By Matt Youmans
VSiN senior editor
Six years ago, Isaiah Thomas was a long shot to stick in the NBA. A 5-foot-9 point guard rarely struts into the league on a red carpet, and he had to sneak in the back door.
Thomas was the last pick of the 2011 draft. The same year, Kyrie Irving was the first pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Considering the odds Thomas has overcome to get this far, he surely believes he can lead the Boston Celtics by Irving, LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference playoffs this year. And it’s not a far-fetched fantasy.
“The Cavs are still the top team,” Sunset Station sports book director Chuck Esposito said, “but I think the gap has narrowed a little bit in the East.”
Cleveland is a minus-400 favorite to win the East, followed by Boston (5-1), Toronto (8-1) and Washington (10-1). It’s a four-horse race, with Thomas jockeying the No. 2 horse.
The Celtics, 37-19 going into Thursday’s game at Chicago, are on the heels of the Cavaliers (39-16) at the All-Star break. With Cavaliers forward Kevin Love sidelined another six weeks after left knee surgery, Boston could make a realistic push for the No. 1 seed.
John Wall, a point guard drafted first overall in 2010, has pushed Washington (33-21) into the third spot. The Celtics and Wizards are each 9-1 in their past 10 games.
“I like the Wizards a lot,” Esposito said. “Everybody is talking about Cleveland and Boston in the East. Boston and Washington are somewhat legitimate threats to the Cavs.”
The door is cracked open for Thomas and Wall, due to Love’s injury and the Cavaliers’ dysfunction. But Boston is better positioned to make a run at Cleveland, and that’s because the Celtics are holding the cards to make an impact move before the Feb. 23 trade deadline.
Chicago, for some odd reason, is looking to deal Jimmy Butler. The New York Knicks are desperate to part with Carmelo Anthony, for obvious reasons. There are plenty of other options, too.
“The Celtics have an incredible supply of draft picks that they can trade,” said Jeff Sherman, the Westgate sports book’s primary NBA oddsmaker. “I don’t think they are going to sit quiet. I think they are going to do something.”
Boston is an intriguing case study because of this question: Is it possible to win an NBA championship when the franchise player is a 5-9 point guard?
Thomas is the league’s No. 2 scorer at 29.9 points per game — he scored 33 on Wednesday, his 40th straight 20-point game — but he’s not going to be a stopper against Irving, and no team in the East has a defender capable of handling James.
“The big thing about Boston is they really have not played great defense all year. That’s my big sticking point with them,” said Erin Rynning, a Las Vegas professional bettor who specializes in the NBA. “As good as Isaiah is on offense, he gives up a lot the other way. I think he’s pretty overrated. He can’t guard anyone. I would definitely take John Wall over Thomas.
“But Thomas is worth points as a scorer. He has been bailing them out late in a lot of these games.”
The Raptors fortified their defense this week by trading for rim-protecting big man Serge Ibaka.
The next move is up to the Celtics, who need to improve on the defensive end and probably add a scorer to complement Thomas. If that move does not happen by next week, something significant will happen in the offseason.
If the Bulls are willing to give up Butler — the Chicago front office is showing a knack for making costly mistakes — he could help Boston get over the top against Cleveland.
But Rynning (Sportsmemo.com) remains cynical about the chances of the Celtics or any other team taking down Irving and James in a long series.
“It’s hard to get excited about any of these teams in the East, to be honest,” he said. “There’s not a lot to like. Per usual, the only team that could beat the Cavs is themselves.”
Still, if the Celtics make a second-half run for the No. 1 seed, they have a little point guard capable of big things.