One of the bigger storylines pervading the sports world this week revolves around a simple question: are the Boston Celtics better without their 5-foot-9 star point guard Isaiah Thomas?
The whole debate arose after Boston’s surprising victory over Cleveland in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Until that narrow victory, the Celtics had suffered slaughtering defeats at the hands of LeBron James, even with Thomas, arguably their best player this postseason, on the floor.
Thomas was largely ineffective in those two games with just 19 combined points and 16 total assists. He looked lost at times in Game 2, and the Celtics offense sputtered to a stop as a result.
Then came Thomas’ injury, which was severe enough to keep him from returning to the court over these last few games. His departure meant more time for 6-foot-4-point guard Marcus Smart, who took advantage of the extra minutes and scored a team high 27 points and handed out 7 assists in the aforementioned Game 3 victory.
Naturally, the question of whether Boston truly needed Thomas started circling amongst the NBA faithful, especially considering his, ah, inability to play defense.
In March, Bleacher Report published a piece detailing the worst guards in the NBA and Thomas ranked No. 2 behind Reggie Jackson. Ouch. Much has been made of Boston’s attempts to hide Thomas on the defensive side of the floor, particularly when this flaw was exposed against Rajon Rondo and the Chicago Bulls in Round 1 — a series the Bulls likely win if Rondo doesn’t hurt his finger.
Then there’s the matter of the Celtics pick in this year’s NBA Draft. At this stage, Danny Ainge holds the rights to the No. 1 overall pick, which could net him sure-fire superstar point guards Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball.
I’ve suggested in several mock drafts that Boston should go after someone like Josh Jackson since the addition of Fultz or Ball seemed redundant given Thomas’ role on the team. Now, I’m wondering if the best option might be to trade Thomas while he’s at his peak, and then use that No. 1 pick to snag either Fultz or Ball as the PG of the future.
Look at it this way: Thomas’ contract is up after next season anyway, and given the current state of the NBA it’s safe to assume the Celtics will need to shell out a ton of cash to hang onto the thrifty guard. A feat made more difficult given Al Horford’s current salary. Trading Thomas now nixes that responsibility and opens a whole slew of options for Ainge, not the least of which is snagging another budding superstar, i.e. Gordon Hayward or Paul George, to join his young, scrappy squad.
Imagine a roster comprised of Avery Bradley, Al Horford, Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder and Gordon Hayward/Paul George, with Fultz/Ball coming off the bench. Add in another supporting player via a Thomas trade and you have yourself a very deep, talented, young roster. One that doesn’t necessarily break the bank.
Or, use Thomas to snag more lottery picks. It certainly couldn’t hurt to dangle the man out there, especially after his spectacular showing in these playoffs. There are several teams willing to sacrifice future picks for a proven commodity of Thomas’ ilk — the Pelicans, anyone?
Plus, something every team should consider (and probably already knows): championship teams aren’t built around small-ish point guards, even ones as good as Thomas. Chicago tried to build around Derrick Rose, and never got past the Eastern Conference Finals — and he was a 6-foot-3 MVP winner. The Suns were always competitive with Steve Nash, but could never get past the Lakers or Spurs. And look at Chris Paul, one of the all-time great points guards. He has yet to make it past the second round.
With the game on the line, who do you want holding the ball? A small point guard, or a 6-foot-9 small forward?
A player like Thomas can only carry a team so far before his size and defensive liabilities begin to drag them down.
Harsh? Perhaps. Thomas has been magnetic in these playoffs. I’d even venture to say Boston wouldn’t have made it this far without him. (Hypocritical much?) But he’s not the future of this Celtics franchise, especially if they hope to contend for a title in the next two or three years.