The health of Isaiah Thomas' hip may be the key to the Cavs-Celtics blockbuster

Isaiah Thomas is still not 100 percent after a significant injury, and entering a contract year. (Getty Images)
Isaiah Thomas is still not 100 percent after a significant injury, and entering a contract year. (Getty Images)

In a blockbuster trade that’s both as stunning as any in recent memory and somehow eminently sensible for both sides, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics swapped All-Star point guards on Tuesday night. A month and a day after news broke that he’d requested a trade because he no longer wanted to play with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving got his wish, as Koby Altman was able to come away from his first big deal as the Cavs’ new general manager with scoring savant Isaiah Thomas, versatile defensive-minded forward Jae Crowder, intriguing rookie center Ante Zizic and the Brooklyn Nets’ unprotected 2018 first-round pick — all while saving owner Dan Gilbert nearly $30 million in luxury tax payments. (Seriously: Altman should get, like, a few extra days of vacation time and a pizza party.)

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The deal allows the Cavs to straddle the line between remaining an immediate title contender (ideally, Thomas replaces Irving’s scoring production and secondary playmaking, while Crowder offers an instant upgrade on the wing for a team in greater need of perimeter defenders to hope to match up with the Golden State Warriors) and retooling for the future (with 20-year-old 7-footer Zizic providing a potential contributor in the middle and the unprotected Nets pick giving Cleveland a shot at a top-half-of-the-lottery talent in next summer’s draft) as they wait to find out whether that future will or will not feature LeBron. It lands Boston a 25-year-old four-time All-Star with an established track record of when-it-matters-most bucket-getting. Perhaps just as important, it returns a starting lead guard who’s locked up on an old-salary-cap max contract for at least two more seasons, allowing Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge to avoid the nettlesome issue of whether to pony up the new-cap max that Thomas is sure to seek this summer to keep a 5-foot-9 scorer around into his mid-30s.

There’s cold logic to that, but it’d be hard to blame Celtics fans for feeling bummed out that Thomas — who became a two-time All-Star, a clutch-time icon, “The King in the Fourth,” and a postseason folk hero during his time in Boston — will be leaving town.

“Isaiah had just an amazing season this year, and entertained us all — the whole city of Boston, and everybody fell in love with him,” Ainge said during a Tuesday conference call with reporters to discuss the trade. “You know, he’s such an underdog because of his size, and his heart, and his spirit in which he plays. It was very challenging to make this decision.”

From the sounds of things, though, something else factored into the C’s decision-making in pulling the trigger on the trade: the status of Thomas’ injured hip.

Thomas bowed out of the 2017 Eastern Conference finals before Game 3 after re-aggravating an injury that was later revealed to be a torn labrum in his right hip. More than a month after sustaining the season-ending injury, it remained unclear whether the dynamic scorer would need surgery to repair the damage. Late last month, the Celtics finally confirmed Thomas wouldn’t need surgery, and looked to be on target to begin the season … maybe, as Celtics head coach Brad Stevens told Chris Mannix of The Vertical earlier this week.

“It’s been a lot of appropriate rest, a lot of rehab,” Stevens said. “There have been some good strides here certainly in the last month or few weeks, but we’re not going to know that until after that early September timeframe. We want what’s best for Isaiah. We want to make sure that when he is ready to roll, which hopefully is sooner rather than later, that he is ready to roll at his highest level and for the longest possible time, obviously, right?”

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Evidently, the Celtics remained unsure that Thomas would be able to do that. The day before the trade went down, Ainge told CSN New England’s A. Sherrod Blakely that Thomas would “undergo additional testing prior to the start of training camp.” Given that, and how quickly this trade came together, many speculated that concerns over Thomas’ ability to not only make a full recovery, but to reach the same career-defining heights of productivity he achieved last season, would have contributed to the Celtics’ decision.

Ainge suggested as much on Tuesday night, according to USA Today’s Sam Amick:

When asked about the part the hip played in his decision – this after the Celtics and Thomas had considered surgery only to determine that it wasn’t necessary – Ainge stammered a bit before indicating that Thomas might not be ready for the start of the season.

“Um, I don’t – you know, it, some,” he said. “There’s going to be probably a little bit of a delay for Isaiah as he starts the season this year, but – um – I think that Isaiah should be fine and healthy as the season goes along.”

Add the hip situation to the question about Thomas’ next contract, and you have yourself a challenging equation. With free agency fast approaching next summer, Thomas – who averaged 28.9 points (third in the NBA) and 5.9 assists last season – would be looking to land a five-year, $179 million deal that would pay him $40.8 million in the final season (2022-23).

“I think that contracts do play a part in trades,” Ainge said when asked about the contrasting contract landscape between Thomas and Irving. “No question about it.”

If Thomas is fully healthy, he should be devastating in Cleveland, both playing off LeBron and serving as an offensive fulcrum capable of keeping the Cavs afloat when James hits the bench — something neither Irving nor fellow All-Star-caliber offensive talent Kevin Love could credibly do over the years. The ever-present chip on the shoulder of the 2011 draft’s last pick should become planetary after his rise to stardom resulted in just another jettisoning — this time in favor of that draft’s first pick — resulting in an exceptionally motivated meteor hell-bent for the bucket as he sets out to prove he is worth the Brinks-truck-backup he’s made it very clear he’ll demand come July. Given Thomas’ track record at every step of his journey, from Washington to Sacramento to Phoenix to Boston, as SB Nation’s Paul Flannery suggests, “No one should ever get too comfortable doubting IT’s ability to maximize his abilities.”

Given the nature of the injury, though, and the history of how it has impacted those who have sustained it, that’s a major “if” on which to be banking the championship-contending hopes of a roster built to compete now and for the next handful of years. In the end, Ainge decided it would be better to let somebody else deal with the combination of physical and financial uncertainty related to cementing Thomas as a maxed-out cornerstone. That it happens to be the team Boston’s trying to dethrone, and that engaging in the deal also takes away one of the central figures of the Cavs’ recent dominance, makes the decision all the more fascinating.

From their perspective, the Cavs aren’t betraying any concerns about the condition of Thomas’ hip:

The $64,000 question: whether that changes when Thomas makes his way to Cleveland for the physical that would be required to consummate the deal — a trip that might not happen for another week.

Failed physicals have scuttled more than a few deals in recent years — Tyson Chandler to Oklahoma City, Donatas Motiejunas to Detroit, Cuttino Mobley to New York, Shareef Abdur-Rahim to New Jersey and plenty of others. Given the starry nature of the participants in this particular swap, it’d be a significantly bigger deal for this one to get quashed, but it wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility, or even necessarily all that uncommon.

That said, given the return Altman was able to secure for Irving — and the potential pitfalls of bringing Kyrie and LeBron to camp after all that’s happened — the Cavs’ brass would have to think very, very hard about whether what they saw on IT’s medical reports was bracing enough to put the kibosh on a deal.

All of which is to say: we might not have seen the last twist or turn in this stunning saga just yet.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!

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