The Boston Celtics have found their Star.
The NBA is, at its core, a business. Advanced statistics pervade every team decision from the front office to the sidelines and ever-changing salary cap stipulations mean the trade and free agent markets have never been more convoluted than they are today.
All of this combines to make the process of rebuilding either excruciatingly painful or blissfully simple for a franchise in this day in age; and for a franchise like the Boston Celtics, the stakes are always high. After a dark period between the Larry Bird era and Danny Ainge’s assembling of the “Big Three” of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo (see what I did there) a cloud of perpetual anguish hung over the TD Garden for what felt like centuries.
From 2008-2013, though, high-level playoff basketball breathed life back into the Celtics’ eagerly waiting fan base. But then, in the blink of an eye, Ainge tore it down. With a wave of his Blackberry, a roster with two future Hall-of-Famers and an arsenal of reasonably priced side-kicks turned into a mismatched bundle of unknowable assets. The goal of this strategy – tanking – is clear: find a superstar. One player can change everything and Ainge knows this better than anyone.
But no one could have expected, amidst the host of unprotected draft picks the Celtics continue to boast, that this player, the man that has dragged Boston from the mediocrity to sitting in the two-seed in the Eastern Conference, would be the last pick in the last pick in the 2011 Draft (a draft where the Celtics used their only first-round pick on MarShon “now plays for the Jiangsu Dragons” Brooks): Isaiah Thomas.
In the 2016-2017 season, IT has completed his metamorphosis from “Mr. Irrelevant” to “King in the Fourth” and, let me tell you, it is absolutely glorious. He’s pulling up from 35 feet. He’s twisting and turning his way to the rim with surprising ease for someone his size. He’s throwing passes behind his head and getting to the line frequently (and shooting 90+ percent when he gets there).
He has become the best fourth quarter player in the league for a team whose greatest weakness coming into the season was a lack of a go-to scorer. Nobody thought this role could be filled by the diminutive guard from Washington, but his 10.5 points per game in the final period is the highest average by any player in the last 20 years. His numbers since December 16 put him on pace with Steph Curry’s unanimous MVP campaign in 2015 and he’s 0.3 points per game away from being the first player in Celtics history to average 30 points per game in a season.
Let me remind you that we’re talking about the Boston Celtics here, a franchise with both 17 championship banners hanging from the rafters and 17 players sporting their uniform in the Hall of Fame… AND ISAIAH THOMAS WAS GETTING MVP CHANTS LAST NIGHT AS HE ICED A 109-104 WIN OVER THE RAPTORS TO FIRMLY SET BOSTON IN THE NO. 2 SEED IN THE EAST. OH YEAH AND DID I MENTION HE SCORED 44 POINTS (19 IN THE FOURTH) AND HIT THE GO-AHEAD THREE WITH UNDER A MINUTE REMAINING TO CAP OFF AN 18-POINT CELTICS COMEBACK IN THAT GAME??
This is no fluke. Yes, Thomas represents a massive liability defensively: while he ranks 3rd in the NBA in Offensive Real Plus-Minus, he ranks 441st in Defensive Real Plus-Minus (dead last). This fact, glaring as it is, holds Thomas back from achieving conventional superstar status, but the point stands that the Celtics are better than they’ve been in half a decade and he’s the primary reason why.
But let’s go back to the idea of the NBA as a business. The C’s may still be a substantial move or two away from true contender status, but in terms of getting ‘bang for your buck’ for a player, it seems Danny Ainge has done it yet again. With a salary of $6.3 million for this season, Thomas represents the best money-to-production value in the league and it truly can’t be overstated that the dude is doing all of this at 5-foot-freaking-9. Like, come on.
Unfortunately, all of this likely culminates in a sweep at the hands of the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals (best-case scenario), but Boston is alive again. Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens probably deserve most of the credit for the Celtics re-ascension to the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference, but it’s Isaiah Thomas who has reinvigorated a city that has been tantalized by star-quality basketball countless times in its history.
When his statue stands outside of the TD Garden one day, and if it is truly life-sized, it may be easy to overlook. But the city of Boston will have a hard time forgetting this Celtics team and the motor fueling their success: IT4. Mr. Irrelevant. The King in the Fourth.