Not so long ago, Isaiah Thomas was setting the NBA alight in Boston green. Just last season he averaged 28.9 points and 5.9 assists per game, while shooting 46 percent from the field. Things seemed to be going great for the diminutive point guard. But then, on 20 May 2017, he succumbed to a hip injury he’d been fighting for some time during the Eastern Conference Finals, only to find the metaphorical rug pulled from beneath his feet.
A mere month later, Celtics GM Danny Ainge surprised everyone by trading the number one overall pick in the 2017 Draft to the Philadelphia 76ers. As University of Washington point guard Markelle Fultz was considered by many to be the top prospect, this seemed to indicate that Boston was content to roll with Thomas long-term, a vote of confidence in their undersized floor general if you will.
Of course, Ainge selected Duke’s Jayson Tatum with the third overall pick, while attention turned to Thomas’s impending free agency. Set to hit the market in the summer of 2018, he told reporters “I’m a max (contract) guy, so I deserve the max. We’ve just got to continue to take care of business on the court and let the cards fall where they may. I’m happy for all the guards and all the other guys getting their money, because they deserve it, but my time’s coming. They know they’ve got to bring the Brinks truck out [if they want to re-sign me]”.
For those of you that don’t know, a Brinks truck is a bullet-resistant armored truck, used to transport money and valuable goods. Proof if any were needed that Thomas was backing himself to get a deal far greater than the four-year, $27 million contract he signed in 2014. Based on the way he played in 2017, he was probably right to as well. But, as it transpired, his injury was far worse than anyone initially realized, and Danny Ainge had other ideas.
Taking advantage of Kyrie Irving’s growing dissatisfaction with the increasingly toxic atmosphere in Cleveland, Ainge pounced on the opportunity to offload the injured Thomas. In doing so, he masterminded a deal that sent the veteran guard to the Cavs along with Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, Brooklyn’s 2018 first round pick and the Miami Heat’s 2020 second rounder. That last piece, as we all now know, was thrown in as a sweetener after the true extent of Thomas’s injury became apparent outside of Boston.
Frankly, the deal rocked the NBA world. As it did Thomas, who learned that he’d been traded while filming a series for The Player’s Tribune:
Understandably, he was upset, and launched a bitter rebuke aimed squarely at the man who’d traded him in a Lee Jenkins feature published by Sports Illustrated. Addressing his prospective return after the dust had settled, he said: “Boston is going to be all love. I might not ever talk to Danny again. That might not happen. I’ll talk to everybody else. But what he did, knowing everything I went through, you don’t do that, bro. That’s not right. I’m not saying eff you. But every team in this situation comes out a year or two later and says, ‘We made a mistake.’ That’s what they’ll say, too.”
He was, of course, referring to the death of his sister Chyna, who was involved in a fatal car accident the day before the 2017 postseason got underway. Thomas played regardless, seemingly as a means of coping, and Celtics fans loved him all the more for it. But obviously business is business, and Ainge did what he felt he needed to do when the time came.
Thomas was on his way to Cleveland. And despite the fact that they’d given up a young, All-Star point guard, many felt the Cavs got a decent return for a player who’d effectively forced his way out, even though the assessments conducted by their medical team revealed that Thomas’s injury was likely to keep him out until January.
And it did, as Cleveland’s Kyrie-replacement only made his first start on 2 January. Unfortunately for him, it very quickly became apparent that either he wasn’t fully fit, or that he was finding it difficult to adjust to Ty Lue’s system. Just looking at his stats over the course of his 15 appearances with the Cavs, it’s apparent that Thomas is some way off his former self, as he averaged just 14.7 points and 4.5 assists, while shooting a measly 36 percent from the field.
To make matters worse, he then reportedly got involved in an off court spat with Kevin Love, during which he accused the forward of faking an illness to leave an eventual loss at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder early, before missing practice the following day. The incident, which occured at a team meeting, further soured the relationship between the Cavs players and coaches and led GM Koby Altman to blow the roster up at the trade deadline.
In a series of moves that all but broke NBA Twitter, the Cavs reshaped both present and, potentially, future by getting younger and more athletic. To recap, they sent Thomas, Channing Frye and their own 2018 first round pick to the Lakers for Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. They then acquired George Hill and Rodney Hood in a three-team trade, that saw them ship out Jae Crowder, Derrick Rose, Iman Shumpert, and a second round pick. And finally, they traded Dwyane Wade to Miami for a second round pick.
The overhaul was surprising in the moment largely because the Cavaliers succeeded in getting rid of so many aging players. But, upon reflection, perhaps the most surprising thing about it is the fact that they were willing to give up on Thomas so quickly. He was, after all, supposed to be the third part of their ‘big three’ following Kyrie’s departure, but barely got a chance to get his feet under the table. Still, things between him and LeBron didn’t seem great, especially after footage emerged of the former seemingly ignoring the latter after nailing the game winner against the Timberwolves on Wednesday night:
Consequently, Thomas will now be plying his undersized trade in the purple and gold of the rebuilding Lakers, rather than the wine and gold of the Conference champion Cavaliers. And, if reports are to be believed, things got off to a rough start when Thomas’s agent told the Lakers that if his client was forced to play back-up to Lonzo Ball he’d request a buyout. Regardless of whether that happens or not, Thomas’s future remains unclear. Especially as the Lakers traded Clarkson and Nance Jr. to free up cap space for the summer. The likelihood is that they won’t want to spend that money on an unfit point guard who thinks he’s worth the max, particularly if those reports about them gunning for LeBron and Paul George are true.
It’s hard not to feel for Thomas through all this. The guy went from lowly second round pick to borderline superstar via stints in Sacramento, Phoenix and Boston and was, last season, one of the NBA’s true feel good story lines. But it can be an unforgiving league, one in which heads must rule hearts if a franchise is to succeed.
Had he not suffered that hip injury things could have been very different for Thomas. Aninge may not have traded him, the Celtics may have given him the max and he could have become the face of one of the league’s most successful franchises for years to come. But, instead, he finds himself fighting the odds in unforgiving L.A., where he’ll have to do battle with Magic Johnson and LaVar Ball if he wants to get his career back on track.
Still, as one of the league’s smallest players, Thomas has spent his entire life fighting the odds – so don’t count him out just yet.
Featured photo by Jason Miller / NBAE via Getty