In NBA history there has never been a more improbable season than Isaiah Thomas’ 2016-17. Drafted with the very last pick of the 2011 NBA draft the odds were stacked against him. By the time Boston acquired him in a trade in 2015, he had made somewhat of a name for himself as an elite level bench scorer in Sacramento and Phoenix. At that point in time nobody could have expected his meteoric rise to stardom.
From the start of the 16-17 season it was clear that Isaiah had made the fabled leap to elite status. Over the first 20 games, Thomas averaged 26.3 points per game, up 4.1 from the season before. The separation he created from other iterations of his game left the league in awe. Only one player in Celtics history has had more months in which they averaged more than 30 points per game: Larry Joe Bird. At the end of the season, IT had climbed the historical leaderboards; when he was traded to the Cavaliers he left Boston as their all time points per game leader. During this season Isaiah embarked on the 8th longest 20-point game streak since 2000, when he tallied up 43 straight. Furthermore, whilst averaging 28.9 PPG Isaiah finished 3rd in the league in scoring, the shortest player to do that since Allen Iverson.
Thomas had every excuse to not perform, measuring at just 5’9, however instead of using his size as a reason to not succeed he developed a playstyle that completely played to his strengths. His insane agility and ability to stop on a dime left defenders clawing at the air. His use of the half spin hesi and his miniature stature leaves comparisons to The Answer inevitable. It’s not a comparison that Thomas would dispute, as he wrote on Instagram “There will never be another Allen Iverson but I’m for damn sure going to be the closest thing to you”. Isaiah Thomas, in the 16-17 season, was a master of his craft. His play was equal parts ruthless and beautiful. The pick-and-roll heavy Boston offence relied solely on IT’s ability to read the defence and score points. He led the entire league in points per possession on pick-and-roll plays, at 1.04. He held the entire weight of a city’s basketball dreams on his shoulders and delivered in a way that not even the most optimistic of the Celtic faithful could have expected.
Tragedy tore through Thomas’ life just as the playoffs were approaching. However, just a day after the shocking news of his sister’s passing, he turned in a great performance against the Chicago Bulls in round 1 of the NBA playoffs. This was shortly followed by the greatest game in Isaiah’s history. Just over two weeks after his sister’s passing, on what would have been her 23rd birthday, he went on a 53 point barrage against the Wizards. His point total in that game stands today as the highest points scored in a playoff game by an active player. Furthermore, 29 of those 53 points came in the 4th quarter and OT, including going 4-for-4 in overtime. In the post-game interview David Aldridge summed up the disbelief that everyone felt perfectly “Where is this coming from man, where is this coming from?”. No other player could play through such distressing personal news and excel in the way he did.
At the end of the 2016-17 season Isaiah Thomas was involved in a blockbuster trade for fellow All-NBA point guard Kyrie Irving, of the Cleveland Cavaliers. 18 games into the 17-18 NBA season it appeared that Boston had overwhelmingly won the trade; the Celtics sat at 16-2 with the best record in the league and IT still recovering from off-season hip surgery. Following a season of over-confidence and assurances that their current lack of form was the mere inexperience of the youthful players on the Celtics roster, the postseason was also riddled with problems. The encouragement and promises that Irving had made fell to ashes when it truly mattered. In the midst of the playoff collapse it became clear Irving would be leaving in free agency, and the fans were more than happy to shut the door behind him.
This cemented the feeling that Isaiah was the perfect point guard for Boston, a rare mix of outrageous self-confidence whilst also remaining a selfless team player, something that was definitely missing during Kyrie’s tenure. Although Thomas has not come close to the dizzying heights he achieved in 16-17, there is a sense amongst Celtic’s fans that he was perhaps traded prematurely. Should he have returned from injury in the same Brad Steven’s system as the one he rose to prominence in, who knows what he could have achieved with this promising Boston team.
No fanbase had warmed to a player as quickly as the Boston faithful did to IT, he was Boston personified, confident and completely die-hard. Over the duration of the 2016-17 season Isaiah led the team in points for 42 straight games, only MJ had ever had a longer streak. The standout part of Isaiah’s season was the fourth quarter scoring; with 9.8 fourth quarter points per game he averaged the second most in league history (records began in 1996). At 5’9 he averaged more points in the fourth quarter than LeBron, Kobe, Kevin Durant and Michael Jordan ever did. The Celtics fans anointed him the King in the Fourth, with a headband for a crown and the TD Garden for a throne.