For much of the 2019-20 season, the Boston Celtics have looked like an elite NBA team with a solid mixture of veteran leadership, young talent and good coaching. Critics and fans alike have pointed to the hole at the center position as an area that needs to be addressed by Boston’s front office – and while a dominant center may push Boston into “title favorite” territory, this line of thinking may be a bit misguided.
Daniel Theis has performed admirably on the defensive end of the floor, while Enes Kanter has proven himself to be an extremely valuable rebounder and interior scorer. The duo’s success together gives Boston a legitimate chance to compete with some of the best teams in the league provided their surprisingly adept big man rotation is healthy. While an upgrade at the center position would be helpful, an additional spark-plug off the bench may be even more beneficial to the Celtics’ championship hopes than a dominant big man of their pipe dreams.
The Celtics rank 28th in the league in bench scoring at 28.8 points per game. Luckily for Boston, many of the Eastern Conference’s playoff contenders don’t boast eye-popping bench scoring numbers of their own, as Philadelphia (27th at 29.0 PPG), Toronto (22nd at 33.8 PPG) and Indiana (20th at 34.9 PPG) rank just above the Celtics in this regard. However, the Miami Heat (5th at 41.9 PPG) and the Milwaukee Bucks (7th at 41.3 PPG) have some of the best bench units in the NBA – which may become a serious problem for the rest of the Eastern Conference down the line. Enes Kanter has been a great reserve offensively, but a wing player or guard capable of averaging a fairly modest 12 points per game or so could be the difference between an early playoff exit and a conference championship berth. It just so happens that a spark-plug guard playing on a small, expiring contract with experience in the Celtics’ system may be available.
Of course, there are some major red flags in regards to an Isaiah Thomas trade. To begin with, he hasn’t been quite the same physically since his final year in Boston – leading to some largely unimpressive statistics and turning Thomas into somewhat of an NBA journeyman over the last three years. He’s dealt with several different injuries during that time, leading to a massive reduction in the amount of games he’s been able to play each year (participating in just 80 total games in the two-and-a-half seasons since he was initially traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers). His shooting percentages from the field haven’t risen above 41.2%, while his lack of size has continued to have negative effects on overall team defenses – making it difficult to justify keeping him on the court for meaningful stretches of games.
However, Isaiah Thomas, provided he didn’t step on any toes and accepted a role as a primary backup rather than a starter, could be the type of low-risk, high-reward move that Ainge truly became known for after he traded for Thomas the first time back in 2015. In 23.2 minutes per game this season for the Washington Wizards, Thomas has knocked down 68 of his 163 three-point attempts (41.7%, which would lead the Celtics right now) while dishing out 3.7 assists per contest. His shooting numbers from the field have been underwhelming, but his ability to score the basketball in short bursts remains intact from previous seasons – as he’s already had multiple 20-point games so far this season.
The intangibles check out as well, as Thomas has great chemistry with both Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown, two significant rotation players for the Celtics and two of Thomas’ former teammates during his Boston tenure. Brad Stevens is also quite familiar with Thomas’ game, and could likely utilize Thomas to the best of his abilities if given the opportunity. The city of Boston loves Thomas, and his return could make a huge difference in close games where the Celtics’ starters can’t get into a rhythm on offense.
The biggest hiccup with this move is that Thomas likely doesn’t want to come back to Boston if it means accepting a bench role, preferring his position on the Wizards and the opportunity to prove himself as a legitimate NBA starting point guard. Adjusting to a lesser role may be a significant issue for Thomas, who saw great success during his two-and-a-half seasons in Boston and undoubtedly believes that he can still be a star in the NBA. Despite this desire, however, Thomas has taken a significant step back over the previous three seasons, and it may be time for him to come to terms with that fact that even though he’s not a star anymore, he can still have a positive impact on a winning team if given the chance, a la Dwight Howard with the Los Angeles Lakers this season. If there’s any franchise that could revitalize Thomas’ career, it’s Boston – the city that truly fell in love with him and his talent unlike any city had before. Brad Stevens knows Thomas’ strengths and weaknesses offensively – and while a Thomas and Kemba Walker pairing could present some major problems on the defensive end of the floor, the two likely wouldn’t be playing together for more than 6-7 minutes per game. His ball handling and playmaking duties would replace Brad Wanamaker’s, and if he could boost Boston’s bench production, the Celtics would be that much more of a threat to opposing defenses.
Thomas’ contract, at $2.3 million, is easily trade-able and would likely only cost the Celtics one player and a second-round pick. The reeling Wizards, who are hoping to get John Wall back next season and sit at 15-30 through their first 45 games of the 2019-20 season, have no real reason to hang onto the veteran guard. Meanwhile, the Celtics don’t have much to lose by shipping out one of their end-of-the-bench players, while the team has everything to gain from a potential trade. Of course, there’s always the chance that the entire situation backfires and Thomas ends up completely ruining the on-court chemistry with too much isolation play and too many shot attempts per game, no matter how unrealistic that situation is. Despite that risk, there’s a chance that after drifting around the league for a few years without a place to call home, Thomas settles into a role as the backup point guard and plays within the offensive system. His relationship with Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown increases my confidence in that claim – as having multiple friends in Boston going into the situation could bode very well for how he is received by the rest of the team.
If the situation doesn’t work out, Thomas’ contract is up at the end of this season, and the Celtics would be able to move on heading into the 2020-21 season. If it does work out, however, Boston will have added a great scoring option to their second unit, on top of the fact that they would be re-acquiring one of the franchise’s biggest fan favorites of the past three decades. From a business perspective, it’s a no-brainer – from a basketball perspective, it’s a low-risk move that could pay off in a big way for the Celtics. If Thomas can take a step back, realize he’s not the same player he once was but simultaneously recognize his ability to help a team in bursts, he could truly revitalize his career and make a real impact on the basketball court once again.
Photo: Nick Wass/AP Photo