The NBA is a league that traffics heavily in public perception. There’s the business, and there’s the basketball, but in a sport where only five guys can start on each team and where the athletes are uncovered by helmets, having a prominent (and likable) persona off the court has become almost as important as thriving on the court. It’s an acquired skill that combines both the business and the basketball.
Isaiah Thomas knows this.
Over the past season, Thomas, with his electric play and unflappable style, tapped into a special place among Celtics supporters both in Boston and around the country. It’s a place that’s reserved for those with transcendent talent and/or magnetic personalities: protective fandom. Lighting up crowds inside the TD Garden by scoring almost 30 a game last season and setting social media ablaze with his cryptic tweets and endless free-agent recruiting, Thomas has fueled his own public support to unexpected heights. With a possible max contract looming at the end of the 2017-18 season, IT is making all the right moves this summer—not just to ensure that everyone knows he wants it, but also that everyone agrees he deserves it too.
Take this weekend, for example. Thomas, who hails from Tacoma, Washington, held his annual basketball camp at Boston University, in the heart of the city. Who decided to show up? Mookie Betts, the Red Sox’s beloved phenom outfielder. Hugs and handshakes were exchanged, and plenty of pictures were taken and posted. Betts even gave Thomas a pair of signed shoes.
At the camp, Thomas spoke with the Boston Herald about the progress of his hip injury (“the hip is great”), the Kyrie saga (“I don’t know what’s going on over there”), and the Celtics’ goals. He also talked about his contract situation, which remains unchanged, and how he’s confident he will be offered a max deal.
"I deserve it. I put the work in, and you can put me down against any guard in the NBA,” he told the Herald. “My numbers are up there with the best players in the world, and my team is winning. So, I mean, you have to reward that."
Thomas also made a point to say that Boston general manager Danny Ainge, who made sure to joke about Thomas’s custom Brink’s slides, is not unaware of this. “Everybody knows,” he said. “I’m not too worried about it.”
On Monday, Thomas’s Boston campaign trail continued as he made his way out to Foxborough for the Patriots’ training camp. When asked why he was there, Thomas replied: “To watch greatness.” Of course. Front row at the team’s practice, wearing Patriots gear, Thomas chatted with owner Robert Kraft, signed footballs for fans, and went on ESPN to talk about Tom Brady, among other topics.
Thomas is hitting all the right Nantucket notes to sweet, symphonic perfection. Just wait until he gets photographed eating a lobster roll on top of the Green Monster. Or rides with the duck boats and predicts the Celtics’ 18th title.
By his stats from the last two seasons alone, there’s little doubt that Thomas, twice an All-Star, is worthy of a max contract. But the business model of the NBA usually forces teams to come to this crucial decision: pay for past performance or future return? This is what makes giving Thomas, who turns 29 in February, a projected $30 million per year a potentially scary proposition, especially for a financially savvy team paying for a guard that may have already had the best season of his career in 2016-17.
Ainge doesn’t usually like showing his hand in transactions, but passing on point guard Markelle Fultz by trading the top pick to draft Jayson Tatum at no. 3 seemed to hint at the possibility of keeping Thomas as the lead ball handler for more than just this season. (The Celtics own the Nets’ first-round pick in 2018, but there are only two projected point guards in the top 10, per DraftExpress.) Regardless, Thomas has already made it clear that he’s aware of how this works. “It’s a business,” he said. “You have to do what’s best for you just like the business is going to do what’s best for them.”
Contract negotiations that go awry in the NBA usually leave the player on the bad side of public perception instead of the team and the owner. In one year Thomas will control his destiny, but for now, he’s doing all he can to ensure that if a breakup does occur, he can escape unscathed because he made it known—or at least made it seem—like he wanted to stay in Boston.