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NBA PM: Thomas Opens Up About Trade to Celtics

Isaiah Thomas opens up about being blindsided by his trade from Phoenix to Boston and much more.

Alex Kennedy

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As soon as Isaiah Thomas found out he was traded from the Phoenix Suns to the Boston Celtics, he received a text from an NBA legend. The other Isiah Thomas had a message for him.

“Take them to the playoffs,” the Hall of Famer wrote. “You’re a game and a half out of the seventh spot. Take them to the playoffs.”

Thomas admittedly didn’t know where the Celtics were in the standings prior to the trade, but from that point on, he was extremely excited and determined to make his postseason debut with Boston.

“I watched some Boston games because I’m friends with Avery Bradley, but I didn’t know their situation and where they were in the standings,” Thomas told Basketball Insiders in a phone interview. “Then, once I saw Isiah’s text, I got even more excited [about the trade] because all I want to do is make the playoffs. I started thinking, ‘Man, we got a realistic chance of making the playoffs – this year and for years to come because the East is so wide open.’”

Boston is still just one game out of the eighth seed and one and a half games out of the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. And if his first five games with the Celtics are any indication, Thomas could be the piece the team needed to push them over the edge and into the postseason.

The point guard, who was traded for Marcus Thornton and a 2016 first-round pick, has played just five games (119 minutes) with the Celtics yet he has already scored 109 points off of the team’s bench. He’s currently averaging 21.8 points, 5.8 assists and 3.0 rebounds, fitting right in as Boston’s sixth man. The NBA has taken notice of his productivity, giving Thomas the Player of the Week award for games played Feb. 23 through March 1.

“It’s so surreal, it doesn’t even seem real,” Thomas said of wearing a Celtics jersey. “I’ve been in purple since college – from UDub (Washington) to Sacramento to Phoenix. Now, wearing the all green Celtics jersey is just so crazy. It’s so legendary and there’s so much history behind it. And the fans in Boston, whether it’s on social media or in person, they’ve shown me so much love and the market is so much bigger. Man, everything about it is crazy. It’s really a basketball city.”

Thomas believes the Celtics have a chance to be a very good team – now and in the future.

“I think we can be really good,” Thomas said. “We’re young right now and learning. We have a great, young head coach in Brad Stevens and a great coaching staff, and then I feel like everybody in the organization – from Danny Ainge down – knows how to build championship teams. Making the playoffs this season is the goal, and I’m excited for the future. Hopefully I can be here for a while.”

The Celtics’ starting backcourt of Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley is tough and defensive-minded, but the duo is only averaging a combined 21.5 points per game on the season. That’s where Thomas and his 21.8 points come in. He is a perfect complement to those two gritty players since he can provide instant offense off of the bench.

“I’m just showing [Marcus] things that coaches and players showed me and helping him along the way,” Thomas said when asked about helping Smart develop. “I’ve already started telling him some little pointers that I think can make the game easier for him, and I also can learn from him on the defensive end. I mean, he’s a great defensive player and I can ask him for tips on how he goes about being such a great defensive player. We can learn from each other. I think we complement each other too, because our games aren’t really alike outside of us both attacking. I think we fit together really well.

“Me and Avery, we grew up together in the same neighborhood and played in the same AAU program,” Thomas added. “He’s a few years younger than me, but we always worked out together at the Boys and Girls Club, the YMCA, the community centers – we always played together. I’ve known him since we were in grade school. It really doesn’t seem real. I mean, two guys coming from the same neighborhood not only playing in the NBA, but playing on the same team? It doesn’t seem real, but it’s so much fun. When I got traded, he was the first guy to hit me up and said, ‘This is crazy!’ I’m loving it and having so much fun here.”

Thomas seems to be a much better fit with the Celtics than he was with the Suns in his brief 46-game stint in Phoenix. Although it’s a small sample size, his numbers with Boston look similar to how he produced in his final season with the Sacramento Kings (20.3 points, 6.3 assists, 2.9 rebounds) even though he’s now coming off of the bench rather than starting and, as a result, playing 6.7 fewer minutes.

The 26-year-old was blindsided by the trade since he really felt that he had a long-term future with the Suns. They rolled out the red carpet for him in free agency this past summer and he signed a four-year, $28 million deal with them. He thought he’d be settling down in Phoenix with his fiancé and two children, but he was dealt eight months after inking his contract and found out in an odd way.

“I was actually on the Suns’ team bus because we were about to go to the airport to go to Minnesota,” Thomas said. “We were kind of waiting until the deadline came to leave the arena because we knew Goran Dragic was getting traded and we were just waiting for it be finalized. Then, when the deadline passed, everybody thought they were good. Everybody was like, ‘Whew, we’re good.’ Then, Tyler Ennis and Miles Plumlee came back and told us they got traded to Milwaukee. Then, Brandan Wright read something and was like, ‘IT, you just got traded.’ I’m like, ‘You’re lying, no I didn’t.’ [Reports] said it was to Philly at first and I was so confused. Then, it ended up being Boston. I didn’t believe it, though, it caught me by surprise. I just got off of the bus, went into the locker room to get some things with Tyler and Miles and then talked to front office about being traded. That’s how I found out. I was ready to go to Minnesota as a member of the Suns. … We were still in the playoff hunt and that’s what caught everyone off guard, like, ‘Why are we making all of these moves if we’re still in playoff contention?’”

When Thomas talked to members of the Suns’ front office, he says he didn’t get much of an explanation for why he was moved.

“They said…” Thomas starts and then there’s a long pause. “I don’t know. It was a little weird. They said that I played well and, ‘Thank you for being a professional and thank you for this and that.’ Coach [Jeff] Hornacek said that while I was there, I played well and helped them, but that they were just going in a different direction. It caught me off guard. When Goran had said all of the stuff that he said in the media, you kind of knew he was going to get traded. But I didn’t think I was going to get traded. When it happened, they wished me luck and said this might be a better situation in Boston and that they wanted to send me somewhere that would help my career or something like that. I do thank them for the opportunity for believing in me and signing me, but now we went our separate ways.

“You realize it’s a business. It was shocking. I was caught off guard, but I will never be caught off guard again. That was my first time being traded so it caught me off guard, especially because I signed for four years just a few months ago. I thought I’d be there for a lot longer.”

When asked about making a midseason transition to a new team, Thomas admits it isn’t easy on or off the court.

“It is tough,” Thomas said. “I have a family – two boys and a fiancé – and they have to move too. That’s the toughest part. Because it’s near the end of the season, I’ll probably stay in a hotel for the rest of the season and look for a place out here in the summer. That’s probably the toughest part that people don’t see. Having to get up and move from a previous city and all of that stuff is tough, but the guys here in Boston are making it an easier transition for me.”

Thomas was surprised to be traded, but he wasn’t shocked to learn that it was the Celtics who acquired him. Their front office has shown interest in him for quite a while, so this move didn’t come out of nowhere.

“Danny Ainge was the first guy to call me at 12:01 on July 1 [when free agency started last summer] to tell me how much he was interested in me and tell me how much he liked my game,” Thomas said. “And I’ve heard from numerous people – my agent, players around the league, Avery Bradley – that Danny Ainge has liked me since I was in college. It isn’t anything new. When we were sitting there watching the Celtics and Kings game [the night after the trade] he told me, ‘I’ve wanted you since I watched you at the Maui Invitational [in 2010] when the world was talking about Kemba Walker and I felt like you were just as good as him.’ They didn’t draft me because they needed a shooting guard at the time, but he still liked me a lot.

“Then, right when I got to Boston, all of the staff members said, ‘Man, it’s been a long time coming and we’re not talking about your flight here. We’re talking about how long we’ve been trying to get you in a Boston Celtics uniform.’ It feels good. It feels good to be wanted like that. I felt wanted in Phoenix, but to have a legendary guy like Danny Ainge say that he loves what I do on the court is a blessing.”

As soon as the trade went down, Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford predicted that Thomas would be a perfect fit in Boston. Crawford has known Thomas for over a decade, since the two are both from Seattle, and they describe themselves as brothers.

“I think he can help them tremendously,” Crawford said of Thomas. “It’s such a storied franchise, and I know they’ve liked him for a long time and there’s nothing like being wanted. The shock of being traded can obviously throw you off a little bit, but it just means you’re wanted. I think he’s exactly what they need, with the way he plays and his spirit, and I know the Boston faithful will fall in love with him.”

Crawford was right, and it only took five games for Celtics fans to fall in love. “Thank you, Phoenix!” has been a popular tweet from fans in Boston recently.

Thomas has been excellent early on for the Celtics, but he has bigger goals in mind. He’s hoping to lead the team to the playoffs and shine on basketball’s biggest stage, for the first time in his career and his first time wearing a green jersey.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Trade Watch: Southwest Division

Drew Maresca identifies and breaks down the potential trade candidates in the Southwest Division.

Drew Maresca

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As of Thursday, 60 percent of the Southwest division was at or above .500. The Western Conference’s brutal competition will likely fix that as the season grinds on, but the number of surprises in the division thus far is shocking – be they pleasant or otherwise.

Basketball Insiders continues its Trade Watch series with an eye on the Southwest Division, examining players that might be on the move and teams that should be looking to wheel and deal.

  1. Houston needs Ariza (and vice versa)

The Houston Rockets need help on the defensive end of the floor; they will almost certainly look to add some wing defenders before the trade deadline in February. The Minnesota Timberwolves passed on their offer of four future first round picks, Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss for Jimmy Butler. But fortunately for the Rockets, there’s a player that should fit right in who may be available via trade – Trevor Ariza.

Yes, he would come at a price; but the Rockets see what life is like without Ariza patrolling the perimeter, and something or someone must stop the bleeding. The Rockers are 6-7 through 13 games. They need to recapture some of the magic they tapped into last season, and Ariza is part of what’s missing. They won’t be able to execute a deal until December 15 per NBA rules, which can’t come soon enough for the defenseless Rockets.

  1. New Orleans should be buyers at the deadline

This is the season in which the Pelicans must prove to Anthony Davis they’re serious about building a winner around him. They made nice additions this offseason in Nikola Mirotic and Julius Randle, and they have a nice combo guard in Jrue Holiday.

But still, they’re only 7-7 despite Davis’ extraordinary play. They need a second star (and then some).mFortunately for New Orleans, such a player should be available – assuming he returns fully recovered from injury this season: Kevin Love. The Cavs are not interested in remaining competitive – in fact, they’re nearly openly welcoming losses at this point (Hello, Zion).  The Pelicans can include Mirotic, E’Twaun Moore and others in a deal, which should be a net positive for the Pelicans depending on Love’s health.

  1. DeAndre Jordan

Early reports out of Dallas are that DeAndre Jordan isn’t overwhelmingly popular in the Mavericks’ locker room. And that’s fine because Jordan doesn’t align with the Mavericks’ young core of Luka Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. Dallas should shop Jordan to a team that’s in need of an athletic center.

The Wizards have looked better at times with Dwight Howard on the floor than they did prior to his return. So why not upgrade? After all, it doesn’t seem like they’re ready to break-up the Wall-Beal core.

In return, the Wizards would probably be willing to build a deal around Otto Porter – who, at 25, arguably aligns much better with the Mavericks’ young core. While Porter’s deal extends as long as two years beyond Jordan’s one-year contract, the fact that the Mavericks traded the rights to their 2019 first-round pick to acquire Doncic makes nabbing a young, well-rounded player like Porter all the more appealing.

  1. Spurs need help at point guard

The Spurs’ 2018-point guard plan broke down before the season started with Dejounte Murray’s knee injury – and the team still needs help. While they don’t seem to have the assets to return high profile point guards like Terry Rozier or Goran Dragic, there are alternate options.

The Knicks have an abundance of point guards, none of whom stands out as a huge difference-maker for them this season, but any of whom could help as a short-term solution in San Antonio. And what’s more, the Knicks probably wouldn’t require much in return – with one caveat being that they prefer to move Courtney Lee or Tim Hardaway Jr., as well. Fortunately for the Spurs, Lee can contribute nicely in Coach Gregg Popovich’s system, assuming he gets healthy sometime soon.

The Spurs should look to flip some of the players who aren’t currently in the rotation for a capable point guard. While New York isn’t sending out capable players for free, the price tag on some of these guards shouldn’t be too high.

  1. Mike Conley Jr. and Marc Gasol

Both Conley and Gasol are still members of the Memphis Grizzlies, and there have been no rumors of either of them being shipped elsewhere. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be.

The Grizzlies hold first place in the Southwest Division at 8-5 with wins against the Jazz (twice), Nuggets, Pacers and Sixers. They’ve dropped some easy ones, too. Basically, they’re good, but the cold, hard reality of the situation is that advancing beyond the second-round out west will require more than what they currently have on their roster.

Meanwhile, Conley and Gasol are still assets, but aging ones who will return exponentially less every year they’re not moved. Conley is still playing well in his twelfth year, averaging 18.6 points, 5.6 assists and 1.2 steals per game. And Gasol is averaging 14.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game in his eleventh season. It would behoove the Grizzlies to put feelers out there to any team that fancies themselves buyers in the lead up to the deadline. The time is now to embrace a rebuild around Jaren Jackson Jr. and get everything they can out of their star point guard and center.

In all likelihood, teams will only become more desperate as the season plays out. With the Philadelphia-Minnesota deal in the books, other teams are sure to follow suit. Considering the parity, every team in the Southwest Division should seriously consider making moves — after all, the division is still entirely up for grabs.

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NBA Daily: Role Players Vital to Pacers’ Success

In a star-heavy league, Jordan Hicks takes a look at why role players are so vital to the Pacers’ wins this season.

Jordan Hicks

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In today’s NBA, you have to have star players if you want to compete. Gone are the days of having one or two All-NBA caliber players take you deep into the playoffs. Nowadays, with as much talent as there is in the league, you need three or four. And for teams located in northern California, you might even need five.

But does this apply to everyone?

The Indiana Pacers have started the season off on a quiet note. They aren’t doing anything incredibly flashy, nor do they have any overt weaknesses. But they do have eight wins compared to only six losses. Three of those wins have come against teams with above .500 records, and all of their losses have come from the Bucks, 76ers, Timberwolves, Trail Blazers, and Rockets – all good teams if you don’t want to look it up.

Most would consider Victor Oladipo a star. Sure, he’s only had one All-Star nod in his young career, but he’s proven on more than one occasion that he can be elite on both ends of the floor.
But apart from him, the Pacers are nothing but a mix of role players. But the role players on the roster aren’t just “good” – they seem to know their roles and execute them to a high degree.

To the casual fan, this would seem like it should be a given. But getting grown men with egos to consistently play their part isn’t as easy as it seems, and the Pacers organization might actually have something to work with. Sure, they are still a star (or two) away from actually competing for a title, but they were one game away from knocking off the former Eastern Conference Champions in last year’s playoffs, and, with any luck, could make it even further in the playoffs this year.

After the departure of Paul George, it was easy to read the writing on the wall. Most assumed that the Pacers would be headed to the lottery for a year or two while they worked their eventual rebuild. The franchise itself has consistently been considered one of the better small market organizations. With players like Reggie Miller, Danny Granger and George – it is easy to see why. They’ve only missed the playoffs five times in the last 20 years. But losing a mega-star like George usually contributes to a negative campaign the following season.

To the shock of the entire NBA, Oladipo led the Pacers to the five seed last year after posting a 48-34 record. Oladipo obviously played a huge part in this, but it was the help of the many role players, most of whom remained on the roster for this season, that likely made the biggest contribution to their positive season.

Through the beginning of the the 2018-19 campaign, the team statistic that sticks out the most for the Pacers is their opponent points per game. They are currently second in the league, allowing only 103 points a night behind only the Grizzlies. In comparison, both teams are also in the bottom two for pace. Controlling the flow of the game seems to be an important part of their game plan, and it is currently paying off as they sit fourth in the Eastern Conference.

The list of role players making a significant contribution for the Pacers is quite long. In fact, over nine players are averaging more than 15 minutes a game. Keep in mind that eight of the nine players have a positive plus-minus, with Tyreke Evans being the sole player to fall under zero at -0.8. Let’s take a look at a few individuals and see what they may be doing to make a significant splash.

Oladipo is leading the team in scoring at 23.8 points per night, but he also leads the team in assist percentage at 24.4 percent and steal percentage at 27.8 percent. His impact on both ends of the floor is tremendous, and he is one of the few players in the NBA that leads his team in usage percentage and still maintains All-NBA level defense on the other end.

Domantas Sabonis is currently leading the team in rebound percentage at 18.3 percent. He is also second on the team in scoring at 14.1 points per game on a 68.8 effective field goal percentage. He’s doing all that coming off the bench.

Cory Joseph is currently posting the highest net rating on that team at 8.4. The Pacers also enjoy their lowest defensive rating, 98.7, when Joseph is on the court.

Myles Turner is starting to come into his own on the defensive end of the court. Currently posting 2.4 blocks a game, good for fourth in the league, his presence is being felt more and more at the rim. While his offensive game still needs to be polished, Turner has done a great job at amplifying his defensive position on the court.

Bojan Bogdanovic is tied for second in scoring at 14.1 points a game. He’s doing so by shooting a blistering 51.7 percent from three on over four attempts a night. He’s second on the team in minutes and eighth in usage percentage, showing just how effective he can be off the ball. He boasts the third best plus-minus and fourth best net rating.

Plenty of other players could get nods here – guys like Thaddeus Young, Doug McDermott, Darren Collison and Evans. This just shows the talent night-in and night-out that the Pacers deploy.

The point of this article is not to say that the Pacers have a legitimate chance to win the East. They’ll likely finish outside the top four behind the Bucks, Raptors, 76ers and Celtics. But the Pacers definitely have one thing going for them – a roster full of talented role players that, in today’s NBA, can certainly be positive when deployed correctly.

We are still very early in the season. Another star could potentially emerge mid-season for the Pacers or they could make a bold move at the All-Star break. It is very unlikely that Indiana brings home a championship this year or even the next. However, they are still a team to watch throughout the season. They are a well-coached squad and play an incredibly selfless style of basketball.

Who knows? Maybe they can turn heads in the postseason. But in the meantime, they for sure prove one thing.

Role players are vitally important to a team’s success.

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NBA Daily: Trade Watch Northwest Division

David Yapkowitz identifies and breaks down the potential trade candidates in the Northwest Division.

David Yapkowitz

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We kick off a new series this week at Basketball Insiders. With the Jimmy Butler saga finally over, we’re taking a look at other players in each division who are possible trade candidates.

Some teams have holes in their respective rosters that they need to patch up. Others have contracts that are expiring or just don’t make sense for the team anymore. Some players and teams just need to move on at this point for a variety of reasons. Here’s a look at some of those situations, starting with the Northwest Division.

1. Tyus Jones – Minnesota Timberwolves

There’s an argument to be made that when he actually receives regular playing time, Tyus Jones is the best overall point guard on the Timberwolves’ roster. He’s been the primary backup for Minnesota for the time being with Jeff Teague out with an injury.

However, with Derrick Rose’s reemergence this season, it remains to be seen what happens once Teague returns. It’s no secret that Tom Thibodeau has his preference for veteran guys and Jones has often found himself as the odd man out. The Phoenix Suns, desperate for a point guard, have been rumored to have interest in him.

Jones was apparently close with Butler, if that means anything, and it just seems like his future is elsewhere. If the Timberwolves aren’t going to use him properly, then maybe a split is necessary. Should Minnesota really look to deal him, they probably won’t have any shortage of suitors.

2. Gorgui Dieng – Minnesota Timberwolves

A few years ago, Gorgui Dieng looked like an up and coming prize for Minnesota. He ended up being rewarded with a big contract based off of that. But since then, he’s seen both his playing time and production decrease.

The Timberwolves reportedly tried to include Dieng in possible deals for Butler in order to offload his contract. Obviously that didn’t happen, and Minnesota is locked into his contract for two more seasons after this one.

Backup big man Anthony Tolliver has surpassed Dieng in the rotation at this point as he’s a better fit as a stretch big man in today’s NBA. It’s hard to imagine any team trading for Dieng straight up with that contract but the Timberwolves could try and include him any potential Jones deal.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder – In Need of Outside Shooting

The Oklahoma City Thunder don’t have any bad contracts per se, nor do they have any players that they’re aggressively looking to move on from. They do, however, have a glaring need and that is three-point shooting.

Currently, they’re shooting 30.1 percent from the three-point line as a team. That’s not going to get it done in today’s league if they truly want to be among the Western Conference’s elite. They do have Patrick Patterson reemerging as one of the better stretch fours in the league (38.6 percent), but after that everyone just kind of drops off a bit.

The Thunder could certainly use the addition of another outside shooter as the season goes on. Kyle Korver is rumored to be available although he’s been linked to Philadelphia recently. Perhaps they could put in an inquiry with the Miami HEAT about Wayne Ellington if the HEAT continues to struggle. Either way, unless the guys they already have step up, perimeter shooting will need to be addressed.

4. Meyers Leonard – Portland Trail Blazers

It’s not that Meyers Leonard has been bad for Portland, he’s actually been decent so far this season. But with the contract he has, Portland isn’t getting the value they expected when they entered that deal.

Instead, Zach Collins has supplanted him in the rotation, and Caleb Swanigan is close to doing so as well. Leonard has been mentioned in trade rumors for some time, so perhaps this season is the one where he and the Blazers part ways. His contract is expiring next season so that might be enticing to some teams.

He isn’t a bad player, and there might be a team out there willing to take a chance on an athletic big man who can run the floor and even stretch defenses out to the three-point line. At any rate, it might be time for both parties to go their separate ways.

5. Tyler Lydon – Denver Nuggets

The writing was on the wall when the Nuggets declined Tyler Lydon’s third-year option prior to the start of the season. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

He suffered an unfortunate injury early in his career and just hasn’t been given an opportunity to prove his worth as an NBA player. He played well in the G-League last season and has promise as a stretch big man. It’s just obvious that it won’t be realized in Denver.

He’s worth taking chance on for a team looking to add intriguing, youngish talent – especially since it shouldn’t cost too much to acquire him in a deal.

As the season progresses, there will be other situations around the division that might emerge on the trade front. But, as of now, these are arguably some of the most active situations to keep an eye on.

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