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This time last year, Isaiah Thomas was on his way to the first All-NBA appearance of his career, vying for the league lead in scoring while leading the Boston Celtics to their first 50-win season in a half-dozen years. Now, a year and two teams removed from the greatest heights of his career, the Los Angeles Lakers point guard has again come to a crashing low.
The Lakers announced Wednesday that Thomas would go under the knife to repair the right hip that has now scuttled two seasons, and has generated massive uncertainty about what comes next for a perennial underdog and two-time All-Star who just 12 months ago appeared to be on the verge of a superstar breakthrough. Thomas had the “minimally invasive procedure to ‘clean up’ the joint of all inflammatory debris related to his injury from last season” on Thursday; afterward, the Lakers confirmed that Thomas would miss the rest of the season, pegging his expected recovery time at four months.
Four months means the end of July. Free agency opens at the beginning of July, and when it does, Thomas will be an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career. One year ago, operating as a folk hero in Boston and one of the NBA’s most explosive scorers, Thomas looked poised to cash in with the biggest payday of his career. Now, he’ll hit the market in the midst of his second major hip rehabilitation in as many summers, surrounded by questions about whether he can ever return to the peak of his form.
Thomas first injured his hip after colliding with Karl-Anthony Towns on a layup attempt during a game between the Celtics and Minnesota Timberwolves on March 15, 2017. After a brief absence with what was initially diagnosed as a right knee bone bruise, Thomas returned to the Celtics, playing brilliantly down the stretch.
He led the team through playoff series victories over the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards, despite dealing with the emotional trauma of the death of his sister, Chyna, just before the start of the postseason, and despite smacking his face on the court during the first game against Washington, costing him a tooth and requiring him to undergo hours of oral surgery. Eventually, though, playing through the pain caught up with Thomas, resulting in his shelving during the conference finals matchup with LeBron James’ Cavs after re-aggravating an injury that was later revealed to be a torn labrum in his right hip, which would shelve him the rest of the season.
After weeks of consultation, Thomas and the Celtics announced that he wouldn’t need surgery to repair the labrum. Instead, he’d opt to rehabilitate the injury, with player and team anticipating that he’d be back on the TD Garden court to start to the 2017-18 campaign.
Plans changed, though.
After Kyrie Irving made it clear that he didn’t want to return to the Cavs to play second fiddle to LeBron, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge sent his current All-Star point guard (plus forward Jae Crowder, center Ante Zizic and the Brooklyn Nets’ unprotected 2018 first-round pick) to Cleveland for a new one — a decision reportedly made, at least in part, out of a concern that the 5-foot-9 Thomas, who’s made a career out of being able to blow past defenders and explode to the basket, wouldn’t have the same burst or lateral quickness after his injury.
Those concerns, thus far, have largely borne out. After missing the first 36 games of the season rehabbing, Thomas struggled mightily to regain his form, fitness and rhythm after returning to the court. In 15 games in Cleveland, Thomas averaged 14.7 points, 4.5 assists and 2.1 rebounds in 27.1 minutes per game, shooting a career-worst 36.1 percent from the field and 25.3 percent from 3-point range.
He was also a major defensive liability for a Cleveland team that already struggled to corral ball-handlers at the point of attack. After his return, the Cavs allowed 106.4 points per 100 possessions with Thomas off the floor, and a staggering 118.6 points-per-100 with him on it, turning the average Cavalier opponent into essentially the most stacked All-Star team in history during his time on the court.
That disappointing performance wasn’t all his fault; he was just knocking the rust off after seven months on the shelf, and few other Cavs had covered themselves in glory on the defensive end. But it was still a problem, and Thomas also wasn’t helping the Cavs’ offense produce, and he had reportedly played a central role in the internecine squabbling that had festered inside the Cavs’ locker room amid their struggles.
The Cavs needed an on-court shake-up and an off-court exorcism. And so, despite his wishes, off Thomas went, headed to Hollywood in February, when the Cleveland Cavaliers traded him along with center Channing Frye and a protected first-round draft pick in exchange for Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson and power forward Larry Nance Jr.
Thomas didn’t light the world on fire during his stint in L.A., averaging 15.6 points, 5.0 assists and 2.1 rebounds in 26.8 minutes per game while shooting 38.3 percent from the field and 32.7 percent from 3-point land — numbers largely commensurate with what he’d produced in Cleveland. But while he bristled some at the notion that he’d become a backup point guard on a team that starts No. 2 overall draft pick Lonzo Ball, Thomas did at least show flashes of being capable of getting back to the fire of old, topping the 20-point mark six times in 17 outings as a Laker and accepting the challenge of serving as a mentor figure to a young L.A. team.
“I’m here to help,” Thomas recently told Sam Amick of USA TODAY Sports. “I’m here to continue to get better, and I’m still – [expletive], I can reach levels that I know I haven’t reached yet, and I’m here to help along the way in whatever they need me to do, and I’m going to be a professional.”
In doing so, Thomas hoped to display improving physical health and rehabilitate his stock around the league ahead of entering unrestricted free agency this summer. In the summer of 2017, still with the Celtics, Thomas — the last player picked in the 2011 NBA draft, playing out the final year of a four-year, $27 million deal that made him one of the league’s great bargains as he ascended to All-Star, All-NBA and top-five MVP-voting status — made it clear that he expected any prospective suitor for his services come 2018 to “back up the Brinks truck” in free agency.
Given the state of financial play around the NBA, with most teams strapped for cap space after spending freely in the summer of 2016, and given how things went in Cleveland, that was almost certainly out of the cards for Thomas. Now, though, he has no more opportunities to prove himself; this is officially a lost year, leaving the 29-year-old Thomas facing some very big questions about where he might play next … and how well he’ll be compensated once he gets there.
A return to L.A. might be possible, on a short-term, short-money deal …
… provided, of course, the Lakers don’t hit a home run on their expected swing for the fences to land two maximum-salaried free agents: California native Paul George and LeBron James, the superstar with whom Thomas just made an oil-and-water pairing in Cleveland.
Given his backstory, it’s possible that the combination of a perhaps-overdue surgery and this exact scenario — nine-figure deal snatched away, nobody believes in you, everyone’s pretty sure you’re washed up — is exactly what Thomas needs to position himself to make the splash he’d hoped for, just a little later than he’d hoped to.
As recently as a couple of weeks ago, Thomas sounded positive about his prospects of eventually making it all the way back to the top of the mountain, even if this wasn’t exactly how he drew it up.
“I’m feeling good, man. Every day, every game, I’m getting better and better. I’m moving better. My body’s feeling better,” he told Amick. “It’s just — it’s going to take time to get back to that level, but also, which I tell people, my opportunity is not the same as it was when I was in Boston. Even when I was in Cleveland, it wasn’t the same as it was in Boston, so you can’t expect me to go out and average 30 points when I’m not given that same opportunity.
“If that opportunity comes back, and when it does — because I know it will — I promise you: I’ll be more than ready to take advantage of that opportunity, and be back on top.”
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