Isaiah Thomas went from cult hero to Cleveland Cavalier much quicker than we expected, and it reminded us that fan loyalty really lies in the name on the front of the jersey.
Wow, that’s a harsh title. I mean, loyalty is strictly a good thing, isn’t it? As fans of sports, we like to be vicariously loyal through our favorite team’s front office. This formed a crucial relationship between Isaiah Thomas and the city of Boston - he had our back and we had his. We supported his career by cheering him into cult hero status, and he supported the Celtics by recruiting players like Al Horford to join his cause. It’s the least we all could do for each other. As Thomas became the symbol of Boston’s basketball culture, the franchise physically and figuratively revolved around him, and it felt like the future of Celtics basketball and the future of Isaiah Thomas was destined to be one in the same. In less than a moment’s notice, Thomas was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers - a conference rival - in exchange for a younger, more accomplished point guard.
Caron Butler’s Instagram post on the trade sparked a discussion about team loyalty, which, to nobody’s surprise, included a response from Ray Allen. In short, Allen makes the point that a team trading a player is “just business,” but when a player (e.g. Ray Allen) leaves on his own volition to join a rival (e.g. Miami, at the time), then it’s betrayal. And if you ask me, he’s correct on both counts. The Celtics made a business move, and, in unrelated news, Ray Allen deserves to be called a traitor.
(Note: I’m not calling Ray Allen a traitor. I am saying the shoe fits and he should accept that.)
There’s another important layer to the Ray Allen situation, and it’s that Allen feels he shouldn’t be criticized for leaving the Celtics on account of his contributions as a starter on a Championship team. Speaking of which, let’s review who was and wasn’t traded from the starting lineup of the 2008 World Champion Celtics:
- Paul Pierce: traded
- Kevin Garnett: totally got traded
- Rajon Rondo: absolutely traded
- Kendrick Perkins: definitely was traded
- Ray Allen: was never traded
Ray Allen didn’t have to resign if he (justifiably) felt that he might get traded, but his statements on the Celtics “not taking care of him” seemed a bit dishonest, as he turned down a two-year $12 million deal to sign for two years in Miami for about $6 million. See, Allen felt betrayed before free agency began when the Celtics benched him for a healthier Avery Bradley, whose defense greatly improved the Celtics’ play while Allen was out with an injury. And now it comes full circle, but let me talk about honesty for another minute.
When Kevin Durant joined the Golden State Warriors, he said he was on “the hardest road” to a championship. You and I both know this is not true. Yes, I’m salty that Durant passed up Boston for another city, but again, it’s his dishonesty that stands out to me. Durant, like Allen, had every right to act in his best interest when choosing where to play, but the statements he made after the decision were made to justify a move that didn’t need justification. They went where they went because they wanted to win. Plain and simple. The criticism they received was the nature of the NBA - players make fans feel left behind when they leave the team, and the fans get upset.
(This is honestly the most conservative take on the Durant situation that I could possibly force myself to write. I was immensely disappointed to see a contender lose their best player to a 73 win team and I’m still not over it.)
So it’s fair to defend Ray Allen and Kevin Durant’s for doing what’s best for their own careers, why wouldn’t the same apply to Danny Ainge and his decision to trade Isaiah Thomas. We can agree that players don’t hold any obligation to be loyal to basketball franchises and vice versa, so why is there so much backlash towards Ainge?
To answer the rhetorical: Because Thomas played a game for the Celtics the day after his sister died. He continued to play with a bad hip and a busted face. He did everything that was asked of him and then some. He gets almost as much credit as Danny Ainge himself for the Celtics being in the spot that they’re in today.
Which brings me back to why I brought up honesty. With trades, appropriately referred to as “just business” by Ray Allen, there is no need for the team GM to cover their tracks. Criticism pours in free-flowing and almost uninterrupted for exactly this reason. There was no instance of Danny Ainge saying “Thomas wasn’t taking care of us” when he clearly was, but instead he gave us plenty of insight on the pros and cons of the trade. Criticizing Ainge for the move is essentially preaching to the choir - he knows exactly what he did, and never suggested otherwise.
And he did it because loyalty is not a business model. The Celtics are worth over $2 billion and the worth of successful teams is only going to increase over time. If Ainge has been loyal to anybody, it’s been the fans (and money, but that’s not as heartwarming). As fans, we ultimately root for the name on the front of the jersey. Not everybody is honest in the business, but we can at least be honest with ourselves. Yes, we root for players while we have them, but the common thread is the jersey they wear and how we feel about it. For Celtics ownership, creating the ultimate fan loyalty means having a jersey that’s always worth rooting for. Fan loyalty, or customer loyalty, is a good business model (Trust me, I (don’t) have a degree in business). If anything, this story tells us a lot about Thomas’s character, in that his personal investment in the Celtics made Ainge look heartless in comparison. At the end of the day, loyalty can really only be mutual, and that's a near impossible scenario when large sums of money are involved.