BOSTON – It’s late March 2018, but the news of Isaiah Thomas’ season-ending hip surgery has me thinking of late March 2017. When Thomas was an MVP candidate, not a twice-traded fallen star. When Thomas was a starter for East-leading Boston, not Lonzo Ball’s backup for lottery-bound L.A. When Thomas seemed destined for a max-level, long-term contract, not lucky to land a lucrative one-year deal.
What a difference a year makes, huh? Instead of entering free agency as a 29-point-per-game scorer coming off an inspirational postseason appearance, Thomas will become temporarily teamless with a bad hip and a long list of clubs uncertain what he is outside of Boston’s ecosystem. Instead of steaming toward a place among Celtics greats, Thomas could be fighting Devin Booker for shots in Phoenix.
Don’t laugh — it could happen.
It’s depressing, really, because Thomas doesn’t deserve this. Maybe his strengths were magnified in the Celtics’ system — coach Brad Stevens has a knack for doing that — but Thomas has earned every nickel for which he’s played. He was the 60th pick in a draft in which nobody liked him. He was undervalued by Sacramento and discarded by Phoenix before finding a coach (Stevens) and a GM (Danny Ainge) who believed in him in Boston. They didn’t just give him playing time, either — he earned it.
“He’s a tough sucker, man,” former Celtics assistant coach Walter McCarty told Yahoo Sports. “He played through pain. He’d go down, he’d get right back up. IT is always IT. Win, lose, he’s the same giving, loving person. He worked hard. He was in the gym more than anybody. He put the time in. He did all the right things.”
Much of what’s happened the last 12 months has been out of Thomas’ control. Foregoing hip surgery last summer was puzzling — the two months spent figuring out if he would need it, more so — but doctors deemed it the right call. He struggled in Cleveland, but shaking off the rust for a team with a championship-or-bust mentality couldn’t have been easy. His insistence on taking a leadership position on a new team was grating, but the Cavs shipped Thomas to L.A. because he couldn’t play with LeBron James, not because he called out Kevin Love.
So what’s next? There are only a handful of teams with real cap space this summer and even fewer where Thomas makes sense. The Sixers will have room — they also have Markelle Fultz. The Mavericks have room. But there’s Dennis Smith, too. Chicago and Atlanta are rebuilding and make no sense for a near-30-year-old point guard coming off a brutal season.
“No one is going long there [with a deal], in all likelihood,” former Cavs GM David Griffin told Yahoo Sports. “[The hip] is a very significant factor. His whole game is predicated upon quickness and creating shot separation. If he can’t do that, he is a small non-defender.”
Said former Nets GM Billy King: “The hip is a problem. Historically, hips are a tough recovery. I would put a hip injury up there with an Achilles injury, as far as toughest recovery, for a guy his age. His game is based on speed. How does he recover? With his size, he needs that quickness.” [/restrict]