Why a Rajon Rondo-Isaiah Thomas swap makes sense for both teams

Garrett Ellwood/NBA

The Celtics already have two premium point guards on their roster, so why would they be interested in Kings' free agent Isaiah Thomas? For that matter, why would the Kings let Thomas leave? We explain.

Isaiah Thomas is one of the best scoring point guards in the NBA. The 25-year-old averaged 20 points per game last season, doing so at above-average efficiency. (He's had a .574 True Shooting percentage in each of his first three seasons, which is honestly kind of spooky.) He's also a better passer than you'd think, averaging 6.3 assists per game last season with an assist percentage of 32, solidly in the "point guard" territory. (Below 30 percent and you wade into combo guard territory.)

Based on production, one of Isaiah's closest comps is Kyrie Irving ... who just agreed to a five-year, $90 million early extension. Thomas is a restricted free agent, and is unsurprisingly popular with teams who need a point guard. Teams like the Mavericks, the Heat, the Lakers and ... uh ...


Well, the Celtics do not exactly need a point guard. They have Rajon Rondo, a four-time All-Star. They just drafted Marcus Smart at No. 6 in a brilliant draft. Thomas can't play the two due to size issues; Rondo can't play the two due to scoring/shooting issues. So it's not a chase that makes much sense unless the Celtics intend to trade Rondo. Who happens to be a player the Kings have reportedly been very interested in.

NBA Free Agency

On the surface, it makes little sense as to why the Kings, a team shallow in the talent pool, would be willing to lose Thomas in free agency. Rondo will make $13 million this season, while Isaiah is expected to draw closer to $8 million. With DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay drawing massive salaries, every dollar counts. But it's important to understand Sacramento's needs and timeline in potentially seeking to give up Thomas and likely another asset for Rondo.

* The Kings have plenty of scoring. Cousins and Gay each averaged better than 20 points per game last season, and both did so just above league-average efficiency. The problem with the Kings' offense wasn't either of those two or Thomas. It was everyone else on the roster. The team's power forwards and shooting guards were really bad on offense, and prior to Gay's midseason arrival, small forward was another gaping hole.

Rondo is the game's best passer now that Steve Nash has conceded his legs to necrosis. If he can set up Kings draft pick Nik Stauskas, hit Cousins and Gay in good spots and pick apart opposing defenses on the pick-and-roll and dribble penetration, the Kings' floor game will look much more balanced on offense. And don't count out the Kings' confidence in assistant coach Chris Jent (who worked on LeBron's jumper for years) and exec Chris Mullin to help new recruits shoot better.

* Defense matters. Isaiah is a fighter and he's surprisingly strong, but he's still 5'9. There's no changing that. He has trouble challenging jumpers by basically anyone. His reach is proportionate, which means it's also lacking, which causes trouble when he has to guard someone one-on-one. He hasn't shown an ability to defend the pick-and-roll with anyone consistency, which is admittedly a team-wide problem. For such a quick player, his steal rate was also surprisingly low -- he didn't play the passing lanes much last season.

Rondo is a four-time All-Defense honoree and played on a few of the best defenses of the past decade. The Kings need defense everywhere, and point guard is a pretty darned important spot in that respect.

* The Kings need to keep fans engaged and excited. This is similar to the situation the Pelicans face, and one of the key reasons New Orleans used a future first to nab Omer Asik. The timeline for the Kings to make noise in the West is short. With a new arena slated to open its doors in two years and the franchise closing in on a decade since its last playoff appearance, big splashes are the best weapons against ennui. While Isaiah is just fine on paper and fun to watch, landing an All-Star caliber player like Rondo is just so much more buzzworthy.

Perhaps that sounds like a stupid way to build a team, to focus on getting fans excited. But it's unquestionably a real goal and serious necessity for mid-market teams. The margins for viability are slimmer, especially with an expensive new building -- half of it paid by team ownership -- coming into play.

Does such a deal make sense for Boston? Only Danny Ainge knows the Celtics' motivations to add Thomas after drafting Smart. Only Ainge knows what else his team might be able to snap up for Rondo on the market, or whether it's feasible to land another star to play with Rondo in short order.

But there's an easy rationale for the Kings here, in spite of how good Isaiah Thomas has been.


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