In the summer of 2016, as he was stuck on a relatively low-paying contract he’d signed years earlier and lesser players were landing massive deals, Isaiah Thomas looked ahead to his 2018 free agency: “They better bring out the Brinks truck.” He backed up that statement with a top-five finish in MVP voting then declared again last summer: “I’m a max guy. I deserve the max. … My time is coming. They know they’ve got to bring the Brinks truck.”
Thomas’ fall has been sharp and costly. The Celtics traded him to the Cavaliers last summer, and his physical was so troubling, Boston sent Cleveland an extra pick to complete the deal. Thomas tried to rehab his hip without surgery, missed a long chunk of the season then came back hobbled. Even on a team with LeBron James and slowed himself, Thomas played his same ball-dominant style anyway – to the detriment of the team. Thomas was destructively inefficient as he tried to work his way back. He also played a part in the Cavs’ toxic chemistry. The Cavaliers traded him to the Lakers before the deadline due more to his expiring contract than playing ability. Thomas played a little in Los Angeles then finally underwent surgery.
As he found this summer, there just isn’t much of a market for 29-year-old 5-foot-9 point guards with attitude concerns and far larger health concerns.
Maybe that isn’t fair. Perhaps, Thomas – who was the very last pick in the 2011 draft and has repeatedly exceeded expectations – deserves more benefit of the doubt.
Maybe it is fair. Small guards tend to drop off quickly around Thomas’ age, and his hip injury only exacerbates worry.
It’s definitely historic.
Clyde Drexler earned $1,378,000 while placing second in MVP voting. He earned the same salary the following season then got a raise to $1,578,000 the season after.
That’s the last time a player earned less than Thomas’ $2,029,463 salary for next season while finishing top five for MVP or within two seasons after.
It was also more than 20 years ago.
The salary cap has risen considerably since, especially for the last few years with the new national TV contracts in effect – part of the reason Thomas thought he’d get paid. Instead, he’ll earn less than 2% of the salary cap.
That’s by far the lowest mark for a player in a top-five MVP season or within two seasons after.
Here are the smallest percentages of the salary cap a player earned in a top-five MVP season or within two seasons after since 1991 (as far back as Ryan Bernardoni’s salary data goes):
Especially disappointing for Thomas: He also ranks No. 2 and No. 4 on the above “leaderboard.” He outperformed his previous contract – a four-year, $27 million deal signed in 2014 – and believed he’d be rewarded handsomely this year. But he got hurt and declined then settled for the minimum.
Only Chris Paul – who finished second for 2008 MVP while still on his rookie-scale contract – comes close to Thomas’ percentage of the salary cap while in a top-five MVP season or within two seasons after. In fact, most of the seasons on the above list were by players on their rookie-scale deals.
The most comparable veterans are Scottie Pippen, who finished sixth for 1996 MVP, and Drexler. Drexler eventually got a raise to a $9.81 million salary (and traded to the Rockets the same season). Pippen also got his massive deal in Houston, part of his trade from the Bulls.
But Thomas’ big payday remains elusive.
He’ll have a chance to prove himself in Denver and regain his Brinks-truck momentum. But he’ll do so backing up Jamal Murray, and Thomas will be on the wrong side of 30 when he re-enters free agency. Even if he stays healthy next season, teams will not forget about his hip injury.
This story probably won’t have a happy ending.