Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports

Anderson: Celtics building around Isaiah Thomas points to future max deal

Ty Anderson
July 12, 2017 - 4:46 pm

Isaiah Thomas wants the Celtics to back up the Brinks truck and pay him max money.

That’s not written for dramatic effect, but rather something Thomas himself has said. Again and again. Thomas, who finished fifth in MVP voting this past season, clearly views himself as a max contract guy, and given his impact on the Celtics this past season (53 wins, the No. 1 seed in the East) along with the payments doled out to worse point guards over the last two years, it’s getting pretty hard to argue with him.

Naturally, the counterpoints are there. It’s often said that at 5-foot-9, he’s too small for max money. He’s coming off a potentially career-altering hip injury. And his suspect-at-best defense is too much of a liability to ever make him a max player.

But at the same time, there really is no argument.

The Celtics are going to make Thomas a max guy, and their recent moves -- combined with moves they didn’t make -- and a shift towards a more ‘position-less lineup’ speak to that inevitability.

It should almost go without saying that it was always going to take a lot for the Celtics to walk away from Thomas, a player that averaged 28.9 points per game last season. Only Russell Westbrook (31.6) and James Harden (29.1) averaged more. Thomas also dropped 245 three-pointers a year ago, which was not only a Celtics record, but finished as the fifth-most in all of the NBA behind Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Harden, and Eric Gordon. In a league that’s become so heavily dictated by three-pointers thanks to the basketball machine that’s been built in Golden State, that’s worth close to max money.

In fact, the only reason that the C’s should have and would have decided that Thomas was not a max player, Paul George, landed with the Thunder and not the Celtics.

Had the all-world George been acquired by the C’s, and assuming his acquisition would not have altered Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign here, this would be a different discussion in an offseason in which both I.T. and the 27-year-old George would have been free agents. But George wasn’t traded here, and it’s unlikely to imagine the Celtics suddenly emerging as favorites for him when he does indeed hit the open market.

And when that possibility officially exited stage West, the Celtics’ new Big Three was set: It’s Al Horford, Hayward, and Thomas. The club’s decision to move on from Avery Bradley confirmed that Thomas is the face of their backcourt for this championship window, too. Specifically with what the Celtics acquired in the Bradley deal in versatile big Marcus Morris, and what they said no to (the Clippers offered guard Lou Williams).

“I think that just with managing payroll and — I mean, it’s not money management, right? It’s cap management— and with the abundance of guys we think can play the 2, including Jayson [Tatum], Jaylen [Brown], Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, and Gordon Hayward, we have a lot of guys at that position,” Celtics president Danny Ainge said after the Bradley deal. “So we were thin more at the 4/3, so from that standpoint it sort of served two purposes: Creating opportunities for some of the young guys to play, and playing a little bit bigger, which we felt like we needed to get with a smaller point guard.”

This is the Celtics beginning to build their team around Thomas. 

It's the Celtics, who added more size with rim-protecting free agent Aron Baynes just days ago, confirming that they are going to build around their perceived weakness (a lack of size from their star point guard) in an attempt to nullify it. Given the versatility of literally everybody else on the roster -- Thomas is the only player that’s really stuck at playing just one position, even after the Celtics added another four pieces via last month’s NBA Draft -- there’s a clear plan being developed. And it’s coming to light when you hear C’s coach Brad Stevens and the rest of their front office staff gush over the lineup possibilities they’re already seeing with Summer League standouts in Brown, Tatum, and even second-round pick Semi Ojeleye.

The options they present -- along with ones presented by Horford, Smart, and Crowder among others -- allow Stevens to tinker with different lineups to play to Thomas’ strengths and at different points in the game now without changing the complexion of a game from a scoring standpoint (especially with the sharpshooting Hayward in the mix).

And Thomas has done more with less during his time in Boston, so imagining a more efficient Thomas (as hard as that can be to envision after what he did last season) with two other premier weapons next to him, is worth max money.

But there’s also another reason why the Celtics are going to pay him max money.

Thomas moves the needle.

His style of play as most of the most entertaining scorers in the entire NBA undoubtedly puts people in the seats. He makes you tune in on TV, especially in the fourth quarter. He was the face that was worth watching when the Celtics first began their rise from the ashes of a rebuild that should have lasted longer entirely longer than it did.

But most of all, It’s hard to downplay the impact the 28-year-old Thomas has had in building this team back up to a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference. Forget about what he’s done on the court; Thomas has been perhaps the most vocal recruiter in the NBA today, often publicly endorsing or pitching players to come to Boston.

It’s worked, too. 

Does Horford leave Atlanta and sign here without Thomas emerging as a potential building block the season before? Probably not. Does Hayward, even with his Stevens connection, come to Boston if Thomas didn’t take another step forward this past season, and with Horford there as the supporting big man behind him? Again, likely not.

It’s often difficult to put a price on that kind of stuff. But not this time.

And it's really only a matter of time before the Celtics start to back up the Brinks truck.

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