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NBA Sunday: Looking Toward Isaiah’s Free Agency

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Less than a week before the 2017 NBA Draft, in this space, we discussed how the Boston Celtics and the trading of the first overall pick in the draft was the first in a chain reaction of moves that Danny Ainge executed in an attempt to overthrow LeBron James and capture his kingdom.

With Gordon Hayward and third overall pick Jayson Tatum among those added to the core of the Celtics, there’s no doubt that the team will be stronger and more well equipped to end James’ seven-year reign atop the Eastern Conference.

Considering the drama surrounding Kyrie Irving and his reported desire to be dealt out of Cleveland, the Cavaliers now face their own set of diverging roads. Depending on whether or not they trade Irving and what kind of return they get for him if they do, it’s not out of the question for the Celtics to qualify for their first NBA Finals since 2010.

From here, of course, it appears that the Celtics are headed in the right direction. In it all, though, Isaiah Thomas continues to be the most worth watching.

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Many times over, you have been reminded that Thomas was selected with the 60th overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. He’s been traded for cents on the dollar quite a few times, but in Boston, has improbably become an NBA All-Star and a franchise-caliber talent.

The question that begs to be answered, though—and one whose answer will be revealed in short order—is whether or not the Celtics consider Thomas to be a player worthy of a maximum salary.

This coming season, Thomas will earn just $6.26 million. As it currently stands, about 435 players will earn at least a minimum salary for the 2017-18 season. Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Paul Millsap, Gordon Hayward and Blake Griffin respectively comprise the top five.

Thomas ranks 167th.

During the first three years of his career, Thomas earned a minimum salary and has since averaged about $7 million per year over each of the last three. His career earnings, over six years, total about $23 million.

As Thomas heads into the final year of his contract, it’s safe to say that everyone is rooting for him. Long before he became a household name for the way he admirably performed during last year’s playoffs, Thomas was long-regarded as a hard-working player whose rise in production was a result of plying his trade. In Boston, he has become everything that a franchise could possibly seek in one of its mainstays.

It’s just a shame that his future continues to be in question.

From Allen Iverson to Steve Nash, there is a long history of small lead guards failing to lead a team to the NBA championship. Before the Golden State Warriors, we were fed the notion by many that a “jump shooting team” or a “finesse team” wouldn’t be able to win games when it counted and walk away with all the marbles when it mattered most. That’s the way professional sports works; few teams are willing to try things that haven’t previously proved successful. Couple that with the old adage that you can’t teach size, and it becomes easy to see why big men routinely get paid while small guards often struggle to find their payday.

So, at the end of the day, the Celtics will be an interesting team to watch this season for many reasons. Ainge has done a masterful job of building his roster. He has made timely trades, drafted rotation-worthy NBA players and signed impact free agents. What he needs to decide with Thomas, though, is whether he is a part of the core that the Celtics will seemingly carry into future years in attempting to regain their place atop the Eastern Conference.

As it stands, the Celtics have seven players under contract for the 2018-19 season. Their salaries total about $86 million. That figure, however, doesn’t include team options for Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier, nor does it include any salary for Marcus Smart, who will be a restricted free agent. The options for Brown and Rozier will total about $8 million, so there’s no question that the Celtics will bring each of them back. In effect, that will give them $94 million in salary commitments to nine players, neither of which is Smart or Thomas.

For the 2017-18 season, the salary cap was set at $99 million, while the luxury tax threshold is $119 million. Assuming three percent growth, the Celtics would likely be looking at a tax threshold of about $122 million. In other words, the Celtics, with their $94 million in salary commitments, would be only $25 million to $28 million below the luxury tax threshold, and would have both Smart and Thomas unsigned. It should be noted that teams that have a payroll that exceeds the luxury tax threshold face roster restrictions. They cannot receive a player who is being signed-and-traded, nor can they pay free agents the full amount of the midlevel exception.

Would Ainge pay Thomas $25 million per year under those circumstances?

Only time will well.

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Most players that play for your team don’t love your team. It’s a sobering thought to many fans, but it happens to be quite true.

With Ray Allen’s defection to the Miami HEAT the most obvious example, in today’s NBA, most players understand that the NBA is a business and that a franchise will act in its own best interest. In 2016, as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies, Mario Chalmers ruptured his Achilles tendon. Because Chalmers was in the final year of his contract, the Grizzlies promptly waived him. Needing a roster spot, the decision made perfect sense, but if the Grizzlies had an $8 million team option for Chalmers for the following season, there is no doubt that they would have made the same decision.

It’s just business, after all.

Often, for a non-transcendent player, getting paid and maximizing on one’s career earning potential is a product of timeliness, performance and market conditions. Most players signed to short-term, low money contracts stay ready, perform as well as they can when presented with an opportunity and attempt to secure a long-term, lucrative contract.

That’s exactly where Thomas finds himself.

With LeBron James, Chris Paul, Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins, Carmelo Anthony, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge all potentially becoming free agents in July 2018, it’ll be interesting to see what kind of offers and market value Thomas will be able to find for himself. While Jeff Teague ($19 million) and George Hill ($20 million) signed for salaries that would seem to indicate that a $25 million per year salary would be commensurate with that Thomas brings to the table, Teague and Hill both faced market conditions that may not be the same when Thomas hits free agency next year.

Impossible to root against, there’s no question that Thomas deserves his payday. There’s also no question that, especially in the wake of Kyrie Irving’s reported desire to move on, that the Celtics are moving closer to their desired place atop the NBA’s Eastern Conference come June.

Yes, this past June, the Celtics effectively chose Thomas over Markelle Fultz. From here, though, it remains to be seen whether they choose to lock him up as a member of their core for the foreseeable future and finally proclaim him to be more than just a well-performing asset.

In Boston, Thomas has become a franchise player. And he deserves to be paid like it.

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About Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and international basketball.