There’s no way to describe what’s happened to Isaiah Thomas other than it stinks.
The 5-foot-9 former last pick of the NBA draft was one of the league’s greatest ever success stories as recently as two years ago, emerging as an All-NBA talent and the unquestioned leader of the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed after submitting one of the greatest offensive seasons in basketball history for the Boston Celtics.
Now, after multiple seasons spent battling his way back from the hip injury he aggravated during that 2017 playoff run, Thomas finds himself outside the Denver Nuggets’ playoff rotation. He never took the floor in Tuesday’s blowout of the Minnesota Timberwolves, and Nuggets coach Mike Malone conceded afterward that he trimmed Thomas from his eight-man rotation in preparation for the playoffs.
“It’s never about Isaiah. It’s never about any individual,” Malone informed the media, according to The Denver Post’s Sean Keeler. “It’s about what I think is best for our team. And I made the decision to shorten the rotation, only played eight guys in the first quarter. And I’m going to continue to do that for the time being.”
So, where does that leave the 30-year-old two-time All-Star — once bound for a nine-figure contract — now that he appears to have fallen short of a post-hip-surgery goal to resurrect his value on a league minimum deal in Denver? Thomas is in the same boat, paddling against a tide that has tried washing him for two years.
The Celtics years seem like forever ago
During the 2016-17 campaign, Thomas averaged 28.9 points on 62.5 percent true shooting and 5.9 assists per game, numbers only ever matched by Stephen Curry in his unanimous MVP season. His fourth-quarter production — matched only by Russell Westbrook that year — led a Celtics team that started Al Horford, Amir Johnson, Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley to 53 wins and home-court advantage in the East.
Playing with heart that belied his diminutive frame, Thomas became beloved well beyond Boston, no small feat in a sports landscape that has grown weary of the city. He further tugged at our heartstrings on the opening night of the 2017 playoffs, when teary-eyed he found solace on the court following the death of his sister.
Two weeks later, after receiving 10 hours of medical treatment for a busted jaw on what would’ve been Chyna Thomas’ 23rd birthday, Thomas painted his masterpiece, scoring 53 points in an overtime win that pushed the Celtics closer to a conference finals berth. Few players have ever held as close to a 100 percent approval rating as “The Little Guy” had in that moment. And then it all unraveled.
In Game 2 of an Eastern Conference finals series opposite LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, Thomas aggravated his right hip impingement for the third time in as many months and second time in as many weeks, ending his season. Three months later, the Celtics traded him along with several other assets for Kyrie Irving, the No. 1 pick in the same draft he was selected 60th. It was as cold a reminder of the space he was supposed to fill in the NBA as there could have been.
Boston’s hero becomes a Cleveland villain
The half-season before Thomas would make his Cavs debut left plenty of time for finger-pointing. Thomas believed the Celtics did him wrong, first by failing to properly identify the risks of playing through injury and then by discarding him when the worst-case scenario resulted. The Celtics maintained that Thomas was properly warned prior to the playoffs and that the trade had more to do with their concerns about meeting his contract demands in 2018 free agency, regardless of injury.
Thomas repeatedly made reference to the Celtics backing up a “Brinks truck” for his next deal, even unveiling custom slides to that effect. He had designs on a supermax contract if he could return to All-NBA form before the bill on his past performance came due. But Boston was hesitant to hand $200 million to a player who might have trouble ever repeating his historic 2016-17 performance — whose shelf life, quite frankly, had an expiration date before the hip injury confirmed it.
The emotions of his sister’s death and the bond he had with Boston further complicated an already delicate conversation about his injury and the subsequent trade, so much so that he vowed never to talk to Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge ever again and publicly clashed with the organization over when and how a video tribute would honor his two-plus years with the team.
Matters only worsened for Thomas in Cleveland, where he rushed his return to the reeling Cavaliers and was almost immediately scapegoated by James for failing to fill Irving’s void. Thomas was fingered as the fall guy for the testy team meeting that fully fractured the Cavs — one in which he and other teammates reportedly questioned Kevin Love’s motives following his anxiety-fueled exit from a midseason game. Two weeks later, Thomas’ expiring contract served as filler in a trade with the Los Angeles Lakers. Less than a year after his heroics, he left Cleveland a villain.
That slow grind can’t shake the rust
Thomas’ short-lived tenure on the Lakers was ill-fated from the start, fraught with complaints about his role on a team trying to showcase its young talent. Seventeen games into his stint with L.A., he finally elected to have the hip surgery he probably should have underwent some 10 months earlier. With that, he exited the NBA consciousness as quickly as he entered it, ruled out for another 10 months or so.
The Brinks truck that was supposed to deliver a fortune akin to the three-year, $100 million deal Kyle Lowry had signed a year earlier was instead met with few suitors only offering the veteran minimum. Seeking playing time and a winning environment again, Thomas ultimately chose Denver — and has since found only the latter.
Thomas scored eight points in 13 minutes in his Nuggets debut on Feb. 13, a two-point win over the Sacramento Kings team that discarded him four years ago, and for one night he felt the love again from a league that has rooted for him ever since. His months away were marked by inspirational social media posts punctuated by his signature #thatslowgrind hashtag, and he had finally worked his way back.
Now, another nine games later, with another sub-40 percent shooting percentage to his name and not nearly enough time to feel his way out of the funk, Thomas has been shelved again. Days from a return trip to Boston that should reveal the long-awaited video tribute, he is third on Denver’s point guard depth chart behind 22-year-old Jamal Murray and the emerging Monte Morris, out of the playoff rotation.
How will Thomas write his final chapter?
On the other side of Denver’s pursuit of a championship is another free agency for the greatest 5-foot-something player in NBA history. Barring another storybook turn for Thomas in these playoffs, more minimum deals likely await for a guy now north of his 30th birthday. He again must prove himself, either with more minutes on a point guard-less lottery team or in a limited role on another contender taking a flier.
The fairytale ending would be a Celtics reunion, maybe a Sixth Man of the Year submission, the Finals appearance that never was and a fat contract at the end.
The two sides made amends on a free agency call last summer, and Thomas ended his conversation with Ainge by saying, “I’d just like to let you know that I'd love to come back.” Boston was stacked with point guards then, but this July could leave them without one or more of them, and Brad Stevens still has the old playbook.
But pro sports rarely leave room for storybook endings, even for a guy whose entire career once seemed scripted by Disney. Two years removed from his legendary season, Thomas is closer to the end of his career than the start of it, with that one magical run to show for it. In place of the nine-figure deal that seemed so certain is the love of those who watched him beat the odds before and hope he can again.
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