Among the other 28 teams in the league, it can be easily argued that the Boston Celtics are in the best position. Between a strong front office led by president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, an excellent coach in Brad Stevens, a versatile roster led by star point guard Isaiah Thomas, a deep supporting cast, and a bevy of draft picks at their disposal — including the No. 1 selection in next month’s NBA draft — there is plenty to like about the direction of the Celtics franchise.
But that doesn’t mean Boston’s path forward is clear, despite finishing the season with the best record in the Eastern Conference and making the conference finals. Because the Celtics have so many possibilities they can pursue — ranging from a focused rebuild around youth to chasing big names in free agency and trade, thanks to plenty of cap space and assets — there has been a years-long debate about how they should proceed. No matter which path they choose, however, one question looms over all of them: What should they do with Thomas?
While Russell Westbrook’s chase for a season-long triple-double was the dominant story line of this NBA season, Thomas’s incredible campaign for the Celtics was a close second. Building on the success he had last season, when he made his first all-star team, Thomas finished second to Westbrook with an average of 28.9 points this season. His repeated late-game heroics became the symbol of Boston’s impressive season. All of that was before his remarkable run during these NBA playoffs, when he played through the tragic death of his sister and repeated health issues — including multiple dental procedures and an ongoing hip injury — to lead Boston back to the conference finals. Thomas was shut down for the remainder of the playoffs, following a Game 2 shellacking, because of the hip ailment.
So it would seem like a no-brainer to make Thomas the centerpiece of the franchise moving forward, the hub around which the Celtics will try to secure an 18th championship banner for the TD Garden rafters.
This, however, is where the story gets complicated.
Thomas has one year remaining on his contract, in which he’ll get paid $6.2 million — arguably making him the best value in the NBA. But next summer, Thomas will be an unrestricted free agent. And after spending the past few years underpaid, there’s little doubt he’ll be looking for a massive payday when he hits the open market.
This is what Thomas told CSN New England last July about his upcoming free agency: “They better bring out the Brinks truck,” he said. “They’re paying everybody else. I gotta get something.”
Thomas said it with a smile, but make no mistake: at 29, and after making roughly $29 million through what will be his first seven NBA seasons when he hits free agency next July, he is — quite understandably — going to be looking to cash in. That’s especially true when one considers a max contract next summer will begin with an annual salary of more than the total amount he’ll have made in his career.
Signing him to such a deal, however, would come with serious risks. For all of the brilliance he’s displayed from the moment he arrived in Boston at the trade deadline in 2015 — one of the best of the many brilliant deals Ainge has executed in his 14 years in charge in Boston — Thomas remains a 5-foot-9 guard, and history doesn’t look kindly on diminutive guards as they age.
Boston would not have been better off without Thomas this season, but the way the Celtics have played in the past two games against the Cavaliers without him underscores some of the limitations he places on a team. While Thomas is undoubtedly capable of creating an efficient offense all on his own, he also ranked dead last — among 468 players — in the NBA in ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus stat, which estimates a player’s on-court impact on his team’s defensive performance by points allowed per 100 defensive possessions.
After Cleveland did whatever it wanted in the opening two games of the series with Thomas on the court, Boston replaced Thomas in the starting lineup with Marcus Smart — a 6-foot-4 bulldog who’s built like a brick wall and who has the speed and quickness to be a very effective defender. As a result, Boston not only won Game 3 (thanks in large part to an unsustainable scoring burst from Smart), but also built a 10-point halftime lead in Game 4. Cleveland came back in the second half to win, but it wasn’t hard to see in either game that Boston was far more stout defensively when it wasn’t having to constantly find a place to hide Thomas — something Stevens virtually always must do when he’s on the court.
Those defensive liabilities aren’t going to lessen as the undersize Thomas begins to age and lose a step, either.
All of this creates the backdrop for what should be a fascinating next few months in Boston. Assuming the Celtics see their season end with a loss to Cleveland at home in Game 5 on Thursday night, the focus will shift to next month’s draft, when the Celtics are expected to use that top pick to select Washington star Markelle Fultz. But whether the Celtics take Fultz or the other candidate for the top spot, UCLA star Lonzo Ball, both prospects play Thomas’s position: point guard.
Then, Boston is expected to be a major player in free agency this summer, with Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward expected to be the Celtics’ top target. If that doesn’t work, they could pursue Los Angeles Clippers star Blake Griffin or revisit trade talks for stars such as Paul George or Jimmy Butler.
It’s an enviable position to be in, and it should allow the Celtics to continue making deep playoff runs for years to come. But looming over it all is the impending decision they’ll have to make about the future of Thomas as Boston’s centerpiece.
It’s a decision that may still be more than a year away, but the clock is ticking. And every move Ainge makes between now and then will be viewed through the prism of how it impacts his star guard.
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