A year and a half ago, Isaiah Thomas appeared to be headed for a nine-figure payday in the summer of 2018, a free-agent windfall shelled out by an NBA team eager to cut a massive check to secure the services of one of the league’s most improbable and unstoppable crunch-time weapons. Two weeks ago, he instead took what was reportedly the only offer on the table: a one-year deal at the veteran’s minimum of $2 million to step in as the backup point guard for the Denver Nuggets.
The short-term, short-money agreement capped a stunning fall from grace for the 29-year-old Thomas, a pick-and-roll surgeon and All-Star thunderbolt of a scorer for whom the bottom dropped out after he continued to play through a hip injury for a Boston Celtics team with championship aspirations — even continuing to play through his sister’s tragic death — until his hip gave out. The injury ended his season and — for now, at least, after a disastrous 2017-18 season in which Thomas was traded twice and nothing seemed to go right before he eventually went under the knife — his hopes of landing the lucrative multi-year contract that has eluded Thomas throughout a seven-year pro career, leaving him waiting for a phone call in a cash-strapped market as one of the big losers of this summer’s free agency period.
But before Thomas agreed to his make-good deal to help make Denver one of the league’s most intriguing teams heading into next season, he made a phone call — one that, after the events of last summer, it seemed like he’d never make again. From a new conversation between Thomas and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski:
Before finalizing the agreement with Denver, Thomas had reached out to Boston GM Danny Ainge. They talked for 15 to 20 minutes, Thomas says, and he told Ainge: “If the opportunity is there, I would just like to let you know that I’d love to come back.”
Ainge says his mind was open to the idea, but the Celtics needed to work through Marcus Smart’s restricted-free-agency discussions before they could consider making an offer to Thomas. Ainge was willing to continue the conversation, but Thomas accepted the Nuggets’ offer before Boston had reached its new deal with Smart.
“S—, I’d have gone back,” Thomas says. “I don’t hold grudges.”
That did not seem likely to be true last September.
Isaiah Thomas thought he might never speak with Danny Ainge again
Thomas gave the Celtics everything he had during the 2016-17 season, averaging 28.9 points per game — the highest scoring season by a Celtic since Larry Bird’s 1987-88 campaign — and continuing to perform at a superstar level in the postseason despite the his sister’s death and busting his teeth at the start of the second round. And then, 3 1/2 months after being shut down for good with a hip injury that would loom much larger than anyone suspected, his tenure as a Celtic was over, as he was flipped to Cleveland in exchange for fellow All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving.
In an open letter to Celtics fans, Thomas made it clear that the trade hurt him deeply, though he claimed “no hard feelings” after this particular “business move,” even if he didn’t agree with it. In an interview with Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated, though, Thomas made it clear that, while he’ll always appreciate the city of Boston, he’d have a harder time getting right with the Celtics organization and the man who both traded for him and traded him away: team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge (emphasis mine):
When Sacramento let Thomas walk in 2014, he left town telling himself, “F— Sacramento. I’m about to kill those dudes.” When Phoenix exiled him the following winter, he pledged, “O.K., now they’re gonna get it.” But there will be no revenge tour this time. “Boston is going to be all love,” he vows, with one exception. “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.”
It’s tough to call trading Thomas a mistake for the Celtics, though
After swinging the deal in large part due to concerns over the future viability of Thomas’ hip — the treatment of which would later become a rhetorical battleground for player and former team — Ainge told Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe that informing Thomas he’d traded him was “definitely the toughest call I ever had to make.” He made it, though, because his job’s primary requirement is doing everything he can to make the Boston Celtics better, even when it doesn’t feel good. So when Irving made it clear he wanted out of Cleveland, and the Cavs wanted an in-case-of-emergency lottery pick in return, and the Celtics had a chance to get a younger, bigger point guard with an established history of NBA Finals excellence who’d be under contract for longer while also avoiding the nettlesome matter of having to weigh whether or not pay Thomas and his ailing hip come this summer, Ainge struck.
Irving went on to average a team-high 24.4 points and 5.1 assists per game before undergoing season-ending knee surgery after 60 games; even without him or Thomas, the Celtics made it back to the Eastern Conference finals, and came within one quarter of the championship round. After needing a few months working his way back from the hip injury, Thomas made only 15 appearances in Cleveland during a disastrous tenure in which he shot 36 percent from the field and 25 percent from 3-point range, couldn’t explode past defenders off the dribble or create separation to get his shot off cleanly, and routinely got exploited by opposing offenses, all of which helped lead to the Cavs re-routing him to L.A. at the February trade deadline in a deal. Things got a bit better with the Lakers, but he still rarely looked like the fire of old before finally getting the hip surgery he’d hoped he wouldn’t need.
It’s possible, given the rest of what wound up coming to Cleveland in the deal — Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson (whom the Lakers sent to Cleveland in the deadline deal for Thomas, Channing Frye and a 2018 first-round draft pick, later spent on Michigan’s Moe Wagner) George Hill and Rodney Hood, or whatever they turn into as assets (imported in another deadline deal that sent out Jae Crowder), prospect big man Ante Zizic and 2018 lottery pick Collin Sexton — that the Cavs will wind up feeling like they got the better of the deal. At the moment, though, it seems like Ainge chose wisely; with a healthy Irving in the fold, the Celtics look like favorites to win the Eastern Conference, while the Cavs are now in a post-LeBron rebuild and Thomas is looking to save his career coming off the bench in Denver.
Could a return trip to Boston for IT really have worked?
It’s interesting to think about whether or not that would’ve been possible in a return to Boston. In his conversation with Wojnarowski, Thomas still seems to chafe at the idea that his ascent into the ranks of All-NBA selection and MVP candidacy was fueled by Brad Stevens’ offensive system, and he maintains that the circumstances surrounding his continuing to play in the 2017 postseason despite his ongoing hip issues could’ve been handled better: “I don’t think Boston went about it the right way, as well.”
With the Celtics having moved on in the backcourt with Irving (who has a player option for the 2019-20 season, and with whom the Celtics will likely enter free-agent negotiations next summer), the re-signed Smart and playoff revelation Terry Rozier, as well as an offensively potent wing core headlined by Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and the returning Gordon Hayward, it’s tough to see Thomas being able to accept a spot-minutes reserve role in the same uniform he wore while rocketing to superstardom. Even if Thomas had been willing to wait on the Celtics to resolve Smart’s restricted free agency — which, it seems likely, would’ve had to wait until after the Kawhi Leonard deal went down, since Boston had been at least tangentially involved in those conversations — it feels like the fit of a reunion, on and off the court, just would’ve been too awkward to work.
So the Celtics move on, looking forward and taking aim at an 18th banner. And Thomas moves on, hoping that the opportunity to run rampant on second-unit defenses under former Kings head coach Mike Malone — with the full understanding that he will not be pushing young gun Jamal Murray for starter’s minutes — will give him the opportunity to prove he can still play at a high level, and “show the world who I am again.” And maybe, now that we know Thomas and Ainge can be on speaking terms again, all parties involved can move on off the court, too.
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