Sports. Honestly. Since 2011

Boston Celtics Trade Review #15: Isaiah Thomas from the Suns

Charlotte Hornets guard Isaiah Thomas (4) warms up before an NBA game against the Chicago Bulls at United Center.

I still vividly remember the 2011 NBA Draft. This was the first draft I fully paid attention to, and I was excited to see who the Boston Celtics would end up with. One JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore reunion later, I stayed until the end to see the rest of the draft play out. On the bottom of the screen, ESPN showed the best available prospects remaining in the draft. I remember talking to my dad and saying, “Look, there’s a guy named Isaiah Thomas in the draft,” thinking about the legendary Isiah Thomas of the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons. Little did I know this new Thomas would make his way to Boston through a trade a few years later and nearly become the NBA MVP with the Celtics.

Boston Celtics Trade Review #15: Isaiah Thomas from the Suns

Full Trade Details

Boston Celtics receive: Isaiah Thomas, Gigi Datome, and Jonas Jerebko

Phoenix Suns receive: Marcus Thornton and a 2016 first-round pick (later became Skal Labissière)

Detroit Pistons receive: Tayshaun Prince

Isaiah Thomas’ Celtics Career Was Magical

The phrase “you had to be there” often gets thrown around. When talking about Thomas and his time in Boston, though, it feels perfect. At the time of the trade, the Celtics were 20-31, the No. 10 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics were less than two years removed from trading Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets. Additionally, the team traded Rajon Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks just two months prior. The Celtics were rebuilding and likely wouldn’t contend for a while. Thomas changed that.

Thomas played 21 games for the Celtics during the 2014-15 season, coming off the bench each time. The Washington native averaged 19 points and 5.4 assists per game. By season’s end, the Celtics were 40-42 and made the playoffs as the No. 7 seed before getting swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round. The following season, Thomas started almost all 82 games for the Celtics, averaging 22.2 points per game en route to his first-ever All-Star selection. Boston finished the year with a 48-34 record. As the No. 5 seed, the Celtics lost to the Atlanta Hawks in six games in the first round.

In his second full season with the Celtics, Thomas averaged 28.9 points per game, the third-most in the 2016-17 season. Thomas was selected to the All-NBA Second team and finished fifth in both MVP and Most Improved Player of the Year voting. Additionally, the Celtics ended the season with a 53-29 record, earning the No. 1 seed. The Celtics went on an Eastern Conference Finals run before losing to the Cavaliers again.

Thomas helped speed up the rebuild for Boston, and the team had a new star to lead a new era of Celtics basketball – until they didn’t.

The Celtics Traded Isaiah Thomas in 2017

On August 30, 2017, the Celtics officially traded Thomas to the Cavaliers for All-NBA point guard Kyrie Irving. Many criticized then-Celtics general manager Danny Ainge for dealing Thomas, who was known for his loyalty after playing through his sister’s death during the 2017 playoffs. In fact, a few years later, among speculation Anthony Davis was linked to the Celtics in a trade, Davis’ father openly said he did not want his son playing in Boston:

“I would never want my son to play for Boston after what they done to Isaiah Thomas. No loyalty. Guy gives his heart and soul and they traded him.”

The “Isaiah Thomas” era in Boston officially ended, and the former All-NBA guard’s career was never the same after the team traded him. Thomas became a bit of a journeyman, never returned to his All-Star form, and never spent consecutive seasons with a team again.

What About the Rest of the Players in the Trade?

Jerebko spent a few seasons with the Celtics after the trade, but Datome left Boston after the 2014-15 NBA season after signing a contract to play with the Turkish club Fenerbahçe. Datome and Jerebko were solid role players for the Celtics, but that’s about it.

Thornton, Thomas’ former teammate with the Sacramento Kings, only played nine games for the Suns before signing with the Houston Rockets the following offseason. The LSU alum also had a two-season stop with the Washington Wizards before fizzling out of the league.

As for the pick they received, the Suns drafted big man Labissière. The team traded him to the Kings on draft night, however. Labissière spent about three seasons with the Kings before the team traded him to the Portland Trail Blazers in 2019. The Kentucky alum has not appeared in an NBA game since 2020 but was most recently back with the Kings in September 2023 on an Exhibit 10 contract.

After a brief 23-game reunion with the team that drafted him, Prince signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2015. This was Prince’s final season in the NBA.

The Last Word

I get why Ainge traded Thomas away. I really do. Putting all feelings and emotions aside, the trade to acquire Irving was huge for the Celtics. Irving was younger, healthier, and overall better than Thomas was at this point. Plus, taking him away from your biggest competitor at the time was a no-brainer. And it’s not as though Ainge sent Thomas away to rot on a bottom-five team. Ainge traded Thomas to the Cavaliers, the reigning Eastern Conference champions. The biggest argument for Ainge making this trade is that the NBA is a business, and it was all about bringing another title to Boston. This is very true. All this being said, there are some trades you just don’t make. This is one of them.

As we know now, Irving would only spend two seasons in Boston before signing with the Nets in the 2019 NBA offseason. Additionally, Thomas’ Celtics magic remains one-of-a-kind. Sure, a guy like Jayson Tatum is technically “better” than Thomas was. However, “the little guy” brought an unforgettable heart and culture to Boston.

It’s likely that Thomas’ NBA career is over. Even if he signs with another team, he’ll probably never return to his 2017 self. Still, Thomas has the veteran status and leadership that could be useful for a contender. It would be exciting to see Thomas return to Boston to end his career, but it’s unlikely. Even if he never steps on an NBA court again, Celtics fans will always appreciate what he brought to the organization.

Verdict: The Celtics easily won this trade that brought Thomas to them. It’s just unfortunate we didn’t see what more Thomas could have brought to Boston.


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