing his production at the high 20s to low 30s type of minutes as opposed to playing more minutes and not getting the extra production."
Ainge's point is that the Celtics are able to utilize him an astronomical rate by limiting his minutes. He was fifth in the league in usage after joining the Celtics, which put him in the company of stars like LeBron James and Stephen Curry. But since Thomas expounds so much energy to compensate for his small stature, he might not be as effective doing it with a larger dose of minutes.
After all, as Ainge alluded to, Thomas is limited on the defensive end because of his size. Playing him from the opening tip against equally skilled guards could put the defense in a bind early in games. While Thomas' spark would be helpful, it might not outweigh the benefit of having him do it against reserves late in quarters. Having Thomas come off the bench frees him from the burden of playing defense against some of the league's star point guards, which allows him to go full-throttle offensively.
But just how much does Thomas want to start? It was a constant topic of conversation in Sacramento, in Phoenix there were three guards that deserved to start and Thomas was the odd man out, and now it is in Boston. Thomas has spoken to the media countless times about his role and has always given positive answers, saying he wants to be the best at whatever role he's given, whether he's the starter or sixth man.
"I don't know a player that doesn't want to be a starter. I know Manu Ginobili wants to be starter - well maybe not now, but back when they brought him off the bench in his 20s. I know for sure Kevin McHale wanted to be a starter," Ainge said. "Listen, sometimes you need to play the role to win and do what's best for the team. I'm confident that Isaiah is a winner."
More on Celtics History
More on Celtics History
Ainge brought up some of the great sixth men in Celtics history, which is something I asked Thomas about earlier this season. At the time Thomas said that nobody had tried to "pitch him" on the role, but considering Ainge's comments it wouldn't be surprising if that was a main topic of conversation during his exit interview.
And it makes sense. In a perfect world, if the Celtics are able to build a contender, Thomas could be that player who steps on the throat of opponents mid-way through quarters, after a lead is already built. And he'd likely be one of the finishers late in games, which is what matters most anyway. If Marcus Smart develops according to plan, and if Avery Bradley extends his shooting range to above the break, then they would have a versatile guard rotation, with all three players receiving at least 30 minutes per game.
"His job is to play and help the Celtics win," said Ainge. "He can choose to be happy or he can choose not to. I'm confident that Isaiah is with us."
If Brad Stevens ultimately chooses to make Thomas the sixth man, it'll be his choice to embrace it or not. But that shouldn't be as much of a potential concern as we're all making it out to be if Thomas was being genuine with the media.
"This is the role for the team right now and I'm gonna take full advantage of it," Isaiah Thomas said earlier this month. "Why not be the best sixth man? If I was the starting point guard, I would want to be the best starting point guard in the NBA. That's just how my mind is, so I try to take full advantage of every opportunity I get and this is a new opportunity for me and I'm happy here."