The Boston Celtics 2016-2017 season was a special season of basketball, one that I will remember fondly for a long, long time. But for all the spectacular surprises that this season gave us, it ended in the most predictable way possible, with the Cavaliers quickly dispatching the upstart Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals.
The best line I read during the Easter Conference finals came via twitter, with some wise-ass snarking that the Celtics are just one player short [of competing with the Cav] and that player is Lebron.
Lebron James is currently situated between Eastern conference teams and the Finals like Gandalf on the Bridge at Khazhad-Dum declaring “you shall not pass” and despite being a 14-year veteran and being 32-years old, he doesn’t look anywhere near ready to descend into the abyss below. Whatever the Celtics do this offseason, they will find themselves once again facing this immovable object between themselves and the finals.
Whatever plan the Celtics decide on with respect to their enviable spot at the top of draft, this is the road they will travel for the 2017-2018 season. They could add another star player to give them a better shot at beating Lebron, maybe Jimmy Butler, maybe Paul George or maybe there is another big name out there that only Danny Ainge sees getting moved. Whoever ends up on the trading block, Boston is equipped to land them, possessing both the top pick in the draft and the deepest reserve of talent in the league. The only question is: what player can push them past Lebron?
Any name that could be considered an answer to that question is probably too valuable to be traded. The Spurs aren’t moving Kwahi, the Pelicans are going send Anthony Davis to Boston this summer and the Kevin Durant shipped sailed for the Bay area last season. The players who make sense for a deal- guys like George and Butler- are good, but probably not good enough to completely alter the dynamics in the East and unseat King James from the throne. What’s more, adding one of those two, or a similar caliber trade candidate will mean giving up more than just the number-one draft pick. It will mean saying good-bye to some key players like Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart and/or Terry Rozier. Those guys all come cheaper than a Butler or George and played key roles in the team’s success this last season.
If the time to go all-in against Lebron and the Cavs is not now, then the Celtics are better off signing Gordon Heyward- something that is wildly seen as their first obvious move- and taking Markelle Fultz for themselves. They will remain the team to beat behind the Cavs and in position to move against the King should his reign show signs of cracking, but they won’t have to deal all their biggest chips for a second-tier solution. While it will mean losing some key players to get under the cap, it will keep the option to trade for an impact player open through the trade deadline with chips like Smart, Rozier, Crowder and the 2018 Nets pick still on hand. Most importantly, they can keep the heart and soul of the team, with the ability to sign Isaiah Thomas to a max deal that will keep him in green well into Fultz’s prime.
That overlap is what Boston needs most. Predicting what Isaiah Thomas will do in the remainder of his NBA career is a fool’s errand. There are no reasonable comps you can put on him. Sure, Allen Iverson was a short point guard who was his team’s primary scoring option, but he needed far more shots per game to score at IT’s level. And there is no comparing their dedication the game. Few other short guards have ever done anything close to what Thomas has done the last two seasons. Appropriate comparisons are ones that rarely get made because guys like his opposite number on the Cavs, Kyrie Irving, aren’t short enough for people to take the comp seriously.
Thomas is a singular player, not just because he is short and he scores a lot, but also because his game is built for the modern NBA in an unexpected way. He is the three-pointers-and-lay-ups-only philosophy compressed in a 5’9 frame with an engine that runs off the giant chip he carries on both shoulders.
How long can that engine run? How much of a beating can such a small frame take? Those are questions that will plague any team that is considering signing Isaiah Thomas to a max deal and there are no easy answers. IT is unique. There is no predicting his future based on the past. The best bet Boston can make is to not make the mistake that Sacramento and Phoenix made and just stop doubting the man. Any player at 6’2 who had IT’s 2016-2017 season and put up a game like Game 2 against the Wizards in the playoffs would get the max deal. Height should not be the excuse that keeps IT from that. There is no shortage of players who play point guard and range between 6’2 and 6’5, but only a handful have been as prolific on offense as Thomas.
If Markell Fultz ever has a season as good as IT’s 206-2017 campaign, the pick will be a great one. Every draft pick is a risk, but consensus number-one pick in a stacked draft class is the safest bet that you are likely to get. Fultz is more likely to be a star than bust. But even so, he won’t be a star the first season. He will need to learn to adjust to the fastest, most athletic league on earth and find his place in it. There is probably no better coach to guide him than Brad Stevens and no better point guard to instruct him on what it takes to be great than fellow Washingtonian Isaiah Thomas.
Having Markell Fultz progress from Thomas’s understudy to his replacement at the point is the ideal scenario for the Celtics, regardless of what happens with Gordon Heyward. This team is good, but not good enough to beat Lebron right now. Thomas is a legitimate star, but he will lose some of his trademark speed and explosiveness before he will finish his next deal. When that happens, he may no longer be the same scorer he is now, but his deadly shooting and range gives him a future role off the ball that can extend his career when Fultz is ready to be the primary ball handler and point guard for Boston. Whether Thomas’s ego will along that happen will remain an open question if the Celtics do take Fultz, but as with taking Fultz rather than trading the pick, this is a risk well worth taking if you are the Celtics.
Until Lebron falters, the East is likely to remain his to lose. While that is the case, the Celtics have few realistic ways to build a team that can beat Cleveland without injuries coming to their aid. Remaining competitive means stick with IT now and becoming the next powerhouse in the East means adding Fultz to hedge against the days when Thomas needs to be their Ray Allen and not their Paul Pierce.