Every championship team needs “a guy”. Dirk Nowitzki, for example, is “a guy”. Tim Duncan. Kobe Bryant. Dwyane Wade. All “guys”. The “guy” theory is the historical precedent set for winning championships if you ignore the 2004 Detroit Pistons, but it doesn’t tell the complete story. Plenty of teams has had “guys” that never won anything. Carmelo Anthony never reached the promised land with Denver, and it’s been a bumpy road in New York.
Steve Nash. Tracy McGrady. Vince Carter.
The gap in the "guy" theory is that “guys” need more “guys”. Paul Pierce was that guy in Boston for a long time. The Paul Pierce that played on a 24-win team in 2007 was the same Paul Pierce that won Finals MVP in 2008. The worst-to-first story is one of the most outstanding, but also self-explanatory when you add two more future Hall of Famers and a full bench to the picture. Even LeBron James, the once in a generation talent successor to Kobe Bryant himself, needed substantial help, on par with what Pierce got, to get his first title. The leading narrative is that LeBron proved his doubters wrong by winning on the biggest stage, but take note of his teammates as well. Chris Bosh was another “guy” who used to play on a bad team who got there and not by taking a back seat.
Correction: Every championship team needs two “guys”. Probably at least three. Maybe four. Hopefully, Golden State doesn’t add a fifth.
Isaiah Thomas fits the underrated “guy” narrative perfectly. 20+ points per game? Check. Never went past the first round? Check. Doubted and criticized for his entire life? Check.
The important distinction about “guys” is that there are different tiers that they fall in. LeBron James is a Tier 1 guy. He is the guy. His Tier 2 guy was Dwyane Wade, the Robin to his Batman. Chris Bosh is a Tier 3. It’s not just a hierarchy, as teams can have multiple guys on the same tier. Kobe and Shaq were unequivocally Tier 1 guys as teammates.
Isaiah Thomas is undoubtedly a guy, but which is he? At the moment, he is averaging 27 points per game, tying for 6th in the league with Damian Lillard, and 6.2 assists tied for 16th with Damian Lillard. Should we compare him to Damian Lillard? Lillard became the guy in Portland even after LaMarcus Aldridge had established himself as a perennial All-Star there. Aldridge, by the way, lands on the list of players who were a guy and switched teams so they could be the guy. Good luck with that. I think Aldridge would do great as a Tier 3 guy, a Chris Bosh if you will.
Lillard was a more explosive player than Isaiah when he started out if you go by the numbers. He scored 19 per game as a rookie and has outdone himself each year since. Lillard, at one point, had a similar foundation to stand on that Isaiah has right now that led his Trail Blazers to consecutive seasons of 51 wins or more. The Blazers have since regressed at the same pace that the Celtics have improved, which is to be expected given the fact that Portland’s non-Lillard starters all left as free agents in the same offseason. Still, we know Lillard is a guy.
The ball is now in Isaiah’s court. The tier metaphor was a bit overkill, but I think he is championship material in the same way that I think Lillard could light up an NBA Finals series. Slowly, but surely, Ainge has surrounded Thomas with similar pieces and already a couple playoff opportunities. For all I know, Thomas could be gone by the trade deadline, but I’ve never seen Celtics management give up on a rising star player (Before you say it, Rondo gave up on them) and I don’t think Thomas will be the first one.