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Boston Celtics Bet on Low Risk, High Reward in Trade for Isaiah Thomas

Brian Robb@CelticsHubFeatured ColumnistFebruary 20, 2015

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When NBA free agency opened up last July, the first phone call Isaiah Thomas received was from Boston Celtics President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge.

“He just contacted my agent. There was some interest there. It’s a business, so you never know what is going to happen,” Thomas told Bleacher Report before his Phoenix Suns faced off with the Celtics in Boston back in November.

Less than a year later, Ainge got his man after acquiring the 26-year-old point guard from the Suns on Thursday.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports was the first to report the deal Thursday afternoon. The Celtics officially announced Thursday night that the team will send shooting guard Marcus Thornton and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2016 first-round draft pick to Phoenix in exchange for Thomas. 

Boston also agreed to deal veteran small forward Tayshaun Prince to the Detroit Pistons for forwards Jonas Jerebko and Luigi Datome, creating a $7.7 million trade exception in the process.

This pair of moves, made right before the trade deadline, capped an unprecedented season of dealing for the Celtics. Since July 1, Boston has made 11 different trades in the midst of its rebuild. When the dust settles, Thursday’s acquisition of Thomas may be one of the most meaningful moves on that list.

Thomas Will Provide an Offensive Boost

On Thursday morning, Ainge spoke of his desire to add depth to his backcourt, despite having a collection of young talent at the position with Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley and James Young.

"We really like [our guards] a lot,” Ainge said on 98.5 The Sports Hub (h/t CBS Boston), “but you need depth and you need a lot of shooting and scoring at the guard position to be a great team. We like our young kids, also. But we don’t have enough. The talent level that we have right now is not good enough at this moment.” 

Brandon Dill/Associated Press

By adding Thomas to the fold, the Celtics immediately address one of the greatest weaknesses that Ainge described. The 5’9’’ point guard will likely come off the bench for Brad Stevens, at least early on in his Celtics tenure, since Smart has played well since being reinserted into the starting lineup two weeks ago.

Thomas has provided plenty of scoring for the Suns and Sacramento Kings as a sixth man throughout his four seasons in the league, and that trend should continue in Boston. He’s averaging 15.3 points per game during his career, including 15.2 points in just 25.7 minutes per game for the Suns this year.

That modest number puts him as the leading scorer on Boston’s current roster, just ahead of Jared Sullinger (14.4 points per game). The current starting backcourt of Smart and Bradley is not known for shot creation, so that facet of Thomas’ game will immediately stand out in Boston. He can create for himself, and he’ll likely have the green light to shoot while captaining Boston’s second unit on offense. 

CBS Sports' Matt Moore echoed the assessment that Thomas will be an offensive weapon for the Celtics. 

Thomas is a tremendous fit in the high-pace system that Brad Stevens runs... if he passes. The Celtics have one of the highest pass rates in the league, and Thomas has been a high-ISO scorer for most of the season. His assist numbers are good, but he'll need to buy in even more for Stevens to maximize his potential.

Thomas does have some warts on the defensive end, largely due to his size, but Smart and Bradley should help mask those issues when paired up with him.

Bang for Boston’s Buck

Thomas inked a unique four-year, $27 million contract with the Suns last July, when Phoenix acquired him via a sign-and-trade with the Sacramento Kings. The modest contract is set up on a decreasing salary scale. The former second-round pick is earning $7.2 million during this season, but that amount will decline by just over $300,000 in each year of Thomas’ deal, all the way down to $6.2 million in the 2017-18 season.

Those kinds of numbers have to be appealing for Ainge, especially in the face of a rising salary cap over the next couple of seasons. The Celtics will still have the salary-cap flexibility to chase top free agents on the open market, even with Thomas' contract on the books. 

Ainge didn't have to pay a costly asking price to land the pint-sized point guard. Thornton is an expiring contract who likely did not have a future in Boston past this season.

Aaron Gash/Associated Press

The 2016 first-round pick the Celtics gave up from Cleveland is also top-10 protected. With LeBron James not expected to leave the Cavs any time soon, it’s fair to guess that selection will fall in the bottom third of the first round.

The Celtics currently own at least three other 2016 first-round picks, so sacrificing their least valuable selection in 2016 shouldn’t hurt much at all.

Boston also did some cost-cutting in its other deal of the day. Jerebko and Datome may not last in Boston for long, as both are set to become free agents at the end of the season. Dumping Prince for the pair will trim about $1.45 million from Boston’s total payroll this year and give the Celtics’ brass a free look at both youngsters for the final 31 games of the season.

Postseason Still in Play 

With Thomas added to the mix, the Celtics are still well-positioned to make a run at the postseason, sitting just 1.5 games out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Perhaps more importantly, Ainge has set up the roster well for the future with these deals.

Veterans like Prince and Thornton will no longer be stealing playing time from rookies like James Young. Thomas will have ample opportunity to thrive as a dangerous scoring weapon off the bench. The Celtics will compete every night with most teams—and now more than ever, the team’s young core will have a chance to develop together. 

All statistics and salary numbers used are from Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. 

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