Danny Ainge is blind to emotion when it comes to his job. He looks at players as assets, rather than as friends or colleagues.
When you mention Isaiah Thomas to the casual fan, the first attribute that comes to their mind isn't "second-team All-NBA" or "30 PPG scorer" or "Plays with a ton of heart". It's his height. At 5'9" 5'7", IT's entire basketball career is full of doubts, both by fans and by talent evaluators. His size causes people to believe that he doesn't belong. Each step of his career, someone has put their public distrust of Isaiah on full display.
In 2008, he was a top-20 point guard recruit out of high school but received only one scholarship offer, which came from his hometown Washington Huskies. In his three collegiate years in Seattle, Thomas averaged 16.4 PPG, 4.0 APG, on 42.2% field goal shooting. With Thomas at the helm, the Dawgs played in three consecutive NCAA tournaments and went to the Sweet 16 in 2010. They haven't made it back to the tournament since Thomas went to the NBA. Despite his success in college, Thomas wasn't the most sought after NBA prospect. He was selected by Sacramento with the 60th overall pick in 2011, the last pick in the draft, forever attaching the term "Mr. Irrelevant" to his name.
In his three seasons in Sacramento, Thomas was buried on the bench behind the likes of Tyreke Evans, Aaron Brooks, Marcus Thornton, and Jimmer Fredette, all players that he would eventually prove to be far better than. However, Thomas flourished when could find minutes. He averaging 16.3, 18.7, and 21.1 points per 36 minutes in his three seasons in Sacramento, but was never considered to be a building block piece for the future. He was merely a bench scorer who was thought of as being too small to build an impactful career.
When Thomas became a restricted free agent in 2014, it became clear that the Kings didn't believe in him. They refused to match a four-year, $28 million deal from Phoenix which turned out to be one of the biggest bargain contracts of the decade. They flipped Thomas to the Suns in a sign-in-trade for Alex Oriakhi, a middling second round pick who never appeared in an NBA game.
When Thomas arrived in Phoenix, he believed that he would be the point guard in waiting behind Goran Dragic. Statistically, Thomas projected to be a meaningful rotation player, but Phoenix didn't think so. A month later, the Suns signed Eric Bledsoe to a five-year $70M deal, sealing Thomas's fate as the third string point guard in the desert. It was yet another example of talent evaluators watching Thomas produce, but not believing what was happening in front of their own eyes.
The three-point guard saga inevitably failed in their first season together, and the talented trio could never figure out how to co-exist. Despite this, IT continued to manufacture points, shooting a 50.5 effective FG percentage on a then career high 40.4% FT rate. By the trade deadline, the Suns had fallen to the bottom of the league. They shipped Dragic off to Miami, which would have cleared the path for more IT minutes. That moment fleeted. Later that day, Phoenix inexplicably traded for Brandon Knight, which created an even muddier situation in the backcourt. The Suns completely mishandled Thomas and it was clear that they also had their doubts about his long-term viability.
In 2016, Thomas couldn't earn a tryout with the Team USA Olympic team, not even after a group of invitees preemptively dropped out. Amongst the initial thirty players invited to camp, seven had never made an all-star team. Isaiah had made one just six months earlier. In the face of another set of doubters, Thomas voiced his displeasure about not being offered an opportunity to try out. Six months later, he would go on to dominate the league for an entire season, finishing third in scoring and second in offensive win shares.
Danny Ainge was the first GM to openly target Isaiah for his fair market value. In 2014, Boston was relying on the corpse of Jeff Green to carry the offensive weight, and Thomas's scoring prowess was being underutilized in Phoenix. Ainge traded a late first round pick to acquire IT, a pick that was ironically gifted from Cleveland to Boston for agreeing to take on Tyler Zeller's contract. Isaiah and Boston were a match made in heaven. Brad Stevens immediately put the ball in his hands and told him to score at will. It was the first time anyone in the NBA had ever placed that level of trust into Isaiah Thomas.
Boston made the playoffs in each of Thomas's three seasons in Boston, raising their regular season win record from 40 to 48 to 53, respectively. IT instantly propelled the Celtics out of rebuilding mode. He had the most prolific scoring season in the franchise's rich history. Game after game, he took over fourth quarters, constantly sending the Garden crowd into a frenzy. He was a two-time all-star. Second-team All-NBA selection. He led them to the #1 seed this past year. He battled through injuries and played amidst personal tragedy. Fans revered IT, praising him for his grit and unrelenting competitiveness. Even the harsh Boston media ran out of arguments against him. He was the centerpiece attraction to that brought Al Horford and Gordon Hayward to the Celtics. IT did absolutely everything right in Boston. But it wasn't enough.
Danny Ainge is blind to emotion when it comes to his job. He looks at players as assets, and not as friends or colleagues. It's what good GMs do, and it's what good owners allow their GMs to do. What Ainge saw in Isaiah Thomas was a 28-year-old heavily undersized point guard who was entering the last season of his contract. Thomas has made it clear that he's expecting to sign a max contract, and this trade made it clear that Boston wasn't going to offer one.
Players under six feet tend to age faster than their taller co-workers. Isaiah's scoring solely depends on his speed and athleticism. Ainge didn't want to bet $35 million per year that Thomas could sustain his agility into his age 30s. Kyrie Irving is younger (age 25), taller (6'3"), more cost controlled (free agent in two years), and offers a skill set that isn't entirely dependent on quickness. It's as simple as that.
So Ainge becomes the latest in a long history of talent evaluators who doubt whether Isaiah Thomas can continue to grow as a player. After the way Isaiah has performed, he had a right to believe that his future would be safe in Boston. Thomas will undoubtedly seek vengeance on Ainge for doubting his ability to keep up this level of offensive greatness.
Boston will likely face Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals, and Celtics fans will have to prepare for internal emotional conflicts about how to treat Thomas. This isn't analogous to KD leaving OKC at the alter, or Paul George making a public ultimatum to Indiana, or even Irving requesting a trade from Cleveland. Thomas wanted to be in Boston long-term. He wanted to hoist banner number 18. Fans shouldn't turn on Thomas simply because of the jersey that he's being forced to wear. In my opinion, he should be given a standing ovation during his first Garden introduction. That said, Thomas is the enemy after the ball tips off.
The NBA has never seen a trade swapping players each coming from 25+ PPG seasons. We've never seen an offseason deal between two teams that just faced in the conference finals, not even a minor one. Doing something like this would have been unthinkable in decades past, but we now exist in an NBA of constant player movement, little to no loyalty, and cold-blooded departures.