Thomas projects as one of the most valuable Celtics


Thomas projects as one of the most valuable Celtics

Every weekday from now until September 7, we'll take a look at each player at the Celtics roster: Their strengths and their weaknesses, their ceiling and their floor. We start today with Isaiah Thomas. For a look at the other profiles, click here. 

BOSTON -- Isaiah Thomas is one of the few professional players that everyone seems to love. Maybe it’s the fact that, at 5-foot-9, he resembles the masses who follow basketball. Then again, it could be because his journey is unlike anything we’ve seen in the modern-day NBA. 
Five years ago he was the last player selected in the 2011 draft, a distinction he reflects upon from time to time as a reminder of not only how far he has come, but also of how little teams thought of his game and its ability to translate at the highest level. 
You'll hear a number of executives talk of how they loved him at the University of Washington, and yet only one team -- the Sacramento Kings -- thought enough of him to draft him. And that was at the very end of the night. 
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has remarked in the past that he, too, liked Thomas coming out of college. Yet it was Purdue guard E’Twaun Moore -- not Thomas -- that Boston selected with the 55th overall pick. 
Thomas holds no ill will towards Ainge or any of the executives who passed him by. In fact, there’s a part of him that’s thankful.
If he hadn't been selected so late in the draft, there’s no telling if he would have played with the ginormous chip on his shoulder that has not only helped fuel his own personal success, but also proved instrumental in Boston being on the fast track from a team rebuilding into one that’s now poised to compete for one of the top spots in the East. 
Having already exceeded the expectations many had for him, Thomas is an integral part in the building of what the Celtics believe will be a championship-caliber team.

But how much room does Thomas have to grow?

And what’s a realistic floor for Thomas anyway?
I’ll explore those two questions as they relate to Thomas and the rest of the current Celtics roster in the coming weeks as we inch closer towards the start of training camp. 
THE CEILING FOR THOMAS -- Top-5 finish in league MVP voting
Every year there’s a guard who embarks on an exceptional season in which they set career marks in several categories and their team ranks among the game’s best. Boston has the potential to be that kind of club this year, with Thomas being a key catalyst in making that happen. 

He had an amazing season last year, averaging career-highs in scoring (22.2 points) and rebounds (3.0) to go with 6.2 assists.   
But for the Celtics to take that next step and get past the first round, they’ll need him to be even better. And while an uptick in Boston’s success will likely be attributed to the addition of Al Horford, it’ll most likely because Thomas becomes an even more impactful player.
It will require him to step his game up in at least one key, tangible area. That probably would be assists. 
Thomas isn’t likely to significantly improve his scoring because of the improved talent around him, and he doesn’t shoot the ball from the perimeter well enough to be a 40-plus-percent percent shooter on 3s. 
But with the increased talent around him, there is the potential for him to significantly increase his assists numbers. He is a career 5.0 assists-per-game player who has never averaged more than 6.3 in a single season. 
Significantly improving in that area could be enough to land him one of those coveted top-5 spots in the league MVP voting.  
In the last five seasons, the top-five vote-getters usually included at least one emerging guard of note. 
Houston’s James Harden was runner-up to Golden State’s Stephen Curry in the 2015 league MVP race after the Rockets finished with the third-best record in the NBA, with 56 wins. That certainly played a huge role, as did the fact that in 2014 Harden put up big scoring numbers to finish fifth in the league MVP chase. 
Russell Westbrook has finished fourth in MVP voting each of the last two seasons while putting up video-game-like numbers in terms of triple-doubles. And if you go back a couple years, you’ll note that Chris Paul was in the thick of things in 2012 and 2013 when LeBron James won back-to-back league MVP awards. In those two seasons Paul established himself as the league’s best point guard while finishing those years third and fourth, respectively, in the MVP chase.
Thomas could also benefit from continuing to improve as a defender. While he doesn’t play at an All-NBA level defensively, there’s no mistaking the progress he has made in this part of his game. In fact, his defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) has improved every year he's been in the league.
Trending in that direction defensively (his defensive rating was 107.6 as a rookie, and was at 102.6 this past season), along with what we already know he can do in terms of scoring, bodes well for his continue growth as a player and the potential to be a league MVP candidate.

THE FLOOR FOR THOMAS -- Third-leading scorer on the Celtics
We all know Thomas can score, but the way Boston’s roster is constructed now may result in a dip in his usual point production. 
The addition of Gerald Green and rookie draft pick Jaylen Brown provides Boston with a pair of additional slashers to the basket, which will likely result in fewer drives to the rim for Thomas. 
And the domino effect of that would be fewer free-throw attempts for Thomas who is a career 86.3 percent free throw shooter. Last season he averaged a career-high 6.6 free-throw attempts per game.
One possibility for Thomas would be to shoot more mid-range jumpers, something he didn’t do much of last season. 
According to NBA.com/stats, about 15 percent of Thomas’ shot attempts were mid-range jumpers. And when he shot mid-range jumpers, he connected on just 36.5 percent of them. 
Thomas, 27, is smart enough player to know if he has fewer shots at attacking the rim, he must look to become an even better passer. Don’t be surprised to see his scoring dip while his assists numbers take a noticeable leap forward. 
The addition of Al Horford, coupled with the continued development of Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk as viable scoring options, will likely put a dent of sorts in Thomas’ scoring. But if that means more assists and more wins for Boston, Thomas is more than willing to foot that bill.

WATCH: Boston Celtics at New Orleans Pelicans

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WATCH: Boston Celtics at New Orleans Pelicans

Tune into NBC Sports Boston to watch the Celtics play the Pelicans in New Orleans. You can also click here to watch the Celtics livestream presented by Nissan on the NBC Sports App. Coverage begins at 5:30  p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live Presented by ACE Ticket.

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Celtics-Pelicans preview: Can C's slow down Anthony Davis?

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Celtics-Pelicans preview: Can C's slow down Anthony Davis?

As the NBA trade deadline drew near, Celtics Nation was hoping tonight’s matchup between Boston and New Orleans would be Anthony Davis returning to where his pro career began.

He’s still with the Pelicans, doing what Davis has done for most of his career – dominate play.

But there’s a new twist now … he’s also winning. 

That’s why the 6-foot-10 Davis is no longer seen as a player that might be on the move anytime soon. 

He’s not just one of the league’s best players, but a bonafide MVP candidate whose stock as an elite player is even greater since New Orleans lost DeMarcus Cousins (ruptured Achilles tendon) for the season on Jan. 26. 

Since Cousins’ season-ending injury, New Orleans (39-30) has a 12-9 record with Davis averaging 31.1 points, 12.8 rebounds, 3.2 blocks and 2.3 steals per game in that span. 

Davis is also averaging 7.8 free throws per game which ranks fourth in the NBA, although you wouldn’t know he was among the league leaders in that category based on the postgame rant by his coach Alvin Gentry following New Orleans’ 107-101 loss to Houston on Saturday night. 

“A.D. (Anthony Davis) never gets a call,” a visibly angry Gentry told reporters following the loss. “He never gets a call. We talk about them holding him. We talk about them grabbing him on rolls. We talk about them coming under him on post-ups. He never gets a call; not one. And you know why? Because he doesn’t (bleep) complain about it. He just keeps playing the game.”

Regardless of how often he gets to the line, Davis is still putting up MVP-caliber numbers this season in Cousins’ absence. 

But it’s not like Davis’ stat line this season overall – 28.0 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2.4 blocks and 1.5 steals – didn’t stand out for all the right reasons, either.

However, Davis’ shine isn’t quite as bright now with the Pelicans losing four of their last five games which has dropped New Orleans (39-30) down to the eighth and final playoff spot and just 1.5 games ahead of the Los Angeles Clippers (37-31).

So, the Celtics come into town facing not only one of the better teams in the West, but a club that is absolutely starving for a win.

While Boston (47-22) certainly wants to come into the Big Easy and get a victory, its impact on the Celtics’ playoff hopes is non-existent. 

Boston has the second-best record in the East and trail Toronto (52-17) by five games with 13 remaining. They face the Raptors two more times this season, but even if they win both of those games and thus the head-to-head series, it likely won’t come into play because of Toronto likely finishing with the best record in the East. 

And behind Boston in the standings is Cleveland (40-29), another injury-riddled team that’s seven games behind the Celtics in the standing and has shown no signs of threatening to gain ground on Boston. 

So regardless of how the Celtics fare, it’s likely they will remain sandwiched between Toronto and Cleveland in terms of playoff seedings are concerned. 

And that might factor into who plays – and who doesn’t – for Boston in these final few games of the regular season. 

Boston’s Daniel Theis suffered a season-ending torn meniscus injury in his left knee, and Marcus Smart’s right thumb injury will keep him out for the rest of the regular season with the earliest he might be back being the latter stages of the first round of the playoffs, or sometime during the second round if the Celtics advance that far. 

Boston must also make sure Kyrie Irving and his sore left knee, are good to go for the playoffs. In addition, the Celtics must work Jaylen Brown back into the fold after he suffered a concussion that has kept him out of Boston’s last three games. 

Celtics coach Brad Stevens has made a point of not allowing himself or his players to use their injury situation as an excuse for not playing good basketball. 

But he knows good basketball for his injury-riddled roster, involves players elevating their play.

“We’re going to be in the process of really looking at ourselves and redistributing responsibility on our team without guys going outside of what they do best,” Stevens said, adding, “We’re going to have to figure out how to play our best basketball.”