It’d be tough to blame Isaiah Thomas for feeling some type of way about the summertime trade that landed him in Northeast Ohio.
Sure, there are worse things than getting to suit up alongside LeBron James on a Cleveland Cavaliers team that’s won the Eastern Conference three years running and remains the favorite to do so again this season. But Thomas didn’t wind up in Cleveland of his own volition. He got there because the Boston Celtics — the team he’d rewarded for plucking him out of Phoenix by turning into a two-time All-Star capable of leading a team to the Eastern Conference finals — had chosen to ship him out rather than keep him around.
Thomas gave the Celtics everything he had, averaging 28.9 points per game — the highest scoring season by a Celtic since Larry Bird’s 1987-88 campaign — and continuing to perform at a superstar level in the postseason despite the tragic loss of his sister and busting his teeth at the start of the second round. And then, 3 1/2 months after being shut down for good with a hip injury that would wind up looming far larger than he had any reason to suspect, his time in Boston was over.
In an open letter to Celtics fans, Thomas made it clear that the trade hurt him deeply, though he claimed “no hard feelings” after this particular “business move,” even if he (obviously) didn’t agree with it. In a new wide-ranging interview with Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated, though, Thomas made it clear that, while he’ll always appreciate the city of Boston and the Celtics organization for the opportunities they gave him, he’s going to have a much harder time squaring things with the man who both traded for him and traded him away: Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge.
Sacramento and Phoenix, Aaron Brooks and Eric Bledsoe, provided an early education in the business of basketball. But they could not prepare Thomas for Aug. 22. He has wracked his brain for reasons the Celtics moved him, having been assured performance and personality were not among them. Ainge acknowledged that Thomas’s health played a role, as did his contract. By any normal measure, Thomas is richly compensated at $6.2 million this year, but in the NBA he is a dime-store steal who finally reaches free agency next summer. The irony, of course, is that Thomas jeopardized both health and earning potential while playing hurt for the Celtics.
“I’ve been looking at this wall for five hours,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens texted Thomas after the trade, “trying to figure out what to say to you.” When Sacramento let Thomas walk in 2014, he left town telling himself, “F— Sacramento. I’m about to kill those dudes.” When Phoenix exiled him the following winter, he pledged, “O.K., now they’re gonna get it.” But there will be no revenge tour this time. “Boston is going to be all love,” he vows, with one exception. “I might not ever talk to Danny again. That might not happen. I’ll talk to everybody else. But what he did, knowing everything I went through, you don’t do that, bro. That’s not right. I’m not saying eff you. But every team in this situation comes out a year or two later and says, ‘We made a mistake.’ That’s what they’ll say, too.”
It’s absolutely possible that the decision to send Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 first-round pick and the Miami Heat’s 2020 second-round pick to Cleveland for the right to import noted very much woke conversation-starter Kyrie Irving (who, for what it’s worth, pairs his eccentricities with a damn-near-impossible-to-stop isolation scoring game) winds up looking bad. Maybe the things that made Irving an attractive target — the resume of coming up biggest on the sport’s biggest stage, the fact that he’s three years younger and not coming off a serious hip injury, the reality that he’s got two more years (plus an option for one more, if he wants to exercise it) on his current pre-salary-cap-boom contract whereas Thomas will hit free agency in search of a super-expensive max deal next summer — wind up paling in comparison to the “lot of heart and soul” they lost when the 5-foot-9 scoring dynamo went out the door.
Maybe Thomas comes back from injury sooner than expected and looking none the worse for wear, teaming with James, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Love and company to lead the Cavs past the Celtics one more time and all the way to an NBA championship. As the man himself notes, it’s not like he doesn’t have a track record of this sort of thing; ask the Kings and the Suns whether or not they think they’d like a do-over on betting against Isaiah Thomas.
As Boston swingman Jaylen Brown recently noted, the Celtics now find themselves in the difficult position of having to re-establish, and perhaps wholly redefine, what “Celtic basketball” and “Celtic culture” mean in the absence of the player who more than any other had come to embody them over the past two years. That’s just one of a million aspects that make the Thomas-for-Irving trade one of the most fascinating in recent history, and that make us so eager to watch how the upcoming battle between Cleveland and Boston for Eastern Conference supremacy unfolds.
The famously calculating Ainge did what he thought was in the best interests of his team, even if it meant jettisoning a beloved All-Star. As a player who’s had to scratch and claw for every ounce of opportunity he’s gotten in the NBA, Thomas must on some level understand and perhaps even respect Ainge pulling out all the stops in pursuit of the ultimate goal of adding another banner to the rafters. That doesn’t mean Isaiah has to like it, though, or that Ainge should expect any presents coming his way the next time Thomas returns to TD Garden — or, at least, any that aren’t an array of buckets punctuated by ice-dagger glares in Danny’s general direction.
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