By: Denery Noone
Is the end for Isaiah Thomas in Boston On the Horizon?
Before you say anything, no, the 2016-2017 Boston Celtics are not better with Isaiah Thomas on the sideline. We all know the glaring weaknesses that diminish the value of Thomas on an NBA roster.
Yes, he is 5’9” (On a good day), he is an overwhelming defensive liability, and he is ball dominant, but Thomas’ 28.9 points per game most strongly correlate to the Celtics’ 53 wins this year than any other factor.
This Celtics team, a team most appropriately termed, “The Bridge Celtics” has every role required to be a contender filled other than the superstar. They have two strong three and D guys in Bradley in Crowder, the ultimate leader and stretch five in Horford, a tremendous defender and playmaker coming off the bench in Smart, and extensive depth and youth.
Yet, they simply do not have a superstar. They lack the one, two, or really three guys needed to push them over the top against teams like Cleveland or Golden State. But, what they do have is Isaiah Thomas. Thomas has provided legitimate scoring for a team that had a significant void in that area.
Guys like Bradley, Crowder, and Horford are adequate scorers in moderation, but this team is nowhere close to the number one seed without Isaiah Thomas. So, when Thomas went down, the inevitable culmination process of the Celtics season seemed to be dramatically expedited with Thomas on the sideline.
Then, the Celtics went out and won game 3, and blitzed the Cavs in the first half of game four. The Celtics were 24 minutes away from returning to Boston with the series tied. Ignoring Kyrie’s monster second half and the Cavs unreal shooting, the Thomas-less Celtics provoked the question, “are the Celtics better without Isaiah?”
Once again, no they are not. The performances of the glut of Celtic role players in games 3 and 4 have been nice, but they are more a product of unpredictability, poor defensive rotations by Cleveland, and a 7-10 three-point outburst by Marcus Smart.
With all of this being said, Thomas’ contract expires after next season, which is the same time that Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley enter free agency as well. Thomas’ 2017 performance landed him a second team All-NBA selection, and a never ending debate of whether Thomas deserves a max contract commenced.
Now, despite Thomas’ 2nd Team All-NBA selection, he is not eligible for the Super Max (35% of the salary cap) because he signed with Phoenix before being traded to Boston instead of resigning with Sacramento, the team that drafted him. So the question remains, will the Celtics re-sign Thomas after next season? My guess is they will not.
There are some personnel decisions that have to happen for the Celtics to move on from Thomas, but if they do, there is no doubt in my mind Thomas will be in a different uniform in 2018 at the very latest.
The first decision will obviously be made on draft night in the form of Markelle Fultz. The most important decision Danny Ainge has had to make since trading Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn for that abundance of unprotected first round picks will take place June 22nd. The Celtics need to take Markelle Fultz.
At 6’4”, 195 pounds with a 7’0” wingspan, Fultz is the consensus number one pick. He plays with tremendous control and pace, he can get to the basketball and score at will, and is freakishly athletic. His defense is a question mark, but with his size, strength, and speed that should not be an enduring issue. In Fultz, the Celtics will be drafting a guy that will either play alongside Thomas, or replace him as the franchise centerpiece and starting point guard.
So, say the Celtics select Fultz number one overall, and we add him to the roster. That would mean that Fultz, Guershon Yabusele, and Ante Zizic would all be locks to make the 2017 Celtics roster. Marcus Smart is still only 23 years old and a guy the Celtics greatly value. He will be on the roster in 2017 barring any substantial trades.
Along with Smart, Jaylen Brown is without a doubt a major part of this organization's future, and has the potential to be a top-three guy on a championship team in the future. He will be on the roster. Then, you have Horford and the remaining three years of his contract, so right there is six of a maximum fifteen players on an NBA Roster.
The next move for the Celtics will come in the first week of July. Gordon Hayward will most likely be an unrestricted free agent come July 1st with the impending opt-out of his current deal. Hayward’s relationship with Celtics coach Brad Stevens set the Celtics up as a prime candidate should Hayward seek a new home.
The decision to leave, although still unlikely, became more realistic when Hayward was left off the three All-NBA teams, deeming him ineligible for the Super Max deal at 5 years $207 million. Because of this, Hayward has three realistic choices for his future to maximize his financial situation.
The first choice he could make would be to exercise his player option for 2017 at $16 million. In doing this, Hayward would be betting on himself to either win the MVP, win Defensive Player of the Year, or be named to one of the three All-NBA teams, qualifying him for that Super Max deal next summer. Hayward would then be 28 years-old entering his 5 year deal at 35% of the salary cap, making him 33 at the end of the contract. This would essentially serve as Hayward’s final max contract in the NBA barring an unexpected continuation of success at that age.
Hayward’s second choice would be to decline his player option for 2017, and resign with Utah for 4 years at the max, with an opt-out after the third year. This would be a more sustainable option for Hayward because he will be likely to maintain his level of play through the end of this contract, and set himself up for one final max deal when he turns 30. This scenario also gives Hayward annual salary bumps more lucrative than if he signed this contract elsewhere. This is probably the most likely scenario because Hayward does seem to enjoy Utah and the Jazz are extremely young and very talented.
Hayward’s final option, and this is the one that brings Boston into the equation, would see Hayward leaving Utah and joining another team, say the Celtics, and sign a four year max contract for $135 million. However, this contract would give Hayward the ability to opt-out after three years.
Should Hayward do this, he would be 30 years old at the time of his opt-out, making him a prime candidate for another max contract, and because Hayward would be entering his 11th year in the league, he would be eligible for the 10-year veteran super max deal at, you guessed it, 35% of the salary cap. In this scenario, the Celtics would also have full-bird rights and would be able to go over the salary cap to resign Hayward to his new max contract.
So, in essentially every situation, Hayward would be making essentially the same amount of money by the end of the contracts, thus meaning that location and fit will play much more of an impact than money, an uncommon proposition under the new CBA.
This formality makes the possibility of Hayward reuniting with Brad Stevens to become “The Guy” in Boston significantly more realistic.
This forces the Celtics, a team that will make Hayward their priority this summer according to Woj, to make some significant roster moves to create space for Hayward. They will have to renounce the contracts of Amir Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, Jonas Jerebko, James Young, and Gerald Green. They then have to waive the non-guaranteed contracts of Tyler Zeller, Demetrius Jackson, and Jordan Mickey.
With the projected 2017 salary cap at $101 million, the Celtics would then need to clear about $3.5 million more to make room for Hayward’s max deal that starts at $30.3 million.
This gives the Celtics one realistic decision remaining, to trade either Bradley, Crowder, Thomas, all three, or most unlikely Smart.
So, say that Brad Stevens and his voodoo pry Hayward out of Utah, the Celtics have that decision to make. But, before we get to that decision, let’s fast forward just a little bit to the 2018 NBA Draft.
Brooklyn Pick III
Once again, this pick will be a no brainer. Now obviously this does require the Nets to be one of the worst five teams in the NBA for the third year in a row, and for the Celtics sake, hopefully the worst.
Say that Nets are one of the worst four teams in the NBA next season, because realistically the 2018 draft has four true franchise players, the Celtics will adding one of Michael Porter Jr., Luka Doncic, Mohammed Bomba, or DeAndre Ayton.
The hope for Boston would be to land picks #1 or #2 which should be some combination of the 6’10” Lethal wing Porter or the dynamic 6’7” Slovenian Luka Doncic, who at age 17, is starting for Real Madrid, the best team in the second best league in the world. Doncic passes like Lebron, is a knockdown shooter, and essentially serves as a point forward which is so valuable in today's positionless NBA. He is widely considered as the best international prospect ever. Meanwhile, Porter does it all as well. He is much more of a score-first type of player, but with his height and ability, he has the edge over Doncic right now as the #1 prospect.
Both of these guys are transformational players, and would be tremendous fits for the Celtics youth movement.
Hypothesize the Celtics grab the 6’10” Porter, the Celtics could then be potentially rolling out a starting lineup of Markelle Fultz, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Michael Porter, and Al Horford. Off the bench they would have Ante Zizic, a guy who could learn under Horford, Guerschon Yabusele, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and an influx of veteran contracts filling up the remaining roster spots.
Notice I left out three key players, Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley, and of course, Isaiah Thomas.
Bradley and Crowder
Here’s the thing with Avery Bradley. He is an awesome three and D guy, but his future is not in Boston. Bradley is going to be looking for somewhere north of $15-20 million, and the Celtics simply can’t afford to pay him under these desired circumstances.
Bradley will be 28 when his new contract kicks in, and although he is extremely valuable, he fits much better with a contender opposed to a team like the Celtics waiting for the young kids to develop.
The Celtics will have to decide whether they want to trade Bradley this summer after a strong playoff run and a year remaining on his deal at $8 million, or let him play out the contract and depart in free agency, but it is unlikely that Bradley returns to Boston.
As for Crowder, his contract comes with a lot more value. After this season, Crowder will still have three years left at $7 million, and although the Celtics can keep him, if they sign Hayward all Crowder is really doing is clogging up space and slowing the development of Jaylen Brown.
Crowder is another guy that is a great fit on a contending team, his shooting has drastically improved, he is a strong defender, and plays with a ton of energy, but if Crowder wants to remain a starter in the NBA, he is going to have to start somewhere else.
Crowder needs to step aside and let Jaylen Brown slide into the starting lineup within the next year or two. Brown’s development is the most important thing for this franchise right now, and Ainge cannot let Crowder impede that progress. With that being said, should Crowder accept a slightly diminished role as a bench player, he becomes much more valuable with his great contract and strong play. Given that that is pretty unlikely, the next best solution would be to trade Crowder as well.
The last domino to fall for the Boston Celtics will be Isaiah Thomas. Like I mentioned before, only one of Bradley, Thomas, or Smart can stay with the Celtics past 2018. Given the strong likelihood Bradley is on his way out, that narrows the choice down to Thomas or Smart.
I’m not saying that Marcus Smart is a better player than Isaiah Thomas, because he is clearly not, but there are simply too many overwhelming factors that would force the Celtics to re sign Smart and let Thomas walk should they sign Hayward.
This team is clearly better suited for a youth movement. Signing guys like Hayward and Horford allow them to be competitive in the Eastern Conference, but the Celtics won’t truly contend for another 3-4 years once Fultz, Brown, and Porter develop. Marcus Smart is on the same timeline as those guys, and he would be a tremendous sixth man for this team going forward.
The other reason Isaiah Thomas will leave the Celtics should they sign Hayward will simply be playing time. It is not that Thomas and Fultz are unable to play together, because I think they would be a great tandem. Both guys can run the offense and play off the ball.
It is more along the lines of the Celtics can’t keep guys like Fultz, Brown, and Porter/Doncic/Bama/Ayton on the bench for a 5’9” point guard in his mid thirties making over $30 million a year.
With Horford and Hayward as guaranteed starters (I’ll avoid listing defined positions 2-4), Fultz has to be your point guard, Horford is your center, and Brown, Porter, and Hayward fill out the rest of your starting five if you’re the Celtics. Then, by the time Horford’s contract expires they should be ready to either implement Zizic as the starting center, re sign Horford at much less than the max, or go in a different direction, but those are your guys.
So what the Celtics can do is the exact same thing as they can with Bradley. Either trade him now before his contract expires and while his value is at its highest, or let him walk after next season.
Minnesota in particular would a great fit. There have been reports that they are trying to sign either Derrick Rose or Kyle Lowry this summer, but what they could do instead is trade for a younger, healthier piece in Thomas who provides electric scoring and shooting to a team that needs a spark from that position. The Timberwolves are basically ready to win now. They have their big three (or two depending on how you feel about Zach Lavine), and Thomas would be a great fit. In return, Minnesota could send the 7th pick in this years draft back to Boston, where they could add another young piece to the mix.
Thomas is too far past the point of returning to the bench. His numbers speak for themselves, he is a quality point guard that deserves to be starting somewhere, but it simply will not be in Boston. This team is moving in a different direction, and it is not Thomas’ fault, it is just the best move for the franchise.