In a vacuum, there is no debating that Boston's trade to acquire Isaiah Thomas from the Suns for Marcus Thornton (an expiring contract who was clearly not part of the team's future) and one of its many future first-round picks was a boon for the Celtics. Thomas is an upper-level scorer who can shoot (39.1 percent from 3) and is on a team-friendly contract for three more seasons.
But how does this move affect rookie Marcus Smart, Boston's most talented player and one of the main cornerstones in its rebuild? Smart has functioned well playing with fellow guards Evan Turner and Avery Bradley since the Rajon Rondo trade, but neither dominate the ball like Thomas will.
Phoenix's offense stagnated at times under Thomas, who has the propensity to over-dribble and choke the offense at times while searching for his shot. Goran Dragic, a third-team All-NBA selection last year, struggled to coexist with Thomas after the Suns signed as the latter this summer, as this piece by ESPN's Kevin Pelton and Amin Elhassan reveals. Dragic saw his points (20.9 to 15.5) and assists (7.4 to 3.4) per 36 minutes nosedive when he shared the floor with Thomas, and his true shooting percentage plummeted from .666 to .517.
But Smart isn't as used to having the ball in his hands as Dragic is, as his 14.8 usage rate is far lower than Dragic's 21.4. And Smart has excelled shooting off the ball this season - since Jan. 1, Smart is making 45.2 percent of his 3-pointers in catch-and-shoot opportunities, and Thomas' ability to slither into the lane should help him get more open looks.
Thomas can play off the ball as well and supply some much-needed floor spacing - he's knocking down 43.1 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3's and averages 1.18 points per spot-up play. He's maybe most dangerous, however, when put in pick-and-rolls, something the Celtics have struggled with mightily this year, as ESPN Boston Chris Forsberg detailed:
Boston ranks 28th overall in the league in points per play in the pick-and-roll this season, averaging an anemic 0.685 points per play. In a league that requires ball-handlers to be able to suck in defenses to open up shots on the perimeter, Thomas can create for himself and his teammates, a balance Boston hasn't quite had at any point this season.
And Thomas will get Boston some free points from the charity stripe. Only the Magic and Knicks have taken fewer free throws this year, and Thomas' ability to not only get to the line but knock down freebies will boost the Celtic's offense.
Thomas has played in 46 games and averaged only 25.7 minutes a night this year, but he’s attempted 211 free throws. Do you how many Celtics have attempted 200 free throws this year? The answer is zero. No one’s even attempted 150. Last year, Jeff Green and Brandon Bass were the only Celtics to top 211 attempts on the entire season. And Thomas not only gets to the line, but he shoots 87 percent once he’s there.
Defensively, Thomas' size (5-foot-9) and effort can get him in trouble at times (the Suns were three points per 100 possessions worse defensively with him on the court), but Smart has the bulk and tenacity to defend whichever guard position is more threatening on any given night, much as Eric Bledsoe did when he shared the floor with Thomas in Phoenix. If Brad Stevens chooses to play Smart and Thomas with Bradley or Jae Crowder, the Celtics still have two strong perimeter defenders on the floor and can hide Thomas on the opponent's least-threatening perimeter player.
That thought brings up a critical point - what type of lineups will Stevens use Thomas in? Will he start next to Smart, and how often will they share the floor? Smart is the team's future and projects as a lead guard in the long term - just because he can play off the ball doesn't mean that's the best course of action.
Could Stevens bring Thomas off the bench as a scoring super-sub as Phoenix did? And where does this leave the 6-foot-2 Bradley? Can Boston consistently play three guards 6-foot-4 and shorter?
These questions can't be answered today, and Stevens will tinker with his lineups to find the best combinations. While the Celtics are a better team than they were at yesterday, there is still no immense pressure to snag the eighth seed in the playoffs and become the sacrificial lamb for the Hawks, Cavs or Raptors.
The Celtics have plenty of time to figure out how the rotation will work, and ultimately they brought in a 26-year-old with starting experience on a deal that will pay him less than $7 million per for the next three seasons. While there might be some fit issues initially, Smart is malleable and should be able to make it work.
Photo credit: Boston GlobeDan Hoppen 2/20/2015 10:18:00 AM Tweet Edit