The Celtics have overachieved by almost every measure, and yet the chips on their shoulders continue to grow.
While many preseason predictions had the Celtics winning at least 50 games and settling in as the second seed in the East, they have slid into first, in part thanks to a forgiving end of the season schedule while LeBron’s Cavaliers ponder whether or not it’s worth playing defense in the regular season. Boston’s success has been overshadowed by Cleveland’s shortcomings as well as the injuries of Toronto and Washington, which are legitimate talking points, but don’t address the fact that Boston has played 27 games without Avery Bradley, 14 without Al Horford, 10 without Jae Crowder, and six without Isaiah Thomas.
Any fan of any team can lay out reasons why their favorite squad could’ve and should’ve won more games, which in my mind justifies the current standings. It’s part of what makes sports, or really any hobby, interesting - variance. Injuries, slumps, hot streaks, even controversial officiating, are what keeps sports interesting. Fact: your favorite team sits where they do in the standings because they belong there. Another fact: standings do not dictate how good a team is, but do give a fair indication of how they stack up against the competition, or more specifically, how well they’ve stacked up thus far. Again, things could change, but teams are currently where they belong.
My question still stands: Why don’t the Celtics get much credit? If you ask the internet, you get the following answer: LeBron is LeCoasting through LePlayoffs all Le way to LeFinals for a rematch. He’s going to flip the switch when the time comes, they say, and I have no doubts that he will. But, do his teammates have another gear? Maybe they do, maybe they don’t, but this is the first time post-The Decision that a the King’s team has been questioned with such legitimate concerns. (No, Skip Bayless, calling LeBron ‘the least clutch player ever’ every year does not count as legitimate or a concern.) It doesn’t seem possible to me that a team with LeBron, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love could only be ‘pretty good’, but it’s the world that we live in at the moment.
To balance out my bias a little bit, I’ll point out that I just called a team that trails the Celtics by one half-game only ‘pretty good’.
So, to answer my question, the Celtics don’t get much love from the media because LeBron exists. Fair enough.
What about the little guy? Why doesn’t Isaiah Thomas get much recognition? There’s plenty of room for All-Star discussion, even outside of the small ring of ‘superstars’ - which boils down to Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and LeBron James this year. Obviously Kawhi Leonard is as good as any of these guys, but a major part of superstardom is, you know, talking sometimes.
The MVP conversation has whittled down to a Harden vs. Westbrook debate, a debate in which I can’t justify the exclusion of Isaiah Thomas when it’s an accolade almost entirely earned via scoring and conference standings (unless you’re Steve Nash). Going by raw scoring output, Harden and Westbrook have IT beat. Isaiah has scored 2066 points total to Harden’s 2216 and Westbrook’s 2423. But, what if I told you that Thomas has a better shooting percentages from the field, three point land, and the free throw line? What if I threw in the fact that his effective field goal percentage was far and away better? How about the fact that Thomas has five less games played than both of them, or as many as 360 less minutes played than Harden? Isaiah scores 41.4 points per 48 minutes, meaning about 310 points were theoretically left on the table, which would eclipse Harden, had Thomas been burdened with such a workload. But that’s the thing, he’s not. Thomas plays 34 minutes per game on average, which is 34th in the league. This is the most among all current Celtics. If you look at total minutes played, which is likely a better indicator of wear and tear, Thomas is 31st with right at 34th in the league with 2415 minutes. Within the top 15 players with the most minutes, you’ll find potential playoff opponents such as John Wall (2733, 4th), Giannis Antetokoumnpo (2709, 6th), LeBron James (2631 while playing one less game that IT so far, 11th), and Jimmy Butler (2628, 12th).
Long story short, Isaiah plays less and scores more. If you want to argue that the assists and rebounds put Harden and Westbrook over Thomas in the MVP, then by all means do so. If you want to factor in Houston’s impressive record, go right ahead, but don’t lie to yourselves about who the better scorer is. It’s Thomas. While we’re at it, I’m ignoring any criticism about the Celtics playing in a weak conference when Golden State shares a division with the Lakers, Suns, and Kings.
I don’t expect Thomas to win MVP. Honestly, I would give it to Leonard. He’s arguably doing more than expected while Harden’s crew does a little less with a little more depth. But, if I had to take a guess, it’s going to James Harden, because narratives and popularity and such. And that’s fine, the chip on Isaiah’s shoulder is only going to grow.