The Boston Celtics continue their five-game West Coast road trip on Sunday afternoon, following up a blowout victory over their scuffling longtime rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers, with a trip to the desert to take on the Phoenix Suns. Part of the Suns’ promotional effort to generate interest in the contest? Signs depicting star Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas.
On one hand, that makes plenty of sense. Why wouldn’t you promote the opportunity to see a two-time All-Star and one of the NBA’s leading scorers live and in person when he comes to Arizona? And that’s when you remember why this is Thomas’ only local appearance of this season: because the Suns had him under contract, but traded him to Boston at the 2015 trade deadline in a flurry of deals that also shipped lead guard Goran Dragic to the Miami Heat while importing Brandon Knight from the Milwaukee Bucks, landed former Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams in Milwaukee, and sent the Los Angeles Lakers’ top-five-protected 2015 first-round pick to the Philadelphia 76ers.
Let’s just say that Thomas found the promotional effort a bit curious. From Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald:
“They didn’t put me on a billboard when I was playing for the Suns,” he said before the Celts worked out here yesterday. “So I guess that’s cool. I don’t know.
“I mean, I definitely wanted to be on a billboard when I was here, but it is what it is. It worked out for the best.”
Thomas truly understands and believes that. Traded to the Celts in February of his first year with Phoenix, he is well aware he landed in the right place.
And when he was jokingly asked if he’s still mad at the Suns for trading him, a slight smile creased Thomas’ face and he said, “Yeah, I don’t think about that anymore. I was only here for a couple of months, so I thank them for trading me. I thank them with all my heart.
“It’s like they gave me a Christmas gift. They sent me away. So I thank them. But I don’t use it as motivation. I wasn’t really here long enough to be able to, I guess, use that as motivation. I treat it like another game.”
Sure. Another game. Against the team that, given its choice of three All-Star-caliber point guards to build around, didn’t choose him. No fodder for extra motivation there — especially not for the 5-foot-9 triggerman who was picked last in the 2011 NBA draft and who never stops finding fuel for the fire in the denigration of his height or his “Mr. Irrelevant” status. None at all!
Back in the summer of 2014, the Suns — and especially general manager Ryan McDonough — looked like absolute geniuses. On the heels of a stunning 2013-14 season that saw them wildly outperform preseason expectations that they’d be one of the league’s worst teams, riding the two-point-guard attack of Dragic and Bledsoe under head coach Jeff Hornacek to stay in the playoff race until the very end of the season, McDonough seemed to have pulled off a flat-out heist, reaching a four-year, $27 million agreement with Thomas in restricted free agency, then guaranteeing he’d get his man by swinging a sign-and-trade with the Sacramento Kings, who preferred to get assets — center Alex Oriakhi and a trade exception — rather than matching the offer.
For the low cost of just under $7 million per year, it looked like McDonough had all but ensured that Phoenix could always keep two dynamic on- and off-ball scoring threats on the court at the same time, ratcheting up the relentlessness of an attack that had already ranked among the league’s 10 best in points scored per possession. Before long, though, the Suns’ three-headed attack had begun to implode, as the three All-Star-caliber lead guards bristled at the sacrifices required to make room for one another, especially as it became clear that Phoenix was closer to the rebuilding team many expected them to be in the fall of 2013 than the near-playoff team they were in the spring of 2014.
Dragic, whose arrival predated those of Bledsoe and Thomas, made it clear that he felt promises had been broken, that he no longer trusted the Suns’ front office, and that he wanted to be traded. McDonough, feeling the pressure to salvage a deteriorating situation, spun off Dragic and Thomas to rebuild around Bledsoe and Knight, about whom he said at the time, “We feel like we got the best player in the trade, coming or going.”
That, um, has not turned out to be the case.
Knight got injured shortly after his arrival in Phoenix, received a five-year contract and, when healthy, has largely underperformed over the past few seasons. The Suns also sent out that golden ticket of a draft pick, a first-round choice formerly owned by the Lakers that’s top-three protected in the 2017 drafts and wholly unprotected in 2018; with the Lakers remaining one of the NBA’s worst teams, the Suns very well might have sent the 76ers a No. 4 pick — or, potentially, next year’s No. 1 pick — for the right to pay Knight $70 million.
After an awkward adjustment to life in Miami as he tried to figure out how to fit in alongside Dwyane Wade, Dragic has largely returned to form, acting as the offensive engine of a Heat team that’s gone on a shocking run over the past couple of months to find itself on the verge of the Eastern Conference playoffs. And Thomas? Well, after hitting a dagger against Phoenix literally four days following the trade, he’s been fully unleashed as the tip of the offensive spear in Brad Stevens’ system, becoming the NBA’s premier fourth-quarter scorer, a two-time All-Star, the second-leading scorer in the league at 29.4 points per game, and one of the most electric performers in the sport.
So, yeah: that trade has really, really, really not worked out for the Suns.
McDonough has offered public mea culpas about the trade in the past. He said last year he wished he could have a mulligan on the deal shipping out Thomas, and that the idea of the three-headed monster at the point was “one of those things that seemed better to him in July than it did maybe during the season.” (To put it mildly.)
Thomas, for his part, appreciated that candor — “I mean it’s cool. I’m starting to get more and more respect, I guess. It feels good to hear him finally say that” — but even he himself wasn’t too sure about how the move would play out when it happened, as he told Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated last month:
What were your thoughts about being dealt to Boston?
When I got traded, I didn’t want to go because even though the Phoenix thing didn’t work out, we were seventh or eighth in the West. We were fighting for a playoff spot. Boston had traded [Rajon] Rondo, they traded Jeff Green, they traded so many players. It was rebuilding time. So when I got traded there, ‘Damn, I got to go to another team that’s rebuilding at the end of their conference.’ Then when I checked, they were a game out of the playoffs.
[Hall of Famer] Isiah Thomas called me that day and said, ‘You guys are a game and a half out of the eighth spot. Take this team to the playoffs.’ That’s when it started changing a little bit to me. ‘Maybe I can see the playoffs for the first time in my career.’
He did, averaging 19 points and 5.4 assists per game down the stretch for the Celtics to help them reach the postseason before falling in a four-game sweep at the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Thomas and the C’s came back stronger last year, with the point guard averaging a team-high 22.2 points and 6.2 assists per game and leading Boston to 48 wins before, once again, bowing out in the opening round, this time in six games to the Atlanta Hawks.
This year, both Thomas and the team have reached another level. He’s flirting with 30 points per game and dropping dagger after fourth-quarter dagger, teaming with free-agent signing Al Horford, dogged swingmen Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart, and the rest of a deep, tough Celtics team to rise to the No. 2 seed in the East — and, with a few breaks here and there — perhaps a legitimate chance to topple the conference-leading Cavs come springtime. The Suns, meanwhile, sit at 20-42, the second-worst record in the West and the third-worst in the NBA, once again circling the drain as McDonough and coach Earl Watson try to plot a course for a successful rebuild.
For Thomas, the deal has worked out to be a dream come true. There’s only one thing about his time in Arizona that he prefers to his life in Massachusetts
“The weather is wonderful,” he said, according to Bulpett. “I love the weather, so it’s nice to be back. I was only here for a little bit, so it’s not like it’s a place I miss. But it’s nice to be back here.”
And seeing your face up on a billboard as you visit, before getting to leave the still-struggling team that shipped you out so you can resume title contention? Well, that’s the greatest gift of all, isn’t it?
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