Boston Celtics Backcourt Is Packed with Promising Potential

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 24, 2015

Boston Celtics' Isaiah Thomas (4) and Avery Bradley celebrate a basket against the Phoenix Suns  during the second half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Feb. 23, 2015, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Matt York/Associated Press

The Boston Celtics backcourt doesn't have a lot of size or much experience under its belt.

But the key components of a potent perimeter group are otherwise present: explosive offense, suffocating defense, capable scorers, willing passers and hard-nosed defenders. As an added bonus, the unit is young enough to keep its cost low and send its ceiling sky-high.

Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge is still working up a blueprint to restore his storied franchise to NBA relevance. But the executive has done a masterful job of quickly fortifying his ranks around the outside.

He grabbed Avery Bradley with the 19th selection of the 2010 draft, then doubled down on that investment by locking him into a four-year, $32 million contract over the offseason. Ainge also plucked two perimeter players from the 2014 draft in Marcus Smart (sixth overall) and James Young (17th).

The final puzzle piece arrived at the trade deadline, when Ainge landed scoring guard Isaiah Thomas from the Phoenix Suns at a door-busting clearance price. Thomas is one of only 15 players to have averaged at least 18 points and five assists since the start of last season. Ainge got him for volume-scorer Marcus Thornton and a top-10 protected pick in 2016 (from the Cleveland Cavaliers).

The price Ainge paid was even lower than it sounded.

He had previously used a trade exception to help the Cleveland Cavaliers find the financial room needed to bring back LeBron James. For participating in the three-team trade, Ainge picked up Thornton's expiring deal, center Tyler Zeller and the aforementioned pick. To get Thomas, Ainge only parted with a low-level first-rounder who wasn't originally his and Thornton, who's headed for free agency in a few months.

"Credit Celtics president Danny Ainge for some of the most masterful use of a trade exception we've ever seen," ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton wrote. "... A trade exception has turned into two useful members of the Celtics' rotation."

And useful might be the least flattering term anyone uses regarding Thomas for a while.

On paper, he looks like a perfect fit in Beantown. The Celtics have been hurting for consistent backcourt scoring all season. Bradley leads all Boston guards with 14 points per game, but he's only shooting 43.5 percent from the field. Smart has converted just 36.3 percent of his field-goal attempts, and Young is still working on securing a permanent spot in coach Brad Stevens' rotation.

The Celtics have been waiting for an electric floor general to grab the reins of their attack since Rajon Rondo was sent packing in December. Thomas can fill that void.

"One thing our team has lacked is speed and pick-and-roll offensive play," Ainge said, per Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald. "That's one of our glaring needs. And that's what Isaiah gives us."

Thomas has only donned the green and whites twice, so it's tough to attach the proper context to what he has accomplished.

Miniature-sample-size asterisk aside, he's averaged 21 points and five assists so far with the Celtics. More importantly, Boston has averaged 110.5 points per game since his arrivalnot counting the extra session in Sunday's overtime loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. Before these last two games, the Celtics had been good for only 100.8 points a night.

Thomas can dominate the ball at times, but the Celtics might actually welcome that approach. Smart has done his best work off the ball, and Bradley has never looked comfortable initiating offense for others.

Boston won't hand over the keys to Thomas, but it won't mind if he borrows them more than his backcourt mates, either. There should be plenty of touches and shots to go around for the three, each of whom has already proved himself capable as a catch-and-shoot sniper.

How Celtics Guards Have Fared on Catch-and-Shoot Attempts
Avery Bradley5.742.539.755.1
Marcus Smart3.438.738.857.6
Isaiah Thomas3.842.341.261.1

All three can play off one another, which gives Stevens flexibility in how he utilizes them. That helps ensure that there are enough minutes available to maximize the production of the entire unit.

The 5'9" Thomas has his defensive drawbacks, and his new supporting cast is equipped to help combat them.

Bradley was an All-Defensive second-team selection in 2012-13 and remains one of the league's most tenacious on-ball defenders. Smart, who stands 6'4", tips the scales at 220 pounds and boasts a drool-worthy 6'9.25" wingspan (per DraftExpress), has the physical tools and mental makeup to become a relentless stopper.

"He's doing it the right way," John Wall said of Smart, per Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe, "taking on the defensive challenges and not backing down from nobody."

Under Stevens, the Celtics have constructed a formidable defense. Their 15th efficiency ranking on that side of the ball doesn't need to substantially improve in order to support a playoff run. But their 22nd-ranked offense put a low ceiling on this team, one that Ainge has envisioned Thomas lifting for a while.

"I’ve always wanted Isaiah," Ainge said of Thomas, per Bulpett. "Isaiah was my first call last summer in free agency. Isaiah was a guy I liked in the draft. Isaiah was a guy that was part of discussions when he was at Sacramento."

Imagine how those words must sound to Thomas.

The Celtics are his third different team in the last year alone. His first, the Sacramento Kings, let him walk in free agency despite initially drafting him, then watching him pump in 20.3 points per game last season. His second, the Suns, cut ties with him less than eight months after signing him to a four-year deal.

He's twice worn the humbling label of "expendable." Even if that word was never said, those actions tattooed it on him.

Now, he's found a place that covets what he brings. If Ainge's praise seemed conveniently timed, Thomas said he's heard those same sentiments for years.

"He’s wanted me since my days at Washington," Thomas said of Ainge, per Washburn. "He watched me in the [2010] Maui Invitational and thought I was just as good as [Connecticut’s] Kemba Walker."

PHOENIX, AZ - FEBRUARY 23:  Head coach Brad Stevens of the Boston Celtics talks with Isaiah Thomas #4 during the second half of the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at US Airways Center on February 23, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Celtics defeated the S
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Thomas couldn't have found a better home for his talents.

He constantly fought to prove his worth with the Kings, then struggled to find his place in a Suns offense that couldn't find enough basketballs to keep all of its lead guards happy. Now, he has an offense in desperate need of his strengths, an executive who couldn't be a bigger fan of his game and a backcourt mate he knows on a level bigger than basketball.

"I've known Avery almost my whole life," said Thomas, per Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald. "We played in the same AAU program. We grew up in the same neighborhood. It’s good to have a guy like that who’s not just a friend, but more like a brother."

These guards are young enough to all grow together. Thomas is the senior member, and he's only 26. Their future is littered with two-way potential, and none of them will price his way out of Boston's plans any time soon.

How Boston's Backcourt Impacts the Budget
Avery Bradley$7,191,011$7,730,337$8,269,663$8,808,989
Marcus Smart$3,283,320$3,431,040$3,578,880$4,538,019
Isaiah Thomas$7,238,606$6,912,869$6,587,131$6,261,394
James Young$1,674,480$1,749,840$1,825,200$2,803,507

Assuming the reality of this backcourt is as sweet as the idea, Ainge has substantial flexibility to build something around it. If for any reason these players don't fit, they would all be easy to move.

The Celtics are in tremendous shape going forward.

They can continue building organically by drafting and developing talent, but Ainge also has the assets to pounce if a quick-fix solution arises. The backcourt is reflective of that adaptability, with a ceiling lofty enough to support an eventual championship pursuit and a basement high enough to contribute to a more immediate playoff push.

Boston is still progressing through the rebuilding stage, but it may have already assembled its backcourt of the present and future.

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com. Salary information obtained via HoopsHype.


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