Isaiah Thomas still smolders when the subject of Boston comes up, and he has every right to. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Thomas confessed that he may never again speak to Celtics president Danny Ainge, the man who flipped Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and a first-round pick for Kyrie Irving just weeks after Thomas submitted one of the most inspirational playoff performances in NBA history.
“I’ll talk to everybody else,” Thomas told SI. “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.”
Maybe. But virtually every rival executive I have talked to about the Celtics-Cavs deal believes Boston did the right thing. Not everyone is in love with Irving, mind you — his eagerness to get away from a player (LeBron James) who annually ranks as the one star other players most want to team up with raises questions, as does Irving’s ability to be the No. 1 option on a team of his own. But Irving, 25, is three years younger than Thomas, 28. Like Thomas, Irving is an elite scorer. Perhaps as important: Irving is healthy and has two years left on his contract. Thomas is battling a bad hip and is set to become a free agent next summer.
“That deal was a no-brainer,” said a Western Conference GM. “The risk isn’t Thomas playing to the level he played last season — it’s the pick turning out to be No. 1, and [Duke freshman forward] Marvin Bagley turning into Kevin Durant. But you have a chance to get Irving, you do it.”
There will be plenty of people in Boston pulling for Thomas to succeed this season. Ainge is one of them. “You know, that’s the hard part of the job,” Ainge told reporters on Wednesday. “I mean, I know there is a lot of feelings that go on when these type of things happen. I was a player that was traded twice, so I understand his sentiments, but you guys know how much I love Isaiah. He’s a great kid and I wish him the best.”
Ainge has never been influenced by sentiment. He traded Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, two stars whose jersey numbers will one day hang from the TD Garden rafters. He moved Rajon Rondo. He got a draft pick for coach Doc Rivers. Ainge has a knack for selling high, and he may have done it again with Thomas, who will turn 30 in the first season of a new deal and may never produce a top-five MVP-level season again. You don’t do that, Thomas growled, but to build a sustainable winner, sometimes you have to.
On to your email …
Ever since Joel Embiid had his magical 31 games last year, I’ve held firm in my opinion that the Sixers should trade him. The way I see it — until I’m given at the very least 70 games played in a year — he will likely never be healthy at a superstar level and his trade value after that mere sample of games last year will never be higher. I understand that there are seemingly many protections in his new contract, but with myriad other young talent, I think the return value of trading him now would’ve been more beneficial long term for the team than this new contract. — Jake Johnson
My only issue with Embiid’s deal is I thought the 76ers could have waited until the end of next season to give it to him. Let’s say Embiid plays 70 games at an All-Star-level — wouldn’t a player with a history of serious injuries still be more likely to take a max deal rather than roll the dice on a one-year qualifying offer? It’s not like Embiid gave Philly a discount; the deal could be worth as much as $178 million, and only a recurrence of foot or back injuries gives the Sixers any room to get out of it.
But trade him? Absolutely not. The sample size was small, but Embiid showed eye-popping potential. Philadelphia now has a pair of 7-foot(-ish) bigs in its frontcourt in Embiid and Ben Simmons who can put it on the floor and post up. If they stay healthy, they will be a nightmare to defend for years to come.
Just for the fun of preseason dreaming for Rockets fans, what does the team look like if everything falls into place? Say CP3 and James Harden quickly fit perfectly with each other and in the system. That would mean elite point guard play (and elite offense overall) for 48 minutes. The defensive-minded wings who have some shooting/spacing concerns such as P.J. Tucker/Luc Mbah a Moute/Trevor Ariza should get more open shots than they ever have to limit their weak points and allow better team defense and flexibility. If shooting isn’t as much of a concern for the wings, they can play more small-ball power forward minutes, so the team also has more options to limit Ryan Anderson’s minutes on nights he’s not shooting well. What does that team look like? — Aubrey Fitzhenry
The one-ball/two ball-dominant players question doesn’t scare me, not with coach Mike D’Antoni at the helm. This is a wheelhouse backcourt for D’Antoni — two players who can score, create and shoot the three at a high level. And remember, Harden thrived alongside Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Plus, the memory of being stifled by San Antonio in the conference semis has to still be fresh in Harden’s mind.
The Rockets will score. Period. But will they defend? Houston was a middle-of-the-pack defensive team last season, and that in and of itself was an achievement. D’Antoni has often said the team needs to be a top-10 defensive unit to compete for anything, and the Rockets don’t have the horses to do it. Patrick Beverley is gone, and Houston will sacrifice a lot of offense when Mbah a Moute and Tucker are on the floor — which means down the stretch, they likely won’t be there.
The Rockets are a top-four Western Conference team, but they are probably a piece or two away from being any better than that.
With Gary Harris’ extension, how does it impact Marcus Smart’s market value? He’s arguably the better player, but $20 million per for a backup point sounds absurd. What should they do? — Brendan Morse
I like Smart. He’s a bulldog defender who I think can be a 35-minute-per-night point guard on a winning team. But he’s in a weird situation in Boston. The Celtics have a franchise point guard (Irving) and right now are penciling Smart into Avery Bradley’s role. He can do it, and his ability to take on an opponent’s top backcourt scorer will take pressure off Irving, but I’m not sure if that will reveal Smart’s full potential.
But Boston holds most of the cards here. Only a handful of teams project to have significant cap space next summer, and those that do may not see Smart as a $15 million-$20 million player. Harris’ deal (four years, $84 million) with Denver is one comparison, though Boston would probably say T.J. Warren’s Suns contract (four years, $50 million) and Norman Powell’s Raptors deal (four years, $42 million) are more realistic.
Boston seems to be OK with letting the market dictate Smart’s value next summer and may gamble that it’s not going to be as robust as Smart would like.
Love your work. My question is: What are your thoughts on the rest of the Thunder rotation after the Big Three? What do they need more of? — Isaiah Claman
Two things. First, they need a starter to settle in as the leader of that second unit. Anthony seems the most likely candidate. I caught a pair of Thunder games last weekend, and Anthony thrived in brief stretches as the lone starter on the floor. The Thunder ran isolation plays for him, and Anthony gobbled up second-team defenders. Watch for Anthony to exit games early in the first quarter, only to return in the second to spearhead Oklahoma City’s bench.
Second, they need Steven Adams. The Thunder haven’t utilized Adams in the post much this preseason; he’s not even getting the obligatory, Kendrick Perkins first-possession play call. It sure looks like Adams’ role will be to set screens, roll to the rim and work the offensive glass. But he can do more. Adams isn’t Hakeem Olajuwon, but he’s solid, and teams won’t rush to double him with three All-Stars roaming the perimeter. And he balances out a perimeter-heavy offense. Hopefully Adams’ role evolves as the season goes on.
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