One of the biggest trades in Boston Celtics history almost didn’t happen.
The Athletic’s Sam Amick recently spoke with three NBA front office executives, including Celtics assistant general manager and team counsel Mike Zarren, for a piece published Thursday about the inner-workings of the league’s trade deadline.
When asked about the 2015 trade that sent Isaiah Thomas to Boston, Zarren revealed the Celtics didn’t know until right before the deadline that a deal would get done.
The Celtics ultimately landed Thomas from the Phoenix Suns and Jonas Jerebko from the Detroit Pistons in a three-team trade that significantly impacted Boston’s future.
Here’s what Zarren told Amick:
That one was crazy because literally 35 minutes before the deadline we did not think we had any trade at all, and then we did two of them in the last half hour. We did the Isaiah one, and then we also did one with Detroit involving Tayshaun Prince and Jonas Jerebko. That was just an interesting one, because we really thought – like so many deadlines – there just wasn’t anything to do and we were going to sit around and wait for the news of what other teams were doing. And then a couple phone calls right at the end there, and those trades both happened in the last 20 minutes.
We had had conversations in the distant past with those teams, but they both got back to us and said, ‘Hey, you know what? We would have interest in this thing that we were previously discussing.’ The Detroit one happened close enough to where there was a Can-we-get-everyone-on-the-phone moment? at the end. I think something went wrong with my phone, and I dropped Ken Catanella in Detroit (where he was the Pistons assistant general manager at the time), and I had the league on but not Ken and I had to hurry to get Ken back on. We did it on time. We’d been going back and forth with (Phoenix) for a while on Isaiah. It wasn’t a new discussion. Neither of those discussions were brand new, but both of them we thought were dead half an hour before the deadline.
Thomas, the final pick of the 2011 NBA Draft, never reached his potential with the Sacramento Kings or the Suns, but he blossomed into a two-time All-Star with the Celtics. Boston made the playoffs in three consecutive seasons with Thomas as the focal point, even reaching the Eastern Conference finals following a 2016-17 campaign in which he averaged 28.9 points per game.
Obviously, the Thomas trade was a slam dunk for the Celtics. One could argue it was a launching point — along with the 2013 trade that sent Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets — for Boston’s current roster construction, as the Celtics subsequently signed Al Horford (2016) and Gordon Hayward (2017) in free agency before shipping Thomas to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a 2017 offseason trade for superstar point guard Kyrie Irving.
So, just imagine if the deal never went down. There’s a good chance the Celtics wouldn’t be the legitimate NBA Finals contenders they are today.