Call Me Crazy, But I Think The Celtics Should Trade Isaiah Thomas
Danny Ainge Isn’t One To Shy Away From A Blockbuster
The Boston Celtics are in quite the enviable position. They just secured the number one pick in this June’s draft and are about to host an Eastern Conference Finals game. It’s the kind of place no one, including Doc Rivers, could have imagined they’d be when Danny Ainge moved two hall of famers (Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce) to Brooklyn, and Rivers to Los Angeles. Sure, they are just a series away from competing for an NBA title, but with the superhuman wearing number 23 for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and an even superer superteam out West, it’s seems more prudent to look down the road.
That road has seemingly infinite paths. One path is trading some package including this year and/or next year’s first round pick, and some combination of Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder for a game-changing wing: Gordon Hayward or Paul George.
Another path is keeping the picks, drafting Markelle Fultz, running it back for one more season and going after Gordon Hayward in free agency, where no assetts will be lost. Boston could also stick with the first part, drafting Fultz, and then make a deal at the deadline for George or Hayward. In the case of George, they would have his expiring contract to worry about.
The path that might seem a little outlandish is trading the guy who appears to be the franchise player, Isaiah Thomas. My reasoning for this plan is a philosophical, yet simple one: Looking toward the future. Let me preface the idea by acknowledging that Thomas has been an absolute pleasure to watch this year. He’s seriously captivated Boston fans in a manner reminiscent of David Ortiz. That still matters. But so too does the future of the franchise, and they’d be best served to deal him, add pieces, and try and gear up for the decline of LeBron James. And sure, LeBron might actually never decline, or it seems that way, but Boston has to play a probability game. The most likely scenario is that some time in the next 3–5 years, James’ body will start to break down or his skills will at least diminish slightly. That’s when the Celtics have to be ready to take control.
Trading for Paul George or Gordon Hayward unfortunately does very little to make LeBron James worse at basketball. Maybe, just maybe having both of those guys gives Boston a chance to beat a LeBron-led Cavaliers team, but even if they pull that series out, the Warriors are probably waiting for them in the Finals.
While Hayward would more likely be acquired in free agency, Paul George would come with a cost, perhaps in the shape of solid two way players like Bradley, Crowder or Smart. That would hurt Boston’s depth and their defense, two things that have propelled them over the last few seasons under Brad Stevens. One of the keys of having those three guys has been their ability to mask Thomas’ defensive weaknesses. When you have the defensive prowess of Crowder, Smart, Bradley, and Horford on the court at once, you can sometimes get away with hiding the worst defensive point guard in the league. Hayward and George are ranked respectively as the 47th and 48th best small forwards based on defensive real plus minus, while Crowder is ranked 11th. Losing a combo of Bradley, Crowder and Smart might be worth bringing in stars like George and Hayward, but it would still hinder their chances of beating a loaded Cavs or Warriors team, not significantly improve them. The overarching point is that Niether George, Hayward nor both of them would make the Celtics the favorites to win the NBA Finals. You probably only make those moves if the title is really in reach.
Isaiah Thomas’ trade value will never be higher than it is this off-season. He could be moved for a younger, more versatile fit, perhaps another high first rounder or a good young player in the league to round out the roster. Boston could keep a guy like Avery Bradley to hound opposing scorers, have Fultz on their roster, still have next year’s Brooklyn pick, and add whatever return they get for Thomas. That’s a wise move for the long game.
Let’s say that next year Brooklyn is the worst team in the league, yet again. Boston has the potential to have Markelle Fultz, Michael Porter, Avery Bradley, and a host of other solid role players. Obviously, the hope is that Fultz and/or a player of Porter’s caliber pan out to be stars — and for cheap, under rookie scale contracts for four years. That doesn’t always happen, but I still think there’s a better chance they hit on a prospect or two than the Cavs or Warriors taking a big step back in the next three to five years. There’s always guessing involved, but I just don’t see the benefit of mortgaging the future to try and reach an unattainable goal. Trading for George and/or Hayward helps only slightly in the short term, and probably does damage in the long term.
As much as Thomas’ offense has carried the Celtics, his lack of size and defense has undoubtedly hurt them. Over the course of the 82 game regular season, Boston was nine points better defensively with Thomas on the bench (their 99.7 defensive rating would have been the best in the league). Out of 91 point guards in the NBA, Thomas ranked 91st in defensive real plus minus. Moving him makes them a better, maybe even the best defensive team in the league.
From my vantage point, keeping Thomas and signing him to a “supermax,” contract will hurt, not help the franchise in the long run. When Thomas inevitably asks for the max contract — which he should by the way — Boston will have to say goodbye to key cogs like Bradley or Smart. That hurts, not helps them. As special as Thomas was in a legitimate MVP caliber season, can he really repeat it? Can he get better? It just doesn’t seem all that likely. For me, waiting a few years to be the best team in the East for closer to a decade, rather than going all in to come up short is a wise business decision. Danny Ainge has been known to make smart, sometimes unconventional choices. This falls under that category.