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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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G-League

NBA Daily: G League Guards Showing They Belong

Jordan Hicks spoke with NBA hopefuls Trey Lewis and Isaiah Cousins about their current games, playing in the G League and more.

Jordan Hicks

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The Utah Jazz currently have three players out due to injury – all three point guards, coincidentally – so one might say they are a little shorthanded. Because of this, both of their two-way players – Tyler Cavanaugh and Naz Mitrou-Long – have been called up to travel with the team. Unfortunately for Utah’s G League affiliate, the Salt Lake City Stars, they are left short-handed.

Add this to the fact that their first overall draft pick – and arguably their most important player, Willie Reed – is done for the season.

Things like this aren’t uncommon for the G League. In essence, that is primarily why it is there. As a developmental league for the NBA, it is used to both groom young talent, as well as have players readily available when needed (for teams lucky enough to have a program in their area).

In recent years, the SLC Stars have helped groom current Jazz rotation players Georges Niang and Royce O’Neale.

In a league that is growing more and more competitive with every game, every advantage a team can get is clearly a plus. Therefore, having the Stars so close has definitely been a huge positive for the Jazz.

Because a couple of heavy contributors are missing games, guys who are typically important role-players need to step up and be the key guys for the team.

Basketball Insiders had the chance to catch up with two of their young guards – Isaiah Cousins and Trey Lewis – after a recent home loss to fellow G League team the Stockton Kings (affiliate to the Sacramento Kings). In a close game where the Stars were slightly outmatched, these players stepped up in a big way and almost led the Stars to an unlikely come-from-behind victory.

Isaiah Cousins is having a career year with the Stars. His third year in the G League – and second with the Stars – Cousins is averaging 12.7 points, 6.4 assists and 4.6 rebounds a night. He’s currently second in the league in assist to turnover ratio at 3.27.

“Making the right reads and [not trying] to force anything,” Cousins told Basketball Insiders. “Whatever the scouting report is, each team has a different defensive scheme each game, so I look at the scouting report and see what they are going to do.”

Isaiah alluded to the fact that preparation is what helps him take care of the ball so well. In a league where taking care of the ball is essential to winning games, solid point guard play is a must. Cousins’ development in that area goes hand-in-hand with his ability to someday make an NBA roster.

“This is my third year in the G League so I’m experiencing and understanding the game now,” Cousins said.

When asked what position Cousins sees himself playing in the NBA, he noted his versatility.

“I think I’m a point guard, but I can play multiple positions and I can guard multiple positions,” Cousins said. “I do a little bit on-ball and off-ball. Basically, wherever a job is open, I’ll take it.”

Trey Lewis has been instrumental to the Stars’ winning record coming off the bench. Averaging 11.6 points and 2.3 assists, the team relies on his scoring and playmaking abilities to pull-ahead.

Although he isn’t in the starting lineup, Lewis finds himself closing out many games, thanks in part to his clutch shotmaking. Just over two weeks ago Lewis hit a big, go-ahead three-pointer with just seconds left to seal a home win. On the season – in which Lewis has only participated in 13 games due to an early-season ankle injury – Trey has already dropped 20+ points on four occasions.

Lewis played for a handful of teams during his collegiate years, ultimately ending up on Louisville with current Jazz star Donovan Mitchell. Lewis and Mitchell are now playing basketball for the same organization and living in the same city. “[Mitchell] is somebody who I talk to on a daily basis. We push each other, we motivate each other, and we support each other so it’s been great.”

Lewis garnered the essential skill of shooting the deep ball in college. While playing for Cleveland State in the Horizon League, he led the conference in threes made, knocking them in at a 42.3 percent rate.

After playing overseas in Germany for two seasons where he was a two-time All-Star in the BBL, Germany’s top basketball league, Lewis came back to the states.

“My goal since a little child has always been to play in the NBA,” said Lewis when asked why he came to the G League. “I feel like I had two great seasons overseas and felt like this was the next step to get to where I want to go.”

As the NBA continues its move to a heavy three-point shooting league, players are finding they need to adapt in this sink-or-swim situation. Players that can’t shoot the deep-ball – at least at a respectable mark – need to hold elite skills in other areas.

Luckily for Lewis, three-point shooting has always been a strength for him.

Basketball Insiders asked him where he gets his confidence from behind the arc.

“Just hard work; my regimen every day, sticking to my routine, getting my reps, and that builds confidence,” Lewis said. “I know I can hit those shots in needed situations.”

The window has opened for NBA teams to sign 10-day contracts. Whether they eventually end up with the Utah Jazz or with an entirely different franchise, it doesn’t matter. Cousins and Lewis will continue to grind so they can have their shot at a spot in the league. But for now, they will continue to work for their current team and help the Stars try and lift the G League championship trophy at the end of the season.

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NBA Daily: Potential 10-Day Contract Players

Basketball Insiders takes a look at a few players who could be prime candidates for 10-day contracts.

David Yapkowitz

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January 5 was an important deadline in the NBA in that it marked the first day teams can begin signing players to 10-day contracts.

Usually reserved for younger, unproven talent looking to get their first shot in the NBA, recently NBA veterans have started going the 10-day route to refresh their careers and get back in the league. For example, Corey Brewer just recently signed a 10-day contract with the Philadelphia 76ers.

These contracts are very beneficial for teams in that there’s essentially no risk, and the potential for a high reward. It’s a relatively cheap tryout for teams to get a quick look at players who can potentially be helpful. Best case scenario, they end up finding a solid contributor. If not, then the player is no longer with them after 10 days.

Here’s a look at a few players who could be candidates for a 10-day contract.

1. Willie Reed

The veteran big man has had his taste of the NBA. He began last season as the Los Angeles Clippers’ primary backup to DeAndre Jordan. With the emergence of other players, however, his playing time decreased and he was ultimately traded to Detroit in the Blake Griffin trade.

The Pistons then shipped him off to the Chicago Bulls for Jameer Nelson, and the Bulls proceeded to cut him. He ended up being the first overall pick of the Salt Lake City Stars of the G League.

This season with the Stars, he’s been one of the best big men in the G League. Reed has put up 20.1 points per game on 66.5 percent shooting from the field, 11.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. He’s still a quality rotation player and could help a playoff team in need of some size off the bench.

2. John Jenkins

Another NBA veteran, Jenkins developed a reputation as a sharpshooter during his early years in the league, but didn’t do much else. His last appearance in the NBA was last season when he was brought to training camp by the Atlanta Hawks.

He ended up being one of the Hawks’ final cuts before the end of camp, and he subsequently chose to play overseas. He returned stateside this season, where he joined the Westchester Knicks, the New York Knicks’ G League affiliate.

Jenkins has had a very strong season thus far, putting up 24.8 points per game on 47.2 percent shooting, 42.8 percent from the three-point line, 3.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists. Perhaps the biggest changes in his game have been his playmaking ability and his development into a more versatile scorer. Any team in need of some bench scoring should give him a look.

3. Anthony Bennett

Keeping with the trend of NBA veterans using 10-day contracts to get back to the league, the former No.1 overall pick in the 2013 draft has begun to put people on notice this season.

Bennett last saw NBA minutes two season ago with the Brooklyn Nets. He wasn’t that bad during his stint in Brooklyn, but the Nets cut him almost halfway through the 2016-17 season. Aside from a brief stop overseas, Bennett has been playing in the G League.

This season with the Agua Caliente Clippers, Bennett has looked like he’s ready for another shot in the NBA. He’s been averaging a modest 13.0 points per game on 54 percent shooting from the field. One of the biggest additions to his game though has been his expanded shooting range. He’s knocking down 43.6 percent of this 5.1 three-point attempts. He’s worth another look for a team in need of a stretch big man.

4. Bruno Caboclo

Another player with NBA experience, it’s probably not fair to call Caboclo a veteran seeing that he rarely saw playing time in the league. When he was drafted by the Toronto Raptors, his selection caused quite a bit of confusion, leading to Fran Fraschilla’s now famous quote of him being, “two years away from being two years away.”

Caboclo toiled on the Raptors’ bench for about four years before being traded to the Sacramento Kings. He finally was able to see some minutes with the Kings, but still didn’t show much. The Houston Rockets invited him to training camp but ultimately cut him.

Caboclo joined the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the Rockets G League affiliate, and has since been showing that he may very well be worth a 10-day contract. He’s averaging 16 points per game on 51 percent shooting from the field, 42.5 percent from downtown, 7.2 rebounds and 2.9 blocks. When he was drafted, the expectation was he’d develop into a 3&D wing but that didn’t happen. He’s looking much closer to that now. For a team in need of a wing defender who can shoot from distance, he’s worth a look.

Again, 10-day contracts have become a very valuable and inexpensive way for NBA teams to try out potential contributors. If the player pans out, then you have a relatively cheap guy in the rotation. If they don’t, you cut your losses after 10 days. It should be interesting to see if these vets are able to parlay their G League success into a path back to the NBA.

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NBA Daily: Capela’s Injury is a Massive Setback for Houston

Clint Capela’s thumb injury couldn’t have come at a worse time. Spencer Davies looks at the massive loss, who may get opportunities and what moves the Houston Rockets could make in response.

Spencer Davies

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James Harden has a real challenge on his hands.

The Houston Rockets’ remarkable stretch from mid-December to the New Year behind the reigning MVP helped put them back in the middle of the playoff picture.

But he had a right-hand man—the same right-hand man who has emerged as a dominant two-way interior presence over the last three years under Mike D’Antoni—and that is Clint Capela.

Friday afternoon, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Capela would be out for at least the next month with ligament damage in his right thumb. There’s a chance that the 24-year-old big man could get a second opinion from a hand specialist following the MRI he took Monday.

Before sustaining the injury in Orlando, Capela was having a career season with the Rockets on the offensive end, significantly up-ticking his previous year averages to an impressive 17.6 points and 12.6 rebounds in over 34 minutes per game.

At the bottom of the barrel in defensive rebounding (and 29th in total rebounds per game), Houston already struggles on the glass as it is. However, they are doing a solid job of preventing their opponents from crashing the boards. Taking Capela out of the equation hurts because of his fundamental ability.

According to NBA.com, the Rockets rebound the ball as a team 89.9 percent of the time when Capela boxes out under the basket. He averages six of them per game and the vast majority of those are coming on the defensive end. It’s a simple part of the game, yet such an important aspect for a group that struggles in that area.

With Capela sidelined, Houston loses its rim protector. While it may be true that he’s not having as much success as last year defending in the paint, he is one of only four players in the league seeing at least seven attempts per game within five feet or less. More importantly—anywhere on the floor—the Swiss center is a top five shot contester among all of his peers.

Offensively speaking, Harden might be the most disappointed. He and Capela have developed an incredibly impressive two-man game through the Beard’s ability to finish at the rim.

Using the pick-and-roll to their advantage, the opposing big often chooses to help his man cover Harden, leaving Capela there for the easy high-handoff. It’s a play this duo has literally executed at will, and it’s been made deadly over the last few seasons.

Couple that with the athleticism and precision both have—few teams stand a chance at stopping it. And, back to the battle of the boards, Capela pulls down five offensive rebounds per game and provides second chance opportunities consistently.

If you don’t get the picture, we’ll leave it at this—the Rockets have to do something to keep up in a crowded Western Conference. The postseason hunt cannot solely rest on the shoulders of Harden. He has accomplished unfathomable feats in his career and was the NBA’s 2017-18 Most Valuable Player, but this is another type of challenge.

Houston’s players are dropping like flies. Sure, Chris Paul is on the mend and likely to return soon, and the same could be said of Eric Gordon, but there is little depth in the frontcourt . They’re down to Nene, Marquese Chriss and Isaiah Hartenstein as men in the middle. The rest are versatile forwards with the ability to play multiple positions, but not the one they need desperately at the moment.

We all know what Nene is capable of. That said, he’s not going to play 34 minutes per night at his age. In fact, the veteran has only eclipsed the 20-minute mark four times total in the last two seasons. There’s no doubt that he’ll give Houston a solid boost in spurts, but that’s likely not sustainable throughout the entirety of a game.

This writer is curious to see what Chriss does with the opportunity in front of him. It is fair to say that his athletic ability matches, or even supersedes, Capela’s, so the alley-oops will be there for him. However, these important questions remained unanswered: Can he screen? Can he rebound? Can he take the challenge?

Chriss was a top 10 draft pick not even three years ago. There’s a ton of potential that can be tapped into here. Unfortunately for the Rockets, they’re going to need to see growth and development quickly with little leeway for mistakes. They probably can’t depend on a raw 21-year-old prospect to steadily produce the way Capela has.

Hartenstein offers more size than both of those two and has played in 22 games this season. Still, he has only appeared in one contest since December 3. Hartenstein has taken advantage of his floor time, but the sample size is extremely small. Again, not nearly enough to fill the Capela void.

There are a few names out there that Houston general manager Daryl Morey could pursue.

Purely out of speculation, Bulls center Robin Lopez might be a good fit for a veteran squad and the organization is reportedly refusing to negotiate a buyout, so that may be worth paying attention to.

Hawks big man Dewayne Dedmon has quietly put together two impressive seasons in Atlanta. He’s a consistent player who fights for rebounds and gives a solid effort on the defensive end. And an extra attractive quality for D’Antoni—his expanded shooting range. John Collins has stated his own case for extra playing time with stellar play, so Dedmon probably won’t fit into the plans too much longer.

Tristan Thompson is giving his all with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He just returned from a foot injury and is getting back to the pre-injury version of himself. The 27-year-old is matching his career-high in points per game and is grabbing a career-best 11.2 rebounds per game to boot.

Like Capela, he is a monster on the offensive glass and excels at the fundamentals of the game with pick-and-roll situations and box outs. The only drawback to Thompson is his hefty, fully guaranteed salary, but he’s only on that deal for this year and the next.

With Cleveland looking to take on “bad” contracts with future assets attached, the Rockets should most definitely consider moving Brandon Knight or some other package along with a pick or two.

This is just a matter of spitballing a few names that might fit the bill for Houston. Heck, even if it’s a minor depth move, going out and getting an underutilized player like Skal Labissiere in Sacramento would make a difference to ensure the others aren’t winding themselves down with a huge increase in playing time.

Whatever the Rockets decide to do, the road to the playoffs has become a whole lot bumpier. Harden is going to have his work cut out for him LeBron James style a la 2017-18. We’re all anxious to see how he responds to such a challenge.

The past is the past—and CP3 was incredible for Houston last postseason—but it sure would be nice to have Montrezl Harrell around now, wouldn’t it?

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