To listen to talk radio in Boston or ESPN’s daily bloviation bonanza is to know that more Celtics fans are obsessed with what the NBA’s most storied franchise will do this summer than what they will do against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals this week. And they should be.
The Celtics, who lost Game 1 at home to the Cavs last night 117-104, are not about to win this series and return to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010. It almost seems fated that Cleveland, now 9-0 in the 2017 NBA playoffs, and the Golden State Warriors (10-0) will meet in the NBA Finals next month for a third consecutive season. The last time the same two teams met for three consecutive years in one of the three major professional American sports? In 1921-1923, when the New York Giants and New York Yankees (who were separated only by a few yards when they shared the Polo Grounds and—in 1923—by the Harlem River), met in the World Series. The Giants took two out of three.
Back to the Celtics. General manager Danny Ainge, a member of those perennial NBA Finals Boston teams from the 1980s, has some hardwood First World problems to tackle in the coming weeks. Here are Ainge’s known quantities: a team that finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference (53-29), arguably one of the top three coaches in the NBA (Brad Stevens) and the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA draft. Ainge’s unknown quantities: who that draft pick will be and the fate of stellar but comically undersized guard Isaiah Thomas.
Optimistically listed at 5-foot-9, Thomas finished third in the NBA in scoring this season (28.9 points per guard) while also being the Celtics’ primary ball handler. The 28 year-old becomes a free agent after next season and deservedly is seeking max contract dollars. “They better bring out the Brinks truck,” Thomas said earlier this season.
Somebody may back up that heavily armored vehicle in front of Thomas’s agent, but it should not be the Celtics. Ainge needs to find the best deal for his star this summer and either load up on more draft picks, free up cap space for an attractive summer of ’17 free agent (Jimmy Butler of the Chicago Bulls?) or acquire an All-Star at the three or four forward positions. It’s the best thing for the franchise moving forward, no pun intended.
Thomas is a magical scorer (although Chicago Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg is correct: He’d be limited if officials whistled him for palming, something many point guards do but few as prolifically as he), but he is a gaping defensive liability. Moreover, Thomas needs the ball in his hands to operate and the two most gifted players in this year’s draft class, guards Markelle Fultz out of Washington (where Thomas also attended college) and Lonzo Ball of UCLA, are also playmakers. Fultz could co-exist with Thomas, but neither player would truly be complementing one another.
The future is blindingly bright in Boston. Not only do the Celtics have the top pick this summer, but they may have it next year as well because they once again will have the first-round pick of the Brooklyn Nets. Four years ago the Nets traded away their future by giving the Celtics three first-round draft picks in exchange for future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, who were in the bald tires phase of their careers. It was the most notorious swindle New York City had ever seen that did not involve $24 worth of trinkets.
Boston won that deal because Ainge, unlike his Brooklyn counterpart Billy King, did not fall victim to myopia. The Celtics finished 25-57 the season after that trade (the 44-38 Nets were eliminated by LeBron James’s Miami Heat in the second round of the playoffs) but in the next three seasons won 40, 48 and now 53 games. The Nets finished with the NBA’s worst record this season and their first-round pick this June is not until No. 27. Barclay’s Center may be the only area of Brooklyn that is not appreciating in value.
Coupling those two precious picks with the reality that James, 32, and the Cavs still have a few years of hegemony remaining east of the Mississippi—fellow Cavs All-Start Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are 25 and 28, respectively—Ainge would be wise to build for a few years down the road. By then Thomas will be on the other side of 30 years old and, were the Celtics to retain him, his contract would be an anchor upon the franchise’s progress.
Doubting Thomas has been a sucker’s bet for a good decade, as the diminutive southpaw guard proved naysayers wrong first at the University of Washington, then with the Sacramento Kings and the Phoenix Suns. His 53-point effort versus the Washington Wizards in the previous round was magnificent and no one has forgotten that he has led Boston this far while dealing with the sudden death of his younger sister, Chyna, in a car accident on the eve of the playoffs. He has been at the epicenter of the Celtics’ resurgence since arriving two years ago and Boston fans, who prize loyalty in their sports heroes as much as anyone (See: Roger Clemens) are rightfully protective of Thomas and his impact on this franchise.
That said, for the benefit of all involved, the Celtics need to let him go. A 5-foot-9 shooting guard is never leading Boston any further in the postseason than they are right now, and a 2017-2018 season in which Thomas’s future is uncertain will become an unwanted distraction around the TD Garden. The only thing worse would be to sign Thomas to an extension that would hamstring what the Celtics would be able to do both on and off the court for the next three to five years. It seems anathema for a team that finished with the best record in its conference to part ways with its best player, but then Boston is the home of revolutionary ideas.
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