Why Isaiah Thomas stands as the biggest winner from the Celtics' blockbuster trade
Boston's pint-sized point guard is set for a big payday
The biggest winner from the Sixers-Celticsin Thursday's draft was not Philly, or Boston, or Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball or Josh Jackson.
It was Isaiah Thomas.
Thomas is coming off the best year of his career, when he took the leap from "star" to superstar. He'll wind up with MVP votes when they're released, was an All-Star, made All-NBA and was one of the league's best scorers. To Thomas' supporters, he has overcome every criticism to become one of the NBA's most efficient scorers and led the Celtics to the No. 1 seed and an Eastern Conference finals appearance.
And yet, his future was in doubt before the trade was completed Monday.
Thomas is in the last year of his current contract, a steal at only $6.26 million for next season. He'll be a free agent in the summer of 2018 at age 29. As productive as Thomas was, he is still 5-foot-9, so it's a challenge to build a team around him and hide him on defense. Projected No. 1 pick Fultz seemed like a natural fit, able to play next to Thomas as a shooter and secondary playmaker with a longer wingspan and better size.
Even though the two could have played together, the Celtics still had the option to not re-sign Thomas or use that fact as leverage in negotiations. In the wake of the trade, here are four options for the Celtics at point guard:
POINT GUARD OPTIONS
- Extend Thomas: If Thomas agrees, the Celtics can sign him to an extension worth a reported $145.5 million that will pay him $33.3 million in 2021-22 when he enters the season at age 33. This move could be made starting July 12. However, the only way they can do this is if there is available cap room, which means they would miss out on Gordon Hayward or another max free agent, as well as any trade for Jimmy Butler or Paul George. It's possible the Celtics could dump enough salary in dealing for Butler to still have room to secure this deal for Thomas, but it would leave them with almost nothing to fill out the roster. That will be a need, especially because Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley are up for free agency in 2018.
- Re-sign Thomas for the max in 2018: The Celtics would attempt to sign Hayward or trade for a star (or both), and then in 2018 they "back up the Brinks truck," which is what Thomas once said they would have to do to keep him. That means putting together a $179 million, five-year max contract which would pay him $40 million going into 2022, when he is 34. That could be close to a third of the cap tied to a 34-year-old, 5-9 point guard. But given Thomas' folk hero standing, they may have no recourse. They can't lose Thomas after deciding against Fultz.
- Re-sign Thomas at a discount: This is a compromise the Celtics would sell to Thomas with the promise of the club remaining a contender while also not paying him $40 million. Thomas has said he wants to stay in Boston but also has used the "it's a business" line. They also could sign a marquee free agent next summer, and use that as motivation to convince Thomas to take a little less. But even a significant pay cut still would mean committing upward of $25 million to $30 million to Thomas.
- Draft a point guard in the first round Thursday: Of course, the Celtics, who accumulate point guards like collector's items, could select another at the No. 3 spot, or trade down for one. The draft provides options, with De'Aaron Fox and Dennis Smith Jr. both prized point men. Trading down to take another point guard rated lower than Fultz would be A) hilarious and B) very Danny Ainge, who has consistently taken players lower than most consensus public boards have projected.
But trading away the No. 1 pick, and in essence Fultz, puts the Celtics into a box with Thomas. With Fultz, they could justify letting Thomas go, or maintain a harder negotiating stance. Now, they can't afford to let Thomas walk. If Thomas and his agent hold firm on the max, they'll get it. If they bend to help the team out, that's a big bonus for the Celtics, but it means Thomas will have failed to make the most of his considerable value.
There's still a full season to go before Thomas is a free agent. If he regresses and this past season looks like an outlier, it could be devastating. So the absence of Fultz only helps Thomas. Either way, whether with Boston or another team, Thomas will get paid. But the trade of the No. 1 pick means he will be set up to have his cake and eat it, too, potentially staying with the team that had faith in him and allowed him to become a superstar while making an obscene amount of money.
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