Isaiah Thomas' free-agent summer could be bumpy

NBA.com Global on Feb 28, 2018 07:58 AM
Isaiah Thomas' free-agent summer could be bumpy
Los Angeles Lakers guard Isaiah Thomas (7) discusses a foul call with referee Tony Brown during an NBA basketball game against the Dallas Mavericks, Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018, in Dallas. (AP Photo/ Richard W. Rodriguez)

By Shaun Powell, NBA.com

What’s cruel is how the Basketball Gods chose a man with a Biblical name to target and taunt. That act of basketball blasphemy is what’s eating Isaiah Thomas, more than what happened in Cleveland and Boston and anything that might happen (or not) in L.A.

A year ago this time, he was a Kia MVP favorite, punishing defenses with three-pointers dropped from the heavens. He was hauling the Boston Celtics around on a 5'9" frame, stealing hearts and plenty of games and, most assuredly, playing his way into his first financial jackpot.

In 2016-17, he was averaging 28.9 points and pushed forward in the playoffs despite the pain of losing his sister. Thomas was a marvel to watch, to comprehend, to digest. A year ago. Not that long ago at all.

Today, he is on his third team since then, a player renting a home and staring at an uncertain future. And none of this happened by his own doing. He did not screw things up, ask for or cause this. He is a victim of a series of unfortunate events and lousy timing.

Can you compare his plight with that of any other All-NBA player and MVP candidate? Does any of this make sense?

Is all of it unfair?

How is it that Thomas, once the heartbeat of a No. 1 seed and title contender, is now splitting time with a rookie who doesn’t shoot well? How is he spending this season’s stretch run on a losing Los Angeles Lakers team that doesn’t appear to have plans for him?

This is the reality, and a strange one, for Thomas, who’ll raise plenty of questions around the NBA when he hits free agency this summer. They will be questions no one imagined a year ago.

The timeline, if you missed it:

- He hurt his hip in the Eastern Conference finals and missed that series.
- Kyrie Irving demanded a trade.
- Celtics GM Danny Ainge decided he’d rather not, to quote Thomas, back up the Brinks truck.
- Thomas and Irving swapped spots.
- The Cavs crumbled and panicked, trading Thomas in a flurry of deals.

And here is Thomas, leveraging these last six weeks to remind folks of what he used to be.

Correction, he says, politely and firmly:

“I’m still that player. There’s nothing I need to prove to anyone anymore.”

He was injured last spring, and in the summertime traded from Boston to Cleveland when Ainge figured Irving was an upgrade at point guard. And after healing for a half-season and understandably playing sporadically in his 15-game return, he was shipped to the Lakers on Feb. 8 (Feb. 9, PHL time).

His expiring contract appealed to the Lakers, who have made no secret of their desire to clear salary cap space for this summer’s free agent market. All of which makes it very likely Thomas is merely a temp, especially given the Lakers’ investment in rookie point guard Lonzo Ball.

“A lot of things that happened weren’t in my control,” Thomas said. “It’s a business and everything happens for a reason, and because I can’t control it, I try not to worry too much about it. I know who I am as a player and a person and that’s all that really matters.”

Thomas’ steep confidence is admirable and the very reason he carved out an NBA career. The NBA is more likely to see the next Kevin Durant walk through the door than the next Thomas -- the last pick in the 2011 Draft who became the shortest man in league history to average 28.8 ppg.

Last season was magical for Thomas: 43 straight games of 20 or more points as well as 50 straight games with a three-pointer. There was the 53-point showing against the Washington Wizards in the playoffs (which came days after flying cross-country to console family following his sister’s fatal car accident) and leading the Celtics to the East finals.

After he injured his hip in Game 2 of the East finals -- again, out of his control -- the bottom fell out and Thomas is still struggling to regain familiar footing. Two trades later, it’s all still a daze. And while Thomas says he still knows who he is as a player, what about the teams interested in him in free agency this summer? What conclusion will they reach as they weigh two solid seasons against this very strange one?

His biggest issue isn’t his size or his troublesome defense. It might be his position. Point guards are plentiful, as common in the NBA as tattoos. Most teams already have a standout point guard (or a very good one) or are developing one (as the Lakers are).

A handful of teams could be shopping for one in free agency, but salary cap room is more precious than ever. The universe for Thomas, good as he can be when healthy, might be limited.

How much is he looking for? The days of a salary cap increase are over and it’s hard to imagine Thomas getting Jrue Holiday money ($26 million per season).

“I’m looking to sign a long-term deal this summer but anything can happen,” he said. “I can’t control it and can’t worry too much about it. I was only in Sacramento for three years, Boston for almost three years and the other stops were temporary. I’m looking hopefully to sign long term and call someplace home.”

What’s important to know is Thomas, at 29, is still looking for his big payday, thus the urgency for him to cash in. He made a lowly six figures in each of his first three seasons, then landed with the Phoenix Suns in 2014 via a sign-and-trade deal (four years, $27 million).

That contract quickly made him the best bargain in the NBA once he landed in Boston, as he averaged 19, 22.2 and 28.9 ppg there. That and stability are important to him, after hop-scotching with the Sacramento Kings, Suns, Celtics, Cavs and Lakers.

He’s a unique player, a scoring point guard who thrived in a Boston system that gave him freedom and shots while covering for his defense. His size makes it critical for him to be paired with a big guard to compensate. Will another team tweak itself to suit Thomas? Or can he thrive in almost any system?

“They know who I am,” Thomas said. “I don’t have to tell them nothing. They know what I bring to the table and what I can do for a franchise.”

The Cavs initially thought Thomas was a reasonable replacement for Irving and were willing to stay patient while he needed seven months to recover from offseason hip surgery. Suddenly, that patience became an issue when the Cavs went 7-8 once Thomas returned. He wasn’t 100 percent and averaged 14.7 ppg, but the Cavs pulled the plug anyway, sensing the season was slipping away. He went from being LeBron James’ teammate and possibly playing for a title to landing on a team that’s 26-34 and 11 games out of first place.

“I’m not bitter,” Thomas said. “I only played 15 games in Cleveland after sitting out seven months. I have no hard feelings. My thing is to move on and do what I can for the Lakers.”

Still, he’s in an awkward situation now. In addition to Ball, the Lakers are giving playing time to rookie Josh Hart, who started Monday (Tuesday, PHL time) against the Atlanta Hawks. A compromise has been reached; Thomas will get a reasonable amount of time to showcase himself in the final weeks without the Lakers sacrificing their youth.

The club is pleased so far with his cooperation, willingness to conform and give pointers to the young locker room when asked. That’s all Lakers president Magic Johnson wanted from Thomas after the trade.

“He told me to be who you are, be special, take control of this team and take this team to the next level, wherever that level is, and lead these young guys,” Thomas said. “Hey, I’m still young myself, just 29 years old, still in my prime, still trying to find my way and get back to the level I’m used to playing at.

“It’s important for me to get my rhythm back, get comfortable with this new situation and win as many games as possible and most importantly play well. I’m going to do that, so I’m looking forward to these last games to see what we could do with it.”

It’s easy to empathize with Thomas because he had little say in what transpired once he hurt his hip. Even more, he has limited say with the Lakers now and in free agency this summer. He doesn’t totally control his destiny.

At least the Basketball Gods will relinquish their suffocating grip and maybe that’s the first step in the right direction.

“I’ve got so much more to show,” Thomas said. “When I’m healthy and able to be who I am, the world knows what I bring. There’s nothing I need to prove to anybody anymore. I need to get back to 100 percent and that will come.”

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting. 

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