By Jesse Blanchard
It never takes long to be reminded the NBA is a business, ruled by numbers and bottom-line thinking. Moments after the Boston Celtics’ season ended, talked turned to the Celtics’ future and Isaiah Thomas’ place in it.
The diminutive point guard put together one of the brightest performances of the NBA season, finishing third in scoring with 28.9 points per game; and doing so efficiently with a true shooting percentage higher than the likes of Stephen Curry, LeBron James and James Harden.
Isaiah Thomas often shone brightest as time grew shortest, averaging 9.8 points in fourth quarters and 5.1 points in clutch situations (less than five minutes remaining with a point differential of five or less); second only to Russell Westbrook in both categories according to NBA.com.
He put together iconic performances, punctuated by a 53-point effort in the Celtics’ Game 2 overtime victory over the Washington Wizards. Serenaded by MVP chants from the Boston crowd while grieving over the loss of his sister on what would have been her 23rd birthday, Thomas produced one of those rare sports moments in which the connection between a city and athlete is so tangible you can feel it, even while watching from home.
By any means of evaluation, it was an epic season from Thomas, who elevated himself into the stratosphere of stars.
— Danny Ainge (@danielrainge) May 20, 2017
Thomas has been the ever dutiful soldier in Boston, outperforming his contract by leaps and bounds while buying wholeheartedly into Brad Stevens’ system.
After years of being undervalued, however, he’s ready for a franchise to put their money where their mouth is.
“I’m a max (contract) guy, so I deserve the max,” Thomas said (per CSN New England). “We’ve just got to continue to take care of business on the court and let the cards fall where they may. I’m happy for all the guards and all the other guys getting their money, because they deserve it, but my time’s coming. They know they’ve got to bring the Brinks truck out.”
Isaiah Thomas has Brinks Truck sandals and they are amazing. 💵💵💵 pic.twitter.com/sNwz4manIH
— Chris Forsberg (@ESPNForsberg) July 31, 2017
“That’s the plan, for sure. You know, it’s a business. … You’ve got to do what’s right for yourself, your family, and it’s got to be the right situation,” Thomas said. “You definitely want to keep your options open, but I would love to be a Celtic for a long time coming. It’s changed my career being a part of the Boston Celtics. I want to win a championship here.”
The NBA is a business. Numbers matter, as do championships. And for all Thomas accomplished last season, the following numbers matter most for many:
5, 9, 30, 5 and 179 milion.
To put them into context, common knowledge dictates you don’t win championships by giving 5-foot-9 point guards approaching 30 years old a max contract at five years and $179 million.
But here’s the thing about reducing every decision to championship or bust logic, then outright dismissing a player because 5-foot-9 doesn’t fit neatly into some perfect parameters of what a star should be:
Teams don’t win championships by giving max contracts to 6-foot-9 small forwards who recovered brilliantly from a gruesome leg injury; nor do teams win championships building around a 6-foot-7 tank who worked his way from late first round draft pick to All-NBA selection.
The Celtics presumably had an opportunity to add Paul George or Jimmy Butler, but opted to hold onto their stash of draft picks. (Though there are conflicting reports of what might have been on the table for the Indiana Pacers once the Celtics signed Gordon Hayward, had Indiana not rushed into its deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder).
Likewise, building a championship contender around a 6-foot-11 big man with elite athleticism and impossibly long arms (matched only by an impossibly long, single eyebrow) has proven equally frustrating; even after the New Orleans Pelicans acquired DeMarcus Cousins to pair with Anthony Davis.
With the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers meeting the Finals for the third time in as many years, and the prospect of more Finals meetings to come, the list of players teams have no chance of building championship rosters around is long with a diverse range of body types and sizes.
For what a team needs to take down LeBron James or the Warriors, often 6-foot-9 gets you no closer than 5-foot-9.
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Now, that’s not to say Thomas is better than any of those listed players; he’s not. But the Celtics aren’t going to suddenly have access to any of those players simply because they let Thomas walk. The odds of finding a better player than Thomas in the window they have to get one are slim.
At the moment, the Celtics are in a stage of roster construction where the possibilities seem endless.
Between an Eastern Conference Finals appearance, a fractured Cavaliers organization, the Hayward signing and a bevy of blue chip prospects and draft picks, the Celtics have a number of paths to prosperity in front of them.
The Celtics’ books are malleable enough to strike at any opportunity. But it never takes long before the endless promise of what could be settles into the reality of what is. Re-signing Thomas to a large extension pushes up the timetable on that process.
But what’s the true opportunity cost?
For the cap projections, I used the rookie scale projections from Real GM for a fifth overall pick to stand in for the Brooklyn Nets’ pick owed to the Celtics next summer, and the rookie scale for a 10th overall pick to stand in for the Los Angeles Lakers or Sacramento Kings pick in the summer of 2019.
The assumption is the Celtics retain Marcus Smart and the $12.5 annual salary was the most common response to several queries I made. I also excluded cap holds for the Celtics’ own picks, or the Grizzlies pick owed to them, because in the 20s, those are as likely to be draft and stash options or replacements for guys like Marcus Morris, Aron Baynes and Terry Rozier as they are new additional salary.
Cap holds for expiring contracts were left off and qualifying offers left in lieu of projected new deals for the sake of simplicity, so it should be noted that the Celtics’ cap situation isn’t as clean/open as these figures state.
At a $12.5 million salary for Smart, even without Thomas on the books, the Celtics figure to be over the cap in the summer of 2018 and 2019 before opening up roughly $30 million in 2020, when Al Horford’s contract expires. If the Celtics re-sign Jae Crowder, Morris or Rozier, or add any other salary between now and then, that’s less than a max contract available.
So, presumably, the opportunity cost of an Isaiah Thomas max contract is a free agency solution to replacing Horford and two deep dips into the luxury tax in 2019 and 2020—which isn’t an insignificant decision for ownership, but isn’t a basketball decision.
Ideally, the replacements for Thomas and Horford will come with the two likely lottery picks left coming to the Celtics; or a trade consolidating talent on board.
But the Celtics are already conference finalists in a conference where the only foreseeable immediate upheaval is the Cavaliers—the lone team clearly ahead of them in the pecking order. Warriors be damned, there is a legitimate win-now window for the Celtics that requires making significant commitments over the next few years.
Smart teams take holistic approaches to roster building, considering culture, continuity, flexibility and alternatives.
The Boston Celtics are in the rare position to take a chance and go all-in now without sacrificing future means of improvement. The roster is young enough to continue improving through internal development while still having desirable draft picks in the pipeline to continue adding to the team.
Certainly, it’s not ideal to pay max dollars to Horford or Thomas heading into their mid-30s. But those deals are far less damning if Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum or either of the two presumed upcoming lottery picks approach stardom while still on cost-controlled rookie contracts.
We assign players value based on shooting percentages, range, versatility, salary, physical attributes and age, then make certain things taboo based on what’s optimal. On spreadsheets, everything is clear, cut-and-dried. The logic spits out the best uses of resources, but the laziest trains of thought don’t account for the real world being less than optimal.
The Kings and Phoenix Suns, for example, each thought they could do better than a 5-foot-9 point guard and they’ve not come remotely close to replacing his value.
There is no guarantee any of the Celtics prospects or picks develop into a trio as good as Horford, Hayward and Thomas, but even with a clear cap, they’re Boston’s best chance at it. And those resources are already on board without having to search the market and spend more resources. Thomas’ next contract, whatever it is, doesn’t change that.
The Celtics aren’t the first team to tenuously walk the fine line between two windows. The San Antonio Spurs previously did so to perfection.
In 2010, the Spurs signed a then 28-year-old Tony Parker to a contract extension for four years and $50 million even as people questioned the sanity of paying a slight point guard with defensive deficiencies who relied on quickness a significant pay check heading into his 30s. In turn, Parker gave the Spurs his best seasons from ages 29-32, two Finals appearances and a NBA championship.
It took the rapid development of Kawhi Leonard to make that Parker extension matter, but Leonard’s emergence doesn’t lead to a championship without the Parker deal.
At the time, the Spurs weren’t legitimate championship contenders. They just knew they had no better alternatives at the time and committed to building the best team possible with the resources available.
With modern innovations in rest, recovery and body maintenance, players are finding productive years even beyond assumed typical peaks.
Of the three guards listed, Thomas is the superior shooter and has the most off-ball value. The Celtics’ offense is not unlike the Spurs, using movement into pick and rolls and dribble handoffs to generate ball movement. Though Horford and Hayward are superior players, Thomas is still Celtics’ best pull away from and towards the rim and manipulating entire defenses.
Though Thomas’ next contract likely runs past his age 31 season, getting to that mark with reasonably similar production to Parker and Iverson would make the contract an overall success. And why cast off a certain present for an unknown future?
For as bright as the Celtics’ future looks beyond the LeBron James or Stephen Curry era, chances are no one Boston adds will be as good as Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Milwaukee Bucks themselves are one developmental leap from Khris Middleton, Jabari Parker or Thon Maker, or one significant addition, from being truly frightening. In Philadelphia, the 76ers hold prospects who’d potentially go No. 1 overall in most drafts.
Boston is damn good now.
The Celtics can use a suddenly stricter market to play hardball with Thomas at the risk of disgruntling him. But there isn’t a strong “for the good of the team,” argument given the overall inflexibility of adding another franchise player via free agency over that time.
A three-year full max or a lesser annual cap hit over a longer time might be a feasible compromise from both sides and the Celtics should certainly strive for any concessions it can extract without turning the negotiations hostile, but it makes little sense not to pay Thomas if it becomes a sticking point.
Boston has the ability to develop its next generation of players in a winning culture now and there are worse ways to wait out LeBron James or the Golden State Warriors.
The NBA is a business, but it isn’t exclusively a championship business. Unless viable alternatives present themselves, retaining Thomas and keeping this core intact—despite the numbers—just adds up.