The biggest winner from the Sixers-Celtics blockbuster trade of the No. 1 pick in Thursday’s draft for the No. 3 pick and a future conditional first-round pick in either 2018 or 2019 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, in which he took the leap from “star” to superstar. He’ll wind up with MVP votes when they’re released, he was an All-Star, he made All-NBA, he was one of the best scorers in the league. To Thomas’ supporters, he’s a guy who has overcome every criticism he’s faced, who is one of the most efficient scorers in the league, who led the Celtics to the No. 1 seed and an Eastern Conference finals appearance.
And yet, his future was kind of in doubt before the trade completed Monday.
Thomas is in the last year of his current contract, a steal at just $6.26 million for next season. He’ll be a free agent in the summer of 2018 at age 29. Even with as productive as Thomas was, he is still 5-foot-9, and at that height, he presents challenges for both trying to build effectively around him and hide him defensively. Projected No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz seemed like a natural fit, able to play next to Thomas as a shooter and secondary playmaker, while bringing a longer wingspan and better size.
While the two could play together, the Celtics would at least have had options to not re-sign Thomas, or possibly use that fact as leverage in negotiations. Without him, the Celtics are left with very few realistic options when it comes to their point guard prospects.
POINT GUARD OPTIONS
- Extend Thomas. If Thomas agrees to it, the Celtics can sign him to an extension at a reported $145.5 million deal that will pay him $33.3 million in 2021-2022 when he enters the season at age 33. This move could be made starting July 12. However, the only way they can do this deal is if there is cap room available, which means they will have swung out on Gordon Hayward or an alternative max free agent, as well as hopes to trade for a star like Jimmy Butler or Paul George. It’s theoretically possible that the Celtics could dump enough salary in dealing for Butler to still have room to secure this, but it would leave them with almost nothing to fill out the rest of the roster, which will be a need, especially with Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley both up for free agency in 2018.
- Re-sign Thomas for the max in 2018. This is the most-likely scenario following the Fultz trade. The Celtics attempt to sign Gordon Hayward, trade for a star (or both) and then in 2018 they “back up the Brinks truck” as Thomas said they would have to last summer 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 years of age. This should terrify the Celtics. That is an enormous amount, which could be close to a third of the cap tied into a 34-year-old 5-9 point guard. But given Thomas’ folk hero standing, they may simply have no recourse. They can’t lose Thomas, not after failing to acquire Fultz as a transition point guard. He’s too good to let go and his situation is too perilous to keep at that price.
- Re-sign Thomas at a discount. This is the most likely outcome, a compromise that the Celtics will sell to Thomas on the promise of being able to maintain contender status while also not paying him $40 million. He’s said he wants to stay in Boston … but he’s also used the “it’s a business” line. They can also sign a marquee free agent next summer, and use that as motivation to convince Thomas to take a little less, even though they won’t need to in order to re-sign him due to his status as having “Bird rights” with Boston. But even a significant paycut would still mean committing upwards of $25-$30 million to Thomas.
- Draft a point guard in the first round. Of course, the Celtics, who accumulate point guards like they’re collector’s items, could look to add another point guard at the No. 3 spot, or trade down. The draft provides options, with De’Aaron Fox and Dennis Smith Jr. both prized point guards. Trading down to take another point guard of lesser ability than Fultz would be both a. hilarious and b. very Danny Ainge, who has consistently taken players lower than most consensus public boards have projected.
But in the end, Fultz being traded does put the Celtics into a box with Thomas. They could justify letting him go, or maintain a harder stance. Now, they can’t afford to let Thomas walk. If Thomas and his agent hold firm on the max, they’ll get that. 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 at this point.
There’s also still a full season to go before he’s a free agent. If Thomas back slides and this year looks like an outlier, it could be devastating. So not having the threat of Fultz around does nothing but help his situation. Either way, whether it’s with Boston, or another team, Thomas is going to get paid. But the trade of the No. 1 pick means he’ll 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 also making what will be an absolutely obscene amount of money.