Blasted by Cavs, No. 1 pick in hand, Celtics must consider trading Isaiah Thomas

The 117-104 beating the Cleveland Cavaliers put on the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals (it was much worse than that score would indicate) was so awkwardly lopsided that it didn't even take until halftime for the TNT crew to start with the moral victory talk. 

"Let's face it," Reggie Miller said, "[the Celtics] are playing with house money."

"They're probably two years ahead of schedule," Chris Webber added.

"This is great experience," Miller concluded.

People love to call getting your brains beat in "good experience" because, I don't know, I suppose it makes you hungrier or something like that. I don't buy that. If the Celtics were to come back to the Eastern Conference finals with this same team next year, and face this same Cavaliers team, all the experience and hunger in the world wouldn't keep the same thing from happening again.

No, for this experience to matter, Boston has to learn something from it. Suffer through the next three games of this series, four if they're lucky, and come back different. Fortunately, unlike most teams who can't just wave a wand and change the core of their roster for the better, the Celtics scored the No. 1 pick in the draft on Tuesday, adding to their already stocked stash of assets, and that opens up all kinds of options. Combo-guard Markelle Fultz is the top pick on just about everyone's board.

Which puts Isaiah Thomas squarely in the crosshairs.

I think everyone, on some level, has long known the odds were against Boston actually becoming a championship team with Thomas as its best player, but Game 1 really drove that sentiment home. It was just a total mismatch to send Thomas, all 5-foot-9 of him, and his band of try-hards -- as my man Matt Moore likes to call the Celtics -- into the conference finals against LeBron James and Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. These Celtics just aren't in the same league as the Cavs. Or the Warriors, for that matter.

Does a guy like Fultz close that gap? He could. He's really good. But even if he doesn't close it much on his own in the short term, he is a future cornerstone who at least makes dealing Thomas palatable. Fultz is a legit 6-4 guard who can score from anywhere, create for himself and others, and projects as a long, versatile defender on the perimeter. Oh, and he'll be on a rookie salary scale, making less than $7 million in his first few years. Compare that to a 29-year-old Thomas, who you're going to have to give a max deal, and thus be paying him in the neighborhood $35 million a year when he's 32, 33, 34 years old, and yeah, Thomas is looking pretty expendable right now.

I don't say that lightly. Thomas, under most circumstances, is a great scorer. Not a good one, a great one. But I'm not sure he's a great player. It's romantic to root for the short guy, but it tends to be a problem in the NBA at some point. There are just certain times when you aren't going to be able to count on him to consistently score, no matter how often he proves that theory wrong, and if he's not controlling the game offensively, the size-deficient defense becomes a lot bigger problem. 

LeBron exposed Thomas time and again on switches. The Cavs played him straight up at the rim, rather than letting him initiate contact for that little hesitation, hanging finish, and in basketball it's a pretty powerful thing when you can just let your natural height advantage do its work. At the time of Miller and Webber's little participation-trophy speech, Thomas had two points. He wound up with 17, all of which were almost entirely meaningless.

Still, even if you want to say Thomas is a borderline great player, these days, you need two or three of those to really, truly compete. And windows don't stay open for long. So what's Boston's move here? I can definitely envision a scenario in which the Celtics become a markedly better team while holding onto Thomas, but they would have to trim enough salary to attract, say, Gordon Hayward to come in and be that second No. 1 option-type guy. That's doable. Boston can get about $30 million off its books by dumping Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko, Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Zeller. And they would conceivably have room to then give Thomas the max, too, if they're willing to go closer to, or over, the luxury tax line.

However, if they don't land Hayward (I can't think of any other gettable free agent who really gives them what they need), that's when you perhaps use Thomas to go out and trade for a Jimmy Butler, or hell, Paul George if he would commit to a long-term deal with anyone but the Lakers. Whatever the play, the assets are there. So is the urgency. Fultz changes a lot. That doesn't make whatever decision they make either next year or the year after on Thomas any easier.

But moving him has to be on the table. Moral victories don't count, as Game 1 showed. Nobody is going to feel bad for you because you try hard. Because you have a bunch of good players. You need great players. Preferably a few of them. If Thomas can't be one of those for the Celtics, he has to start being looked at as a guy who can possibly get them one.  

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