An alternate reality: What would the Celtics look like now if they had kept Isaiah Thomas?

(Ken Blaze/USA Today Sports)

When the Celtics elected to trade Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, a 2018 unprotected Brooklyn pick and two second-round picks to the Cleveland Cavaliers in August 2017, they were in effect making a sizable bet on the future of the franchise towards Kyrie Irving. The All-Star point guard holds a lot of the cards for this team’s long-term contending chances right now with his decision in free agency this summer. If he stays, the team will likely be devoting hundreds of millions to him over the next five seasons. If he walks, the Celtics will have no direct path to replace his max money (since they will be over the salary cap), which would highly damage their chances of contending in the interim.

The C’s trade for Irving will be confirmed as a winning bet if he ends up re-signing this July, but we won’t know the answer on that front for another few months. One thing Irving’s acquisition did do in the interim was close the door on a number of potential trade possibilities for Boston over the past 18 months that arose throughout the league. With Thomas returning to the floor in Boston as an active player for the Nuggets for the first time since the trade, it started an intriguing thought process for me: Considering the possibilities for Boston if Thomas was retained in the summer of 2017 and the trade for Irving was never made. What could this franchise have done with various trade opportunities that arose elsewhere over the last 18 months? What would the team look like now? And would Thomas still be a part of it all?

Let’s take a closer look at the potential names the Green probably would have considered if they passed on Irving and how things may have been different now.

The Basics (Salaries)

This is going to be a realistic exercise (i.e. no fake trades where the math doesn’t work) so here’s a reminder of what the Celtics would have had on their books for the last couple years if they retained the original players in the Irving trade.

Jae Crowder: 2017-18: $6.8 million
2018-19: $7.3 million

Ante Zizic: 2017-18: $1.64 million
2018-19: $1.95 million

No. 8 overall pick: 2018-19: $4.08 million

Isaiah Thomas: 2017-18: $6.2 million
2018-19: $2 million (veteran's minimum)

As a reminder, here's a rundown at the rest of the C’s cap sheet for the 2017-18 season:

Here’s a glimpse at the projected depth chart entering 2017-18 if the Irving trade wasn't made:

G: Smart, Brown, Rozier, Isaiah (injured), Larkin
F: Hayward, Horford, Crowder, Tatum, Morris, Ojeleye, Yabusele
C: Baynes, Theis, Zizic

Overview: This group would have looked a lot similar to this year’s talented core minus Irving with even more depth at the 3 and 4 spots. There probably would be plenty of frustration about playing time from the likes of Jae Crowder and Marcus Morris, especially if Jayson Tatum was seeing big minutes over them since someone would be the odd man out there. Abdel Nader probably gets cut during training camp to make room for Yabusele/Zizic. Thomas would have spent most of the year injured/recovering with a bigger role being handed to Marcus Smart as a starter and Shane Larkin as a backup point guard while Thomas tries to get healthy. All in all, not a ton would have changed in 2017-18 except for the younger guys having a little less room to spread their wings (assuming Hayward never got hurt with Irving not around).


Overview: These are the bigger names that were dealt over the course of the 2017-18 season. We will take a look at each specific situation at the time of the deal and examine whether or not they would have been a realistic target for the C’s.

Blake Griffin: The Pistons traded for the All-Star power forward last December in a deal that looked like a drastic overpay at a time for a guy that had taken a step back during his age 28 season. Griffin has recovered in 2018-19 with one of the best all-around years of his career, but that’s not the guy we saw last year. Given his $29.2-million salary (signed through 2023), it would have impossible for the Celtics to match the money last season unless they wanted to deal Hayward or Horford. They probably would have had their sights set on bigger names anyway than a guy coming towards the tail end of his prime.

Would the Celtics have been interested? No, due to the money.

Eric Bledsoe: While in Phoenix, Bledsoe demanded a trade despite having two years left on his contract, with his fateful ‘I don’t want to be here’ tweet. Suns GM Ryan McDonough settled for a protected first-round pick, a second round pick and a bad expiring contract (Greg Monroe) from the Bucks to seal the deal in November. Bledsoe is far from a flashy name but his $14 million salary (signed through 2018-19) would have been very easy for Boston to match with a couple of role guys (Crowder and Isaiah) to make the money work. Then again, Danny Ainge may have preferred his current starter (Smart) over Bledsoe. It would be hard to see him giving up much with his sights set on bigger fish, unless he wanted to use Bledsoe as a chip in a bigger deal.

Would the Celtics have been interested? Potentially, if the price was right.

2018 Season Recap

Let’s assume for fantasy purposes that the Celtics took a similar path to their season without Irving and fell to the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals. Hayward was healthy for the majority of this year (since Irving never threw that alley-oop pass to him on opening night). It might not be a fair scenario but we are sticking with it to make things more interesting from a team-building standpoint. The Celtics maintain all of their assets during the 2017-18 season amid the run and fans are clamoring for Ainge to use some after getting so close to the NBA Finals. Crowder has a solid season in his usual supporting role while Thomas undergoes season-ending surgery midway through the year on his hip after returning from rehab with a large dropoff in his play.

2018 NBA Draft

Overview: The Celtics have the No. 8 and No. 28 overall picks. They also still hold the 2019 LAC pick (protected), 2019 SAC pick and 2019 MEM pick (protected), as well as plenty of additional second-round picks for 2020.