I went deep on Anthony Davis, New Orleans and the city’s relationship with its basketball team.
BOSTON -- In less than two years, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has executed a textbook teardown by trading veterans, clearing cap space and stockpiling draft picks. The process began after the 2013 season when he let Doc Rivers out of his contract to coach the Clippers with a first-round pick as compensation. He then traded franchise icons Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn for a treasure trove of future draft picks.
That was only the beginning. Since the Brooklyn deal, Ainge has made more than a dozen trades, dealing everyone from Jordan Crawford to Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green. In one six-day period in January he pulled off no less than four deals with players coming and going so fast it was hard to keep track. In all, 22 players have appeared for the C’s this season, which ties a franchise record set back in 1949.
For the record, Jameer Nelson, Brandan Wright and Tayshaun Prince did actually play games for the Celtics this season. Nate Robinson, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Austin Rivers did not. Only three players remain from the 2012-13 roster: Avery Bradley, Jared Sullinger and Brandon Bass, and only three more are held over from last season.
If the roster has turned over at a dizzying pace, Ainge’s draft pick accumulation has been even more varied and complex. Even discounting protected picks from Philly and Minnesota that will likely become second-round choices, the Celtics will have as many as nine first-round picks over the next four drafts, plus the right to swap places with Brooklyn in 2017.
What the Celtics lack is a focus point for their reconstruction. Ainge has assembled a decent young core of talent highlighted by recent draft choices like Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk and Marcus Smart. All three have flashed potential and all three are still developing as players, but there is no obvious franchise cornerstone on the roster. Sullinger has been the most productive of the three, but he’s out for the season with a stress fracture in his foot and Ainge publicly questioned his conditioning this week.
All that those paper assets offer in the abstract is opportunity. Enter Isaiah Thomas, a 5’9 scoring point guard who has bounced from Sacramento to Phoenix to Boston in the last six months. His acquisition represents the biggest return to date from all of Ainge’s maneuvering and the paper trail goes all the way back to the Brooklyn deal that started everything.
In addition to the picks, Ainge has also stockpiled a number of trade exceptions. (Shout-out to cap guru Mike Zarren.) One of those exceptions was created by the Pierce trade and it was used to acquire Tyler Zeller, Marcus Thornton and a first-round pick from the Cavaliers. Ainge then used Thornton and the pick to acquire Thomas from Phoenix at the deadline.
Through nothing more than a salary cap mechanism and a protected second-round pick, Ainge acquired a 7-foot rotation player on a rookie deal and a dynamic point guard locked up for the next three years for mid-level money.
The Thomas deal is the moment where the Celtics start to look beyond some nebulous future and start focusing on the here and now. They are by no means even close to a finished product as evidenced by their 23-33 record. Yet, that mediocre mark has put them on the fringes of playoff contention in the Eastern Conference and engendered a why-the-hell-not camaraderie among the new-look C’s.
"If you’re the first seed or the eighth seed, once you get in, you’re in," Thomas says. "We’re so close, it will say a lot about this team if we do make it. If we get in there it will show the fight we have and the determination we have not to back down. That’s one of my goals. I want to see what the playoffs are like."
When Thomas was traded from Phoenix to Boston, he started rationalizing how he was going to go from a team fighting to get into the postseason to one that was in the process of rebuilding. Thomas forgot one minor detail: the Eastern Conference. The Celtics would be about 10 games out in the West, but in the East, all you need to harbor postseason dreams is a .400 record.
"When I got traded here I didn’t know they were in playoff contention," Thomas says. "I was like, man, to go from fighting from the playoffs to not. Isiah Thomas texted me: ‘Lead them to the playoffs. You guys are one game out. That’s your job.’"
Just to make sure, that’s the Isiah Thomas, right? Isaiah Thomas shot me a look and said, "You know any other Isiah Thomas?"
Isaiah Thomas was famously named after the Hall of Famer when Isaiah’s father -- a lifelong Lakers fan -- lost a wager on the 1989 Finals with a Pistons backer. (Isaiah’s mom insisted on the Biblical spelling.) Isiah Thomas has been a mentor to the younger Isaiah, so his words carried weight. But what made Isaiah’s transition to Boston even more exciting were the words of his new coach, Brad Stevens.
"They wanted me to come here and be myself," Thomas says. "Phoenix did too, but there were two other guards who did the same thing I did. They didn’t need me at all times. Here when I come into the game, these guys really look to me to make a play. Coach wants me to play my game, be aggressive, makes plays and just try to make the right play each and every time down the floor. Even the players, there’s times when I turn the ball over and they’re like, ‘We’re still behind you. Keep going. We’re going to go as far as you take us.’"
Thomas may have finally found a home. His unique skillset is valued by the Celtics because his strengths have been their weakness. This is a team that has struggled to create offense, especially in the fourth quarter, and rarely gets to the line where they rank 29th in free throw attempts. Those attributes just happen to be his specialty. He scored 89 points in his first four games (a 22.3 average) and has already attempted 35 free throws (almost nine per game). He’s excelled in fourth quarters both as a scorer and a playmaker. All of a sudden, the 26-year-old Thomas is a veteran on a team looking for leaders.
"My dad told me don’t be a follower, be a leader," he says. "I’ve been a leader on every team I’ve been on and I will continue to do that. Even more so on this team just because I’m one of the older guys, which is weird. These guys look to me to lead and I’m going to do the best I possibly can. I’ve been in the league four years. When you say ‘vet’ it seems like a guy who’s been in for 10 years. It’s nice because people look at you for answers to things. It’s nice and weird at the same time."
Nice and weird is an accurate description of where the Celtics are right now. Thomas’ play has already helped begin the transition from a highly structured offensive philosophy into more of the pace-and-space method that’s in vogue these days. All of that is fine with Stevens, who has been thrilled with what his new guard brings to the team.
Small sample sizes abound, but Thomas has been a boon for wing shooters like Jae Crowder and Jonas Jerebko -- two other in-season additions -- who can fire at will from behind the arc once Thomas breaks down defenses. Jerebko has made 7-of-11 threes in limited action, while Crowder has knocked down half of his 22 attempts over the last three games. That duo has operated as the bigs in a typically unconventional lineup that has been effective in the fourth quarter of wins over the Knicks and Hornets.
In much different ways, Crowder is also emblematic of this new-look team. Acquired from Dallas as part of the Rondo deal, his hard-nosed style has drawn raves from the coaches who love his defensive versatility and ability to stretch the floor. Stevens used him against Al Jefferson on Friday, which allowed the C’s to spread the floor for Thomas to go to work and lead a 16-point comeback.
"I’ve always thought, at least the guys that I’ve coached -- the toughest of the tough could guard anybody for a possession," Stevens said after the game. "Or could guard anybody for a couple of minutes. And they kind of get excited about that, and that’s a good description of Jae. Jae wants to guard that guy. Like, he wants to take on that challenge and see if he can. And I think you get a guy like that, that helps, and then his ability to stretch it on the other side of the floor is what makes it work, right? Because otherwise it would be negated anyways."
This is what Stevens has been trying to build: a positionless team that plays hard and fast augmented with skill at every position. Thomas brings a dimension that’s been lacking from the offense as well as a confident attitude that stems from well, everything. "That’s just been my whole life," he says. "Being 5’9, being doubted. I always have something to prove. The world doesn’t give you anything when you shouldn’t be somewhere you are."
The Celtics have drawn praise around the league for their quirky lineups and hard-nosed approach. The die-hards who still fill the Garden at a respectable rate have seen the progress, incremental though it may be. But as Boston emerges from its snowy winter cocoon and gets over its Super Bowl hangover, the rest of the city has started to take notice of its funky, overachieving basketball team with its new dynamic playmaker.
"The love these people have shown me and I’ve only been here a week? It’s crazy," Thomas says. "Imagine if we start winning, imagine if we get to the playoffs. Where that can go."