DENVER — The Boston Celtics never expected to trade Isaiah Thomas, according to Celtics coach Brad Stevens.
Thomas, who signed with the Denver Nuggets this summer, was an icon within the city during his short time with the team. In many ways, he embodied a Boston aesthetic, and Celtics fans embraced his unique stature and style of play. A healthy Thomas — combined with Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum — might very well have been an important piece on a contender.
But then Kyrie Irving requested a trade.
“These guys that cover us every day know that that was a really hard time because there was never a thought that we would possibly have traded him, and then Kyrie became available,” Stevens said. “So it was a super-unique situation and that was a tough one in all the households in Boston, but certainly the Stevens household as well. But that’s because he did so much in Boston because he was so well-liked and how much he poured his heart into the game of basketball.”
The new-look Celtics are a contender, certainly. The Golden State Warriors recently listed Boston almost unanimously as the team they believe has the best chance of taking them down. That may never have been the case with Thomas’ defensive deficiencies in the lineup.
But he was a legitimate MVP candidate during his last season in Boston, and the city embraced him fully. The Celtics who played with him still remember him fondly.
“That’s a guy who put his heart and soul in every game and sacrificed a lot,” Marcus Smart said. “The passing of his sister, and he comes out and goes crazy. Anybody in their right mind would have understood him taking that time out to be with his family and the mourning of his sister, but that’s the type of person IT is — a competitor. He came out and played that game for her, gave it everything he had, and in the blinking of an eye it’s like, where’s he at now? He’s kind of vanished. Nobody really talks about him, and this guy was one of the best players to ever do it. He still has the single-game playoff record of what, 53 points, of any active player? That’s ridiculous, insane.”
“He meant so much to me and the way he kind of captivated Boston and the years that he had there it’s amazing,” Stevens added. “He’s an amazing guy. We obviously still keep in touch pretty regularly, but we’ll all look forward to seeing him back out on the court.”
According to reports over the summer, Thomas had a brief discussion with Danny Ainge about returning to Boston. The Celtics were in the middle of discussions with Smart at the time, and Thomas signed with the Nuggets before those discussions wrapped up.
Stevens said he thought the fit with Mike Malone, who Thomas respected enormously, was a good one.
“Whenever we played the team in Denver, Isaiah took the time to spend time with Mike and so I thought that was a great fit,” Stevens said. “We were going through some of our contract renegotiation things and so I didn’t get in the middle of it during the initial phase of contact but talked to him right after he decided to come here.”
Can Thomas rally back from tough odds one more time in Denver? Smart thinks so.
“IT, man, he’s gonna be alright,” Smart said. “I think it’s good he’s taken this full year off to rehab that body and give himself a chance to be ready for next season. Get his mind back right, clear his mind and get focused. But this will do justice for him and he’ll come back strong.”