The four players selected immediately before Isaiah Thomas went 60th in the 2011 NBA draft were Chukwudiebere Maduabum, Tanguy Ngombo, Ater Majok, and Ádám Hanga. Even in the moment, as the Washington Huskies junior was being passed over for no-name draft-and-stashes, Thomas says his faith didn’t waver. According to the 5-foot-9 point guard, making the NBA "was the goal and the only goal." Nobody would take it away from him, and when he got his chance, he’d be ready to take advantage of it.
"I think that’s the difference between me and other people," Thomas told me as we sat in an office at the Celtics practice facility in Waltham, Massachusetts. "Some people’s opportunity comes and they waste it, because they’re not ready for that moment. I remember Jason Terry always telling me, ‘Opportunity doesn’t go away, it goes to somebody else.’ You just gotta be ready for that moment. To this day, I’ve always been ready for the moment that came my way."
Plenty of superstar athletes — Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers — have used slights, perceived or otherwise, as fuel for their competitive fire. Thomas started his professional career with 59 reasons to feel slighted. He has beat the odds by not just finding success, but by also becoming a superstar.
Listen to Kevin O’Connor’s podcast interview with Isaiah Thomas here:
Thomas counts Brady, Floyd Mayweather, and Allen Iverson among his friends, and he’s had lunch with Kobe. "They’re special. They separate themselves in different situations," Thomas said when asked about what those greats have in common. "It’s kind of hard to explain, but every tight situation, it seems easy for the great players. It seems like they’ve seen the situation before."
Recently, Thomas appeared on Kevin Garnett’s "Area 21" segment on TNT, and he asked KG how he made guys follow him. Thomas says KG "just told me straight up: ‘Be yourself. Go with your gut. You say you have big balls; follow those. If they’re with you, they’re going to follow you, if they’re not, then they’re going to be left behind.’" (Wait … follow your big balls? Yeah, that sounds like KG.)
Thomas admits he needs to improve as a leader, but he’s new to the role, anyway. After all, it was only five years ago he was fighting for a roster spot in Sacramento. As a rookie, Thomas quickly became a part-time starter for the Kings after outplaying veterans and 2011 lottery pick Jimmer Fredette. By his third season, Thomas was averaging 20.3 points per game in Sacramento, but the team was never totally sold on IT as its point guard of the future. The Kings brought in a parade of vets — Darren Collison, Greivis Vásquez, and Aaron Brooks, among others — to run the show, and Thomas didn’t like it. The Kings were ready to move on, so they agreed to a sign-and-trade with the Suns in 2014. "I felt very disrespected. Every year it was somebody new," Thomas said at the time. Phoenix wasn’t what Thomas signed up for either. There were too many cooks in the kitchen with Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic, and Thomas all requiring the ball in their hands. Suns general manager Ryan McDonough decided to scrap the three-point-guard experiment, and Thomas was traded to the Celtics for scraps in February 2015.
That turned out to be the opportunity he was waiting for. The Celtics had an anemic pick-and-roll attack at the time, and severely needed a go-to scoring presence. They didn’t necessarily expect Thomas to turn into the superstar he is today, but they knew they were getting a special player who could accelerate the team’s rebuild. After all, in 2014 free agency, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge’s first phone call was to Thomas. "He’s a tough-shot maker — a lot of times guys like that have to take the tougher shots because they have the ball when the clock winds down," Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said after Boston acquired Thomas. "To perform the way he’s performed on that end of the floor, especially the last couple of years, is a testament to his ability. I think he helps our team and hopefully we can continue to grow with that backcourt."
Since the trade, Thomas has exploded: He averaged 19 points off the bench to cap off 2015, and last year posted 22.2 points and 6.2 assists per game in his first All-Star campaign. He’s now averaging 29 points on 19.7 shots per game. Only three players (all Hall of Famers: Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone, and Adrian Dantley) have ever averaged 29 on 20 or fewer shots, per Basketball Reference. He has an ongoing streak of 27 games with at least 20 points scored. In a season littered with outrageous individual campaigns, Thomas is having a truly remarkable one. "Not to be cocky, but I feel like I’m the best player in the world," Thomas says. "That’s just the work I put in, and if you don’t feel like that, then you’re cheating yourself."
If you watch Thomas take over a fourth quarter, it’s hard to argue with him. Thomas is averaging 10.1 points per game in the fourth quarter this season — the most of any player since 1996. Only four other players have averaged over 8.5: Tracy McGrady (8.6 points in 2002–03), Kobe Bryant (9.5 points in 2005–06), LeBron James (9.1 points in 2007–08), and Russell Westbrook (9.4 points this season). (The NBA.com database only tracks quarter-by-quarter stats going back to 1996.) No matter, this is an incomprehensible feat by Thomas, especially considering he’s doing it with tremendous efficiency (57 effective field goal and 67.3 true shooting percentages in the fourth quarter).
Thomas told me he views the first three quarters as a setup; in the fourth he gets "ultra-aggressive" and unleashes moves that he has saved to use against fatigued players. "I want to embrace that moment of the fourth quarter," Thomas says. "The fourth quarter isn’t for everybody. It’s tighter situations, it means a little more, and the game is usually on the line a little more in that fourth quarter. The great players embrace those moments."
Thomas has an abnormally high usage rate of 43.4 percent in the final frame (only Westbrook’s is higher this season, at 51.2 percent), which appears to run counter to the motion-based principles of Stevens’s offense. Only three teams run fewer isolations than Boston, and only one team — Golden State — averages more potential assists, per NBA.com. But when the game slows down in the playoffs, or late in regular-season fourth quarters, there are opportunities to hit the Kobe Button. Thomas is an elite iso scorer, averaging 1.2 points per possession in isolations, per Synergy, which leads all 68 players that have at least 50 possessions.
On January 13, with the game tied 101–101 against the Atlanta Hawks and only 25.6 seconds remaining, Stevens elected not to call a timeout and instead let Thomas decide the game himself.
Thomas uses Iverson’s shoulder hesitation move to keep Kent Bazemore on his heels. Then, Thomas elongates his step from the 3-point line to the elbow, as if he’s sprinting through the finish line. With Bazemore’s momentum pulling him away, Thomas finally steps back into his jumper for the win. "I’ve worked on that move thousands of times," Thomas told me, explaining that building muscle memory through repetition was the key to perfecting the move. "It doesn’t matter who’s guarding me, or what type of situation I’m in, I know I can get to that spot and get to my shot." Thomas’s footwork is masterful. It’s not unlike watching a Broadway dancer. The beauty is in the details. It’s in the work. It’s art.
Without Thomas, the Celtics wouldn’t be where they are now, with the league’s eighth-best record (26–17) and net rating (plus-2.4). They don’t have another go-to scorer on their roster who can create for himself in end-of-game situations; that’s why they rely so much on Thomas. But even if Thomas is the best player in the world like he says he is, he still needs a partner in crime. LeBron James has Kyrie Irving, Shaq had Kobe, and Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippen.
Thomas has a lot of talented pieces around him, but the Celtics don’t have that other guy who puts them in the conversation as a real title contender. That’s not news, least of all to those within the Celtics organization. That’s why Ainge is on the hunt for a superstar. That opportunity might come, but as of now there are none on the market. According to multiple front-office executives and one agent, the in-their-prime superstars who could even theoretically be acquired (Blake Griffin, Paul George, Jimmy Butler, or DeMarcus Cousins) are not available.
The Celtics are nearing a crossroads, and Thomas is at the center of it all. Thomas has joked about the Celtics needing to back the Brink’s truck up when he’s an unrestricted free agent in 2018, but that time could come sooner if the Celtics strike out in free agency and the trade market this summer. Ainge is wise to bide his time and wait for the opportunity to strike considering the team’s treasure trove of assets, but a patient approach doesn’t guarantee good results.
The franchise will have about $40 million in cap space this summer, but it won’t necessarily be able to add a star with so few available. If the Celtics don’t add a piece, Thomas and Avery Bradley, who are both severely underpaid, could ask to renegotiate and extend their contracts one year before they hit free agency. Boston’s ideal order of operations is to first acquire a star, then re-up their own guys. Extending Thomas or Bradley would harm their chances of making splash in free agency. Though they would still have assets, matching contracts in a trade would be increasingly difficult. "There will be time when we sit down and talk with all of our guys. In the meantime, we’re trying to build a championship team," Ainge told 98.5 The Sports Hub this month. "It’s a good problem to have, to have good players who like where they are."
True, but if the Celtics are unable to acquire a star, the decision to re-sign Thomas is more complicated than simply backing up the truck. By keeping the same core together, the Celtics will still be a mid-to-high-50-win team, but they won’t be at the championship level. Besides making tweaks and running it back again and again, there are two other primary paths.
Rather than wait on Butler or George, the Celtics could pursue an aging superstar that complements Thomas while retaining key future assets like the Nets picks and Jaylen Brown. Carmelo Anthony would fit this description. The Knicks star admitted to Newsday that if the Knicks "scrap this whole thing," he could consider waiving his no-trade clause. Melo’s options would be limited since he’ll likely want to play in a winning situation in a big market, and plenty of teams probably wouldn’t want to pay him anyway. Boston "expressed interest in obtaining Anthony" at last year’s deadline, ESPN’s Ian Begley previously reported, though it’s unclear if the Celtics still have (or ever had) real interest.
Adding Melo at a fair price could bring the best of both worlds. Anthony theoretically brings them closer to title contention. He’s a go-to scoring option, and a solid (though not ideal) fit alongside Thomas. Per SportVU, Melo is shooting 40.8 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s over the past four seasons, which would make him a deadly floor spacer even when Thomas is handling the rock.
Imagine a scenario in which that’s Carmelo Anthony instead of Kelly Olynyk receiving the ball on the wing from Thomas. Defenses wouldn’t be able to key in on Thomas with the looming threat of Carmelo. Instead of funneling the ball to Thomas, regardless of the matchup, the Celtics could get creative, based on the situation.
Thomas’s efficiency has plummeted over the last two playoff series (42.2 effective field goal percentage) when opponents stick their best defender on him, blitz pick-and-rolls, and double-team. Melo is a flawed ball-stopper who is reluctant to play power forward, as well as a costly a 32-year-old with a worrisome injury history. He doesn’t help Boston’s most pressing issues (rebounding and defense). But Thomas does need help, otherwise the Celtics’ ceiling for the foreseeable future is the Eastern Conference finals.
Thomas’s emergence accelerated the Celtics’ rebuild that began in 2013, but the roster still feels like a set of placeholders for the next generation. If Melo or another aging star isn’t a viable option, the Celtics could always look for the next Jae Crowder or Thomas — an undervalued asset languishing on another team. To an even more extreme extent, the Celtics could punt on title contention over the next few seasons and set their sights on building for the 2020s by cashing out on the likes of Bradley, Olynyk, Al Horford, and maybe even Thomas. Ainge always says "nobody is ever untouchable." If the Celtics view the 2017 draft as a year to land multiple transcendent superstars, then it’s something they should at least consider.
The Celtics would prefer to not entertain that thought. They view Thomas as a cornerstone of the team. Ainge himself once told Thomas he could become a Celtics legend. "A lot of people in this organization feel that way about my game, and that’s the good thing about it," Thomas said. "When you have an organization and coaching staff and players that are behind you, that gives you the utmost confidence to just keep going. They love me for who I am, and I haven’t had that in a long time. … I’m not the typical point guard, and usually, people don’t like what’s not normal."
It’s true. Thomas isn’t normal. The Celtics aren’t either: They’re a winning team with more valuable assets than perhaps any other organization. How they play their hand over the following months and years will determine the heights the franchise and Thomas will reach together.
Listen to the full conversation with Isaiah Thomas on The Ringer NBA Show.