One of the big subjects of talk around the NBA these past few weeks has been LeBron James’s workload. And with good reason, too: LeBron’s 32 years old now, with a hell of a lot of basketball miles behind him, and as the past two seasons have shown us, the Cavaliers’ title chances correspond pretty directly to his health and freshness.
Meanwhile, the Boston Celtics—the guys right behind LeBron’s Cavs in the East standings—are dealing with a similar issue, concerning a guy who’s not much more than half LeBron’s size. Namely, Isaiah Thomas needs some damn help.
The Celtics lost an eminently winnable game last night, to a miserable, dysfunctional, banged-up Chicago Bulls team forced to start the extremely hapless Michael Carter-Williams and Jerian Grant at the guard spots. Thomas was terrific, as usual: 29 points on 18 shot attempts, including 11 points in the fourth quarter. If you want to point out that the result hinged on a somewhat questionable foul-call on Marcus Smart with less than a second to play that essentially gave the win to the Bulls, fine. On the other hand, the Celtics may very well have won comfortably had their non-Isaiah Thomas starters done more than equal his point total between them.
There’s no way around it: The Celtics are exceptionally deep in smart, solidly competent, unselfish NBA players ... and painfully thin in legit scoring punch beyond their very tiny point guard. As presently constructed, their second-most dynamic offensive player is center Al Horford, who is aging like a banana and even in his prime was the sort of guy who mostly needed scheme and ball movement to create his looks for him. Marcus Smart is athletic and feisty (the nicest possible way to say that his primary skills are better suited to strong safety than to shooting guard), and at 22 still is young enough that he may eventually develop into a dangerous two-way player, but for now he’s a disastrously inefficient scorer. Jae Crowder, by contrast, has made himself into a perfectly efficient shooter when the ball finds him, but can’t create offense for himself or for others—and, at 26 and in his fifth season as a pro, seems unlikely ever to become a genuine playmaker at that end of the court. Maybe 20-year-old Jaylen Brown will be a star, but it won’t happen this season. Kelly Olynyk, God bless him, is not the answer.
In any given regular season game, having a lot of guys who can toss in an open shot or make the quick extra pass that creates one, but only one lil’ tyke who can just go get a bucket for himself, is no big deal. Hell, even across an entire regular season, it’s mostly fine, so long as his body holds up. It clearly has not prevented the Celtics from thriving, and they’ll almost certainly hang onto their present spot right behind the Cavs, barring an injury to Thomas or simultaneous injuries to, like, five of his teammates.
But Thomas’s league-leading fourth-quarter scoring average—currently a truly bonkers 10.7 points per game—isn’t only a testament to his brilliance, or his True Celtic Crunch-Time Grit or whatever. It’s a reflection of the fact that, in the crucial moments—when the starters are on the floor for both teams, when nobody’s pacing themselves, and when the rhythm of the game most resembles what it’ll be like for all four quarters in the playoffs—Boston’s offense is whatever Isaiah Thomas can pull out of his hat, and not much else.
That would be an enormous burden for any NBA player. Isaiah Thomas is (almost certainly quite a bit shorter than his official listed height of) 5-foot-9, for chrissakes! And he’s not just an extremely tiny player. He’s a tiny player who creates a ton of his and his teammates’ buckets by attacking the rim, where he routinely gets floored by players who outweigh him by a hundred pounds or more. He creates plenty of the rest of his points by artfully setting himself up to get clobbered while attempting three-pointers out on the perimeter. He takes a fair amount of punishment for a player of any size, and is a player of no size.
Look how teeny he is!
It’ll only get tougher in the playoffs. The defenses will get more physical, and more singlemindedly focused on containing Thomas and forcing his teammates to make plays. Witness last year’s first round series, when Thomas hit less than 40 percent of his shots and the Celtics went out in six games at the hands of a mediocre Atlanta Hawks team featuring no one as good as him. He needs help.
The Celtics have the pieces to get him some; they’re loaded with draft picks and, if they’re willing to part with any, a handful of useful, cheap, and young players. Maybe they can’t get, say, Carmelo Anthony or Jimmy Butler—or maybe bringing in either of those ball-pounding malcontents would upset the team’s chemistry and fuck things up. Who knows. But they have to get someone, or risk dooming one of the NBA’s most extraordinary players to a postseason ceiling that matches his height.