Ainge finally gets his man in Thomas

Ainge finally gets his man in Thomas
February, 19, 2015
FEB 19
8:35
PM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge made Isaiah Thomas one of his primary targets at the start of free agency this past summer. Four months later, he finally got his man.

[+] EnlargeWarriors/Suns
Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images
Isaiah Thomas averaged 20.3 points and 6.3 assists with the Kings in 2013-14.
The Celtics obtained Thomas from the Phoenix Suns at Thursday’s trade deadline in exchange for Marcus Thornton and Cleveland’s 2016 first-round pick. Boston is hoping Thomas can inject the sort of offensive spark the team needs while building toward a brighter future.

The 26-year-old Thomas, who signed a modest four-year, $27 million contract in July, joins rookie Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley in a primary three-guard rotation. The Celtics hope Thomas’ ability to create scoring opportunities in the pick-and-roll — something they sorely lack at the guard position — will invigorate an offense that ranks 23rd in offensive rating this season.

The 5-foot-9 Thomas has potential to give Boston’s offense a big-time jolt. In his final season with Sacramento during the 2013-14 campaign, Thomas averaged 20.3 points and 6.3 assists over 34.7 minutes per game. Despite playing only 25.7 minutes per game this season in Phoenix’s overstocked backcourt, he still averaged 15.2 points on four fewer shots per game and his 3-point percentage climbed to a career-best 39.1 percent.

Even with Rajon Rondo healthy at the start of the 2014-15 season, Boston lacked a player who could attack the basket in the pick-and-roll and generate consistent points on his own. Just look at the numbers from Synergy Sports for all of Boston’s top guards this season:

PICK-AND-EYE-ROLL

A look at Boston’s success, in points per play, on plays finished by pick-and-roll ball-handlers this season via Synergy Sports data (with total number of plays and percentile rank in the league):

Player PnR Plays PPP Percentile
Evan Turner 193 0.67 34th
Isaiah Thomas 187 0.84 72nd
Rajon Rondo 125 0.58 14th
Avery Bradley 124 0.78 59th
Marcus Smart 67 0.45 6th
Boston ranks 28th overall in the league in points per play in the pick-and-roll this season, averaging an anemic 0.685 points per play. In a league that requires ball-handlers to be able to suck in defenses to open up shots on the perimeter, Thomas can create for himself and his teammates, a balance Boston hasn’t quite had at any point this season.

Thomas actually has emerged as a reliable spot-up shooter as well this season (his 1.18 points per spot-up play is second only to Smart on the Celtics roster), meaning the Celtics can still put the ball in Smart’s hands and won’t stunt his development while learning the pick-and-roll game at the NBA level.

Thomas adds a dimension that Boston hasn’t had recently in a point guard. He can attack the basket, he gets to the foul line frequently, and he takes care of the basketball. His flexibility will allow coach Brad Stevens to run him with either Smart or Bradley, or maybe flirt with the idea of all three together in small lineups.

Some additional thoughts after Boston’s deadline maneuvering:

• Thomas the defender: We shouldn’t ignore Thomas’ defense here. Yes, he’s undersized and that can cause matchup problems. But the league’s player-tracking data suggests he’s held opponents at 1.7 percent below their season average for shooting this season. And he’ll generate plenty of steals with his quickness.

• Pierce still helping C’s: The Celtics have essentially turned the $12.9 million trade exception generated by trading Paul Pierce as part of the Brooklyn blockbuster in 2013 into Tyler Zeller and Thomas — two young rotation players who have potential to be long-term fixtures as the Celtics build. Brooklyn, meanwhile, traded away Kevin Garnett on Thursday, the last remaining player from a swap that also delivered three first-round picks to Boston.

• Value deals: As part of the Thomas trade, the Celtics sent out Thornton, a player acquired in the Nets swap who was on an expiring deal and didn’t have a future in Boston. The departures of both Thornton and Tayshaun Prince ease a bit of the crunch at the swingman spots and should allow rookie James Young, whom Boston drafted with the first of their Nets picks, to find more consistent playing time in the second half of the season. Prince, who was expected to be a buyout candidate in the aftermath of the deadline, gets moved, and Boston essentially gets a free look at Jonas Jerebko, who could get an opportunity to play with Boston thin on bigs with Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger both injured at the moment.

All in all, it was a successful day for Ainge. Boston accomplished several goals by keeping its young nucleus intact, adding a proven talent who is under its long-term control and trimming a bit of salary. All without having to dip too far into its treasure trove of draft picks (and remember Cleveland’s pick next year almost certainly will be a late first-rounder).

While it means more change for Boston and forces Stevens and his staff to integrate even more new faces, Thomas should help the Celtics moving forward. Sullinger’s injury and other Eastern Conference rivals beefing up at the point guard spot in Detroit (Reggie Jackson) and Miami (Goran Dragic) could make it tough for Boston to hang around in the playoff hunt, but Ainge didn’t make this move for the immediate future.

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