And Danny Ainge knows it.
On February 18th, 2015, nearing midnight, Danny Ainge pulled off one of his greatest heists in his tenure as a GM. He traded Marcus Thorton and a 2016 Cavaliers 1st round pick to the Pheonix Suns for a 5'9, 185-pound point guard stuck as the third fiddle in an overloaded 3-man point guard rotation. That miniature dynamo was none other than Isaiah Thomas, and his arrival in Boston completely transformed the Celtics. He immediately led them on an absolute tear in the back half of the season on the way to snagging the Celtics a 7th seed they had no business attaining. A year, a 48-win season, and two first-round exits later, we as a collective fanbase have grown antsy in the hope of a big move to parlay our assets into a superstar to pair with IT, but if the overarching goal of the organization is to win championships, perhaps the prevailing reason a move has yet to be made is the same reason we find ourselves yearning for that deal in the first place.
Isaiah Thomas's arrival in Beantown could not have come at a more perfect time for both parties. The Celtics fielded a defensive-minded roster that lacked a reliable ball-handler and as a legitimate offensive threat to initiate the ball movement of their offense, and Thomas was overflowing with offensive energy without the opportunity to fully unleash it. Thomas was and still is a necessity on the Celtics roster as the sole source of legitimate offense. By all statistical measures, Thomas was essential to the Celtics offense. He posted an offensive box plus-minus of +5.0 (10th in the NBA) and a real offensive box Plus-minus of +3.13 (14th) last season. He was far and away the best Celtics performer in both statistics, undeniably showing how essential he is on the offensive end.
As good as Isaiah is at ignoring his lack of height in thriving on offense, he is almost equally as bad at escaping the problems caused by his stature on defense. Despite IT's best efforts as well as Stevens' coaching choices that frequently left Thomas guarding whatever offensive player was deemed least threatening, his negative impact on the Celtics defense was undeniable. His defensive box and real plus-minus stats were a putrid -2.0 and -1.89. Each number ranked dead last on the Celtics roster among players not named Coty Clarke, and he appeared for a grand total of 6 NBA Minutes.These statistics paint a pretty clear picture that really confirms what has become obvious to frequent Celtics viewers for some time: the Celtic's badly need IT on offense but are able to thrive on defense when he comes off the court. Danny Ainge knows this, and he has been subtly preparing for life after Thomas
The Celtics are actually very well equipped to cover for Thomas on defense, especially with a more reliable post presence in Al Horford, but IT realistically needing to cover for him is a very serious problem. Covering for Thomas works well enough to win games in the regular season, but the real problem with his deficiencies comes when things really matter. The NBA is a matchup league, and that fact becomes magnified in the playoffs, where teams always look to exploit specific matchups when the going gets tough. As we just saw in the finals with Steph Curry, it doesn't take a genius coach to figure out the weak defensive link in a squad and go back to attacking that weak link over and over again. Curry is a lengthier and more instinctive defender than IT and was still attacked relentlessly in the finals. Thomas would be a massive burden on defense in the final minutes of close playoff games against great teams, which presents a monumental barrier the Celtics would have to surpass in pursuit of banner 18.
Without Thomas on the floor, the need to gameplan around a bad defender is alleviated, and the Celtics get the luxury of fearlessly switching every screen thanks to a roster full of defenders who give offenses nightmares. They have the makings to be a new-age iteration of the Bad Boy Pistons capable of shutting down even the most capable of offenses. The stud defenders early in their careers littered up and down the roster convey a young, defense-first identity that the Celtics are attempting to build, an identity that doesn't seem to favor comparatively older and offense-first players like IT. At age 27, Isaiah Thomas is entering the prime years of his career and essentially is who he is: a supremely skilled point guard offensively with great penetrating quickness who probably won't have a much better year than he had this past season barring an unexpected development of Curry-like shooting ability or a very (very) late growth spurt. His size will present problems on defense no matter how long he plays and playing amongst players feet taller and many pounds heavier than himself is bound to present durability issues the more and more as his career progresses.
Quite on the contrary, Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart each have loads of ways in which they could improve their games. Both have better size and are already better defenders than IT will ever be, and it is far from unreasonable to expect one or both of them to progress into a serviceable offensive point guard this upcoming season. Smart is such an otherworldly defender that all he really has to do is develop into a not-terrible shooter to justify a larger role, as his ball handling and passing have quietly been much improved since beginning his rookie year. Terry Rozier possesses the athleticism to slice into the lane at will. Summer league might not mean much, but Rozier was brutally efficient in all aspects of his offense in his time in Utah and Vegas, giving us hope that he could essentially resemble a taller, more athletic version of IT in the near future. Neither has yet earned enough trust from Stevens to consider handing over the keys to the first unit offense, but the time for a changing of the guard is visible on the horizon.
The addition of Al Horford, on the surface, seems to support the Celtics building around the IT-based timeline, but giving a player like Horford a max contract with cap space that probably would have otherwise gone unused is a no-brainer no matter the timeline of the Celtics. He might be 3 years Thomas's senior and possess a skill set that happens to compliment Thomas's very well, but a mobile, smart, and skilled big like Horford compliments the skillsets of most every player in the NBA, including the guards behind IT on the depth chart. Horford's passing is something that is frequently overlooked as a strength to his game because, well, he is good at pretty much everything. An underrated impact of that passing coming from a big man is that his playmaking could ease the burden of a younger point guard in Smart or Rozier while allowing the offense to still breathe and flow. His game has always been centered around skill rather than athleticism, so he should age well as a player moving forward and has plenty of wisdom to share with the young guns on the Celtics roster.
The Celtics decision to pass on Kris Dunn in favor of Jaylen Brown in the draft similarly might look to some like a vote of confidence in favor of IT, but several factors point to this not being the case. Danny said all along that he would take the best player available, regardless of position. Even if that is not the case, passing on a point guard strikes me as a greater endorsement of Smart and Rozier than it does for Thomas due to their closer proximity in age. Looking at what actual selection Jaylen Brown projects to bring to the table, his upside is a player who can successfully create his own scoring opportunities with his superior athleticism while having the ability to lock down 4 positions on defense. What the Celtics probably miss the most when Thomas sits is his aggressiveness getting to the basket that bends the defense and initiates the Spursian ball movement that Stevens (and myself) love to see. Judging from his college and summer league performances, that is precisely what Jaylen could bring to the table from day 1. His shot and decision making might take some time to develop, but his driving ability is an important factor in creating a functional Thomas-less offense.
On top of all the roster construction factors that seem to suggest the Celtics are preparing a team that would have a defined and wholistic identity without Isaiah Thomas, there is the aspect of money. The well-publicized fact that IT is on one of the most team-friendly contracts in the league means that he will be looking for a mammoth paycheck (someone will be willing to bring out the Brinks Truck) at the end of the 2017-2018 season. With the Celtics sporting two first round point guards in Rozier and Smart and a second rounder getting paid like one in Demetrius Jackson, it seems unlikely that they would be willing to pay out the nose for a player entering the back half of his career unless none of the three shows enough development to be trusted with a starting role over the next two years.
The Celtics right now are probably not ready to be successful without Isaiah Thomas, but these signs point to a team built to thrive without his presence sooner rather than later. The 2018 offseason might still feel ages away, but the moniker of GMs has always been that it is better to trade a player too early than too late. As the time ticks down on Isaiah Thomas's current contract, Danny Ainge will be forced to make a decision on where IT fits in the Team's future, and the signs point to Trader Danny favoring a future with Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier at the point. It might seem crazy now, but if either of our young point guards shows serious improvement early in the year, Isaiah Thomas could pop up in trade rumors by the time the trade deadline rolls around. If he could fetch a good return, Danny would be selling high on a player that has proved he can carry a heavy load on offense, and his departure would allow younger players to step into the larger roles that they will otherwise be expected to eventually occupy.
Furthermore, the Celtics will have max-contract cap space next offseason to sign one of the many faces in the stacked 2017 free agent class (although that class no longer includes Russell Westbrook) and on top of that get to add a potential superstar in a top-5 pick from Brooklyn in an also-stacked 2017 draft class. The Celtics will have the opportunity to add a primary scorer through either avenue. In the scenario where this scorer would join Isaiah Thomas on the court, Brad Stevens would have a harder time continuing to start the defensively deficient IT if the offense is then capable of functioning without him. He perhaps could return to the sixth man role where he has thrived for the better part of his career, but with a jumbo sized chip on his shoulder, there is little evidence to suggest Thomas would take a move back to the bench well at all.
Isaiah Thomas's spectacular play ever since joining the Celtics might be the reason we find ourselves dreaming of a move to thrust us into immediate championship contention, but accelerating a rebuild around a player with an unsure place in the team's future would be shortsighted for a team focused only on winning championships. The Celtics have the ingredients to cook up an effective offense without IT, and improving the surrounding offense will cause diminishing returns from Thomas in the one aspect that makes him worth starting. They already can boast an unbelievable defense when Isaiah leaves the floor, and once the offense starts to catch up, his days as a Celtic could be numbered. Isaiah Thomas might currently be the Celtics' most essential player, and I would love nothing more than to see him lead the team to the promised land, but he isn't the answer to our yearning for the next championship. The Celtics best shot at an NBA title will come with a different face starting at the point. So what now?
Be patient, trust Ainge's vision, and watch the young guns grow into the players we know they can become.
Banner 18 will come, and more will follow.