On March 26th, it was announced that Isaiah Thomas had parted from the Los Angeles Lakers in order to address his nagging hip. The torn labrum injury which kept him out of the tail-end of the Boston Celtics’ 2017 playoff run was reported to be something more severe the following September. By then, Thomas had been traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a jarring deal for Kyrie Irving; Thomas wouldn’t play a game for the Cavs until January 2018. Still, Thomas at least appeared to have returned too early: his stats were down, and his mobility was noticeably labored. It became apparent that a hip injury is a bit more complicated than a sprained ankle or a knee strain–obvious enough for the Cavaliers to do away with Thomas as part of a midseason team rebuild. Shipped to L.A., Thomas began looking like the I.T. of old. Apparently, he wasn’t yet feeling like the I.T. of old.
This isn’t how Isaiah Thomas expected to close out his 2017-18 campaign. But nothing about this season has been comfortable for Thomas, who’s watched his career transform into something much uglier than it was shaping up to be a year ago. Let’s take a look back at Isaiah’s difficult, storied season and what lit its fuse.
Isaiah Thomas is short. And in spite of his talent, he will be stigmatized by his size until he retires from the NBA. NBA players under six feet tall have, historically, had to work immeasurably hard against the 6’7″ benchmark in order to prove they belong. But to be the focal point of a franchise? Good luck.
In 2017, Isaiah Thomas looked ready to break the status quo. His 2016-17 season was inspiring. Enchanting Bostonians with his reliably high-functioning fourth-quarter play (affectionately dubbed “I.T. Time”) and his dazzling affinity for setting new career-highs nearly every night, it wasn’t long before he’d hear “MVP” chanted at him as he stood at the foul line in TD Garden. Thomas had hardly been a Celtic two and a half seasons, yet Boston fans already regarded him with Bird-like adoration. In an enormous 2016-17 crusade, Isaiah willed the Celtics to the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference, besting LeBron James and the Cavaliers.
Two months before inevitably meeting the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, Thomas injured his right hip during a game against the Timberwolves. He would miss the next two games, but returned to action with no apparent lingering damage, averaging 27.8 points over the last twelve games of the regular season. The Celtics entered the playoffs with quintessential green-and-white confidence, reminiscent of the Championship run of nine years prior.
While the Cavaliers were sweeping the Pacers and Raptors out of recent memory, Boston was struggling through long series with the Bulls and the Wizards. Isaiah officially re-aggravated his hip in Game 6 of a grueling seven against Washington; after Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, in which he scored just 2 points in 18 minutes, Thomas was officially ruled out for the rest of the postseason. The Celtics credited a “right femoral-acetabular impingement with a labral tear.” They lost the series 4-1 without Isaiah, who described in a recent E:60 documentary feature that sitting out those games was one of the most frustrating things he’s ever had to deal with.
Isaiah, set for free agency in 2018, had been campaigning for a max payday. Many felt that he’d earned it. He came in fifth in MVP voting behind players who’d produced historic seasons: only Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, and LeBron James came before Thomas. It wouldn’t have been controversial for Celtics President Danny Ainge to offer Isaiah a five-year max contract.
Come July, Kyrie Irving would change everything.
When Irving requested a trade out of Cleveland, more attention was devoted to his allegedly fractured relationship with LeBron James and his frustration at an NBA Finals loss than to the more personal reasons why he might want to pursue something new. Kyrie’s shocking request of the franchise that drafted him culminated in a summertime premier point guard exchange. But just as surprising was Danny Ainge blindsiding Isaiah Thomas, with whom he’d had a good relationship, and on whose shoulders the Celtics just rode to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Mitch Lawrence of Forbes argues that the Celtics’ decision to trade Isaiah before his contract year came down to money and Kyrie was something akin to a consolation prize. The forward-thinking Ainge didn’t want to expend his salary cap on Isaiah’s max contract, and if it came down to it, would likely have offered I.T. a smaller three-year deal come 2018. Instead of taking a risk on an older player in Thomas, Ainge saw Irving as young, elite, and established–plus, his being half a foot taller than Isaiah undoubtedly was no blemish on his record.
In addition to the finances, there’s no question that Isaiah’s lame hip played a role in the trade. The existence of it actually put the Irving-Thomas trade on hold until the Cavs could secure something extra from the Celtics, hinting that Isaiah’s hip could be a long-term liability.
Cleveland has no short term concerns on Thomas' health. No surgery was needed on hip. Cavs are getting motivated All-Star in contract year. https://t.co/g4lRhcGmkb
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) August 23, 2017
Opposed to surgery, Isaiah opted to rehab his hip. This didn’t dampen his spirits–he was excited by the opportunity to join LeBron James and felt winning a championship was imminent. But it was clear he wouldn’t be ready to play the 2017-18 season opener, and before long, he was a permanent fixture on the Cavs bench, clad in a black blazer. Mystery swirled around his return date, first projected to be around Christmastime, then January. I.T. was publicly working out on-court before Cavs games, and his shot was looking good. This gave little indication of what was to come.
Isaiah made his season debut for the Cavaliers on January 2nd. He would reveal later in the month that he was closer to “75, 80 percent” than to 100, and it showed: his shooting percentage was plummeting, and his defensive shortcomings were blinding. The Cavs struggled as they attempted to employ an aging lineup to no avail. It was rumored that Thomas was causing locker room tension; Isaiah, who is often vocal with the media, wouldn’t hesitate to point to where he and the Cavaliers were failing. It was a small sample size in the doldrums of the season, but the Cavs went 7-8 in the 15 games I.T. played for them. On February 8, six weeks after his first game for the wine and gold, Isaiah was traded to the Lakers.
Considering how GM Koby Altman and the Cavaliers orchestrated their roster revamp, it’s hard to accuse them of targeting Isaiah as their most debilitating problem. The roster was simply weak. Jae Crowder, their supposed 3-and-D specialist, was underperforming in both areas. Dwyane Wade could only manage so much sixth-man duty at the ripe age of 36. Derrick Rose was inconsequential. Remaining members of the 2016 championship team J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson, and Kevin Love were struggling by accessory. Iman Shumpert was a ghost. 22-year-old rookie Cedi Osman and 36-year-old José Calderón were often out-playing their most established teammates. The Cavaliers front office had a choice: change things immediately, or wait it out. But in order to save the season, and temporarily save LeBron James from prematurely deciding to leave Cleveland in the offseason, the Cavs acted.
Isaiah describes his stint with Cleveland as a “tough situation”, referring to a cocktail of difficulties: acclimating to new teammates, adjusting to a different system of play, and the difficulty of regaining personal rhythm. But when you’re playing next to the greatest basketball player in the world, everything is magnified. Cleveland pulled the trigger quickly, but Isaiah didn’t take it as personally as he did in Boston.
Isaiah reported to the Lakers, where he had little choice but to accept a sixth-man role behind L.A. phenom Lonzo Ball. Thomas would be assuming a veteran role on a team full of budding young players: Ball, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, and Kyle Kuzma are the Lakers’ headliners, and they’re all younger than 24.
In the context of the Cavaliers, Isaiah’s play for the Lakers has improved considerably: over 17 games, he’s averaged 15.6 points on more field goal attempts, with a better 3-point percentage. His assists are up too, despite only starting one game. But when we remember Boston, where Isaiah averaged 28.9 points and was an MVP candidate, these stats are off-putting.
Isaiah’s dreams of a max contract are fading. With his free agency pending, and L.A. purportedly looking to attract either one or two superstar free agents to put around their young core, it doesn’t seem likely that Isaiah will emerge from July a well-compensated Laker. And now that his notorious hip is back in the headlines, it’s even more difficult to predict where I.T. will end up this summer, nevermind how much he’ll be paid.
Isaiah Thomas is a special player. But his narrative has changed–NBA audiences now perceive him as a bad locker room guy who couldn’t handle playing with LeBron James, too short and chronically injured worth taking a financial risk on.
But let’s also remember that Isaiah Thomas is the guy who played through his younger sister’s tragic death, violently lost a tooth, and endured a crippling hip injury all in the same month just to prove his devotion to the Celtics. Isaiah Thomas has heart. He has the talent, and he has the will. Let’s see who gives him another chance.