Celtics

Isaiah Thomas Has Frustrating Flaws, but Acquisition Makes Perfect Sense for Celtics

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The great Chris Ballard has a superb long-form look at Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, brilliant rookie coach Steve Kerr, buffoonish ex-coach Mark Jackson, and the Golden State Warriors over at SI.com on Friday.

Giving it my highest recommendation, which is this: Go read it immediately…well, immediately after slogging through what follows here, if you could. I will thank you tentatively in advance for reading the junior varsity basketball writing first.

One of the lines that jumped out was Ballard’s passing but wholly believable assertion that building an NBA roster is a “business where 50 [percent] is a good success rate on personnel decisions.”

That’s something I think a lot of basketball fans — especially those who lean toward the casual side around here, their interest piquing only in the banner seasons — tend to forget. It is more difficult to build a championship-caliber team in the NBA than it is in any other sport. The small rosters, necessity of having at least one superstar, and the suffocating quirks of the salary cap conspire to make rebuilding — especially in a cold-weather city — extraordinarily difficult.

Which is why I continue to have so much admiration for the way Danny Ainge is going about restoring the Celtics after the dismantling of the New Big Three Era. It will require a deep dive on another day — not to mention a suspension of subjectivity — to determine whether his shooting percentage on transactions actually is over 50 percent.

The hunch here is that it is, even if we lament that Rajon Rondo didn’t bring back what he might have in a trade before he tore up his knee. There is no disputing that the blockbuster trade with the Nets, one that required putting all sentimentality aside and doing the right thing, has the potential to be such a heist that it almost reads as Ainge’s personal homage to Red Auerbach, an I-learned-this-from-watching-you tribute.

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The deal already is damn good — the Celtics turned Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry into first-round picks in 2014, ’16 and ’18, the first of which was used on James Young. The Celtics also have the rights to swap picks with the Nets in ’17, right around the time they’ll be scraping rock bottom. Further, they’ve essentially turned the trade exception that came from dealing Pierce into Tyler Zeller and Isaiah Thomas.

The impatient among us gripe about Ainge acquiring “assets,” which seems to be perceived as a euphemism for players who aren’t going to help you win anything at the moment. The process can be frustrating, and it’s guaranteed — again, remember that 50 percent success rate — that there will be some speedbumps along the way.

But looking realistically and with context at the big picture since that seminal July 2013 trade with the Nets, you must feel encouraged about the direction, even if there’s still a long way to go on the journey.

Ainge has accumulated what should end up being five first-round picks and eight second-rounders over the next two drafts. Those picks are currency, but Ainge’s track record is such that he can be counted on to find quality players even outside of the lottery.

He has already added appealing young players in Young and Marcus Smart, who could be building blocks or — you knew it was coming — assets in a blockbuster trade similar to the original Garnett deal in July 2007.

He made an inspiring hire in Brad Stevens, who has earned and kept the respect of the veterans amid the comings and goings and somehow has the team — which has used 18 players already and seen the likes of Rajon Rondo, Jeff Green, Jameer Nelson, and Tayshaun Prince depart — on the fringe of a playoff berth.

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My faith in Ainge is unwavering, but I have to admit some of his recent transactions have left me with a dilemma: A couple of times recently, he’s acquired players that have aggravated the living hell out of me and my basketball sensibilities in the past.

Evan Turner is one. He’s been decent this year and you can see why Ainge signed him — he’s versatile, can score despite spotty shooting, sees the court well , demands the ball when he doesn’t have it, and has a knack for big shots that may stem from his blind confidence in his flawed skill-set. He is the ultimate no-no-yes! player, and he still drives me nuts right up until the winning shot rips through the bottom of the net.

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Thomas is another. Undersized score-first point guards who once played for the Kings aren’t my thing unless they are nicknamed Tiny. Thomas is talented — he averaged more than 20 points and 6 assists in a single season and know how to run the pick and roll masterfully. But he’s on his third team in two seasons, and too often, the ball stalled with him in Sacramento, something Boogie Cousins was not shy about pointing out after Thomas departed for Phoenix after the season.

He seems to have a Napoleon complex, or a Nate Robinson complex in NBA parlance. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing if he’s channeling that attitude toward playing winning basketball. But if he’s just chucking shots and getting his own numbers at the expense of Marcus Smart’s development… well, at least the contract is a bargain.

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Yes, he’s yet another asset, and you can only hope the emphasis doesn’t stick on the first syllable. This may not feel like a rewarding time to be a Celtics fan, but rebuilding is frustrating, and unless luck comes your way and the ping-pong balls are cooperative during a draft featuring sure-thing future cornerstones, it can be a prolonged frustration.

But with each day that passes and each deal Ainge makes to turn nothing into something, following this franchise as it slowly ascends again becomes increasingly interesting.

For what it’s worth, I do hope my previous impression of Thomas is proven wrong now that he’s in green. It’s not like it would be the first time. Even for armchair GMs like me, that 50 percent success rate remains a more distant dream than securing the 18th banner.

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