The big theme heading into deadline day is the Celtics' constant scavenger hunt for a coveted star. Someone who can turn the franchise around overnight. From Demarcus Cousins to Dwight Howard to Al Horford to Danilo Gallinari (guilty), we've all turned our heads elsewhere. We're all coveting a move that will put Boston up with Cleveland tomorrow, but what about the little guy representing the Celtics up north?
Trade deadline hoopla is understandable, and Boston needs another piece to help them become serious contenders in the east, but this break for Boston fans should be a cause for celebration rather than lust.
Exactly one year ago, Isaiah Thomas and the Celtics looked lost. It was a chaotic time for both. Evan Turner's floater had downed the top-seeded Hawks, but nobody truly believed in Boston as playoff contenders. Some didn't even want to think about it. The lottery was destined to bring the next All-Star here.
But on the other side of the country, trouble was brewing. The hottest deadline ticket was an embattled guard on the Phoenix Suns, Goran Dragic. Teams were savoring left and right for a guy who looked like the next Steve Nash. Feeling underwhelmed with his position in the desert, he wanted out. But behind him, a frustrated 5'9" Thomas was quietly growing uneasy with the situation at hand too.
In a deal that would be a game changer for both the C's and Thomas, Danny Ainge struck in the chaos of deadline day: the final minutes. Thomas had been averaging 15.2 points and 3.7 assists in just 25.7 minutes per game, but the Suns were looking past him. The chemistry-based meltdown out west paved the way for the deal of the year.
Trade deadline 2015 was bananas. Eleven trades went down that day, several of occurring in the final minutes. Woj bombs were dropping all over the league. While everybody was admiring Miami's Dragic addition, a mega-deal that sent Brandon Knight to Phoenix, and a three-way deal that sent Reggie Jackson to Detroit, Ainge struck.
Out of the blue, through the frenzy, Boston acquired Thomas for Marcus Thornton and a Cleveland pick they had received for eating money to allow Lebron James to sign with the Cavaliers. With a player efficiency rating of 22.3, Thomas drove the C's to a 20-10 finish, and the team blazed into the playoffs behind the immense production and confidence he brought. He missed eight games with a back injury, but the team fought through, going 5-3 in that stretch. By the end of the season, Thomas's talent and dedication were renowned, and he finished second in sixth man of the year voting behind Lou Williams.
What he brought to the C's was beyond confidence. It was an edge, the kind you'd normally expect to see a team gain from a superstar. Nobody really believed in the Celts as a dangerous team, and few may have bought in on Thomas as a dynamic star, but the way the C's carried themselves at least made many respect them as such. One of the shortest players in league history came off the Boston bench every night against top tier teams scoring 19.0 points and dishing 5.4 assists per game.
The Celtics became recognizable league-wide with how they ended last season; hustle, determination, poise, and hard-nosed play kept them in just about every game. If they weren't beating you, they were making it infuriatingly hard to hold on to a lead. A great player is often needed to develop a team's identity, and even with some incredible personalities and skills around him, Boston always leaned on their small star to pull them out of holes.
The Celtics fell to Cleveland in four games come playoff time, but a match made in heaven was forged. For the Celtics, they found themselves as a team in Isaiah, and he finally found a home where he was loved. Like a former Celtic once said, they came into 2015-16 after the lack of stability the year before feeling like anything was possible.
To everybody's stunning surprise, Thomas and the C's came into this year showing their ceiling was higher than anybody could have foreseen. They came out fuming before the break, and after a few minor stretches of poor play, Boston found itself at an overwhelming 32-23. Pushing the undefeated Warriors harder than anybody had prior to that point, beating the top-seeded Cavaliers with five points in the final five seconds, and winning 10 of their last 12 games going into the break, the Celtics now sit wiith the third best record in the east.
All that progress happened for Thomas and the Celtics in just one calendar year, sparked by a trade with such shocking consequences for both. In 2016, the C's have their first All-Star since the big-three era in I.T.
So while all the talk will be on the possible trades ensuing after tonight's All-Star game or Thomas recruiting Horford in Toronto, not enough can be said about how a trade nobody saw coming a year ago transformed Boston into one of the most unique teams the league has seen this season. Propelled by tenacity and a relentless drive that starts with their smallest player, the team feels like it can compete with anybody on any given night.
That attitude comes right from the top. Brad Stevens' coaching is crucial, and Jae Crowder's energy is essential, but the career-high 21.5 points, 6.6 assists, and 3.0 rebounds per game from Thomas are the biggest reason for the Celtics' overwhelming start to 2015-16. So tonight's All-Star game should be a celebration of Thomas and the C's finding each other. It was hard to imagine a Celtic playing with the stars for a long time after the past era of success coming to an end, but here we are three years later, and our own number four is an Eastern Conference All-Star.
Many thought it would take a full tank job to bring a star to Boston Instead, Ainge found one that nobody believed in, and it has paid off every single day since. For that, as you watch Isaiah take the court in Canada, let's celebrate.