There is no doubt that Isaiah Thomas is now the face of the franchise. He was their best player on the floor last season and, without a doubt, the most important Celtic off the court as well. Since leading the team to a third-place finish in the Eastern Conference and a hard-fought series against the Hawks, the first-time All-Star has represented Boston at the NBA Lottery, helped recruit Kevin Durant, and was a big part in landing Al Horford. He came to the Celtics for the low, low price of Marcus Thornton's expiring contract and this summer's Cavaliers first-round pick, and for all that he's done in his brief stint in green, his $6 million-plus contract is arguably the best bargain in the NBA today.
But the clock is ticking.
For the last two seasons, Celtics fans have enjoyed two trips to the playoffs from a young team built patiently through the draft, fortified by Danny Ainge's savvy trades and free agent pick ups, and coached masterfully by Brad Stevens. They've overachieved but, frankly, been underpaid for it. The Celtics will soon have to pay the piper. In an interview with CSNNE's A. Sherrod Blakely, Thomas said that "they better bring out the Brinks truck [when it comes to his free agency]. They're paying everybody else. I gotta get something."
That real talk may sound harsh, but basketball is still a business. Thomas turned himself into an All-Star last season and far exceeds his contractual value on the floor. Coupled with the fact that he's become a primary reason why the Celtics have become a destination for free agency, he'll deserve a max deal in 2018. He'll be entering his 8th year of NBA service, and the then-29-year-old vet could be in line for a five-year contract in the neighborhood of $155M (30% of the cap).
As MassLive's Tom Westerholm and Ryan Bernadoni (dangercart) point out, the summer of 2018—and more notably, the February trade deadline that precedes it—looms as a major crossroads. Ainge had set up this summer as a chance to lure a free agent to Boston with the rising salary cap and cost-controlled roster. That lead to Horford. With the expiring contracts of Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko coming off the books in 2017, the Celtics again will have the same opportunity to go big-game hunting in the FA market with about $40M to spend. After next summer, the cap will smooth out, and this fountain of free-agency money will dry up. Teams will have to start balancing their books without that injection of TV money, and for the Celtics, they'll have some big decisions to make.
In two years, they just won't have Isaiah Thomas to take care of. Avery Bradley's 4-year, $32M team-friendly deal is set to expire, and Kelly Olynyk could be a restricted free agent if Ainge doesn't choose to extend his rookie contract beforehand. Depending on how free agency turns out in 2017, assistant GM Mike Zarren could be looking at a payroll butting up right against the cap with three core players looking for new deals. They'll all have bird rghts, but they could be irrelevant just like in the case of Turner's massive pay raise in Portland.
The fear here is that Ainge could be in a similar situation that Sam Presti found himself in when he traded James Harden and Serge Ibaka from Oklahoma City. As the team gets closer and closer to a contending level, commitments have to be made. So, how can the Celtics continue its pursuit of star free agents while maintaining their cap flexibility over the next two years?
- Trade for young studs now: As Kevin O'Connor suggests, the Celtics and Sixers are perfect trade partners right now. His proposed deal for Dario Saric and Jahlil Okafor would take a monumental package, but it could clear up some future uncertainties. Bradley and a Brooklyn pick would almost certainly be part of the deal in addition to some combination from the class of 2015. For that haul, the Celtics would be getting back productive players on rookie contracts.
- Develop the young guys: while Golden State and Cleveland go ring shopping for the next few years, the Celtics could lay low, giving precious playing time to their young players. Ainge brought back veterans Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko, but with the departures of Jared Sullinger and Evan Turner, there are plenty of minutes for Boston's last four top picks: Olynyk, Smart, Rozier, and Brown. If one or two can pop next season, that'll increase the options that Ainge has next July.
- (gulp!) deal Thomas and/or Horford: it's surely an unpopular idea, but Ainge has proven to be a ruthless GM. IF he can make a deal for a young star and IF one develops in house, Danny could move IT4 or Horford for someone that's a better fit with Boston's age profile. Thomas and Horford are 27 and 30 respectively, and if a championship window doesn't look like it's going to open in their primes, well, we know what happened to the Big Three when their window slammed shut.