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State of the Celtics: Is Isaiah Thomas a foundational player or our best trade chip?


NBA: Boston Celtics at New York Knicks Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

Isaiah Thomas has been a polarizing player for most of his time in the league. The 5-foot-9 All-Star came into the league in 2011 already tagged with the “Mr. Irrelevant” name reserved for the last selection in the draft. Fast forward 5 years later, and he’s brought a Boston Celtics team destined for the lottery to pseudo-contender that looks a piece away from challenging LeBron James and the Cavaliers. Though Thomas has been without a doubt the lynchpin to the Celtics’ rise, some still question his overall role in the long term (myself included). Are you ready to give a 29-year-old Isaiah Thomas a max deal? Can you build a contender around Thomas? And where exactly does Thomas stand in the NBA hierarchy?

All of those questions can (and have) lead to some heated debates in the fan base, but the central answer lies within what you think about Thomas’s longevity. If you believe he’s a foundational player, then you probably also have a high opinion on where he stands amongst the NBA elites. But if you think he may be less than that, then the chances that you see him as worth the max deal may be slimmer, and hence, the idea of trading him may be more interesting. So with the help of some of the staff, we answered the question of whether we thought Thomas was a foundational player or Boston’s best trade chip.

Foundational Player, for now (Jeff Clark)

I suppose it is cheating if I say "it depends" or "both" so I'll pick a side and say that he's a foundation player... for now.

Thomas is an All-Star (or at least deserves to be), and I firmly believe that he can be one of the stars on an NBA championship team. He needs more elite-level help though. That seems to be the plan, and Ainge will try to land that kind of player before the trade deadline, but those kinds of players don't move often.

I put the odds of trading Thomas this season at about .01%, and that is only a nod to Danny Ainge's philosophy of never saying never. If a clear-upgrade superstar becomes available and the other team wants Thomas, then something could happen. Otherwise, it probably makes a lot more sense to wait till the offseason and see how the landscape changes. Once we know where the Nets pick will land in the lottery, we'll be able to make more informed decisions about the draft and free agency.

If it still looks like all the major stars are staying put, then Ainge has the option to pivot his strategy to building through the draft. With contract decisions coming up on Thomas, Bradley, and others, you could potentially see the Celtics turn into sellers—but not until they've exhausted all the other options to competing for championships sooner rather than later.

Foundational Player, but time is ticking (Bill Sy)

There's no doubt that Thomas is a foundational player and can be part of a Big Three. We can argue about whether or not he's the Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett in this scenario, but he's a star, and he's reaching that superstar level. To date, he's averaging 27 points and 6.3 assists, but what's most impressive is that he's going to the line almost nine times a game and is fourth in clutch scoring and second in fourth-quarter scoring. There are many great players that put up numbers, but few are as reliable when you need them most as IT4 has been.

But ultimately, it’s a question of timing, and the clock is ticking. The Celtics have this season and next until it's midnight on Isaiah Thomas's team-friendly contract and he turns into a max contract. That goes for Avery Bradley, too. Danny Ainge has less than two years to build around the current roster because there are big decisions coming. If he can't set off fireworks before the trade deadline or parlay his asset to bring in another star-level talent this summer, then I think yes, Thomas might be Boston's best trade chip down the road, and the franchise goes with a youth movement.

Foundational Player, period. (Alex Kungu)

Too many times when the debate about Isaiah Thomas comes up, the conversation shifts to what he can’t do as opposed to who else is doing what he’s doing. Amongst point guards Thomas is 3rd in PER, 6th in value added, 6th in estimated wins added, and 7th in ORPM. Via NBA player tracking, Thomas has a 7.0 net rating in the clutch while maintaining a 45.8% usage. He’s 2nd in the league in fourth-quarter scoring, and only Russell Westbrook has a higher usage than him among point guards. Yes, Thomas isn’t great on the defensive end, but only three point guards who are in the top 15 in DRPM have made an All-Star game. My point is, there are a lot of guards in this league who are considered elite but struggle on the defensive end, but not all of them have Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley to alleviate their defensive liabilities. Thomas isn’t a fake All-Star, or some lightning in a bottle; he’s the real damn deal, and Boston needs to capitalize while they have his talents.

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