Frivolous or not, Isaiah Thomas made very telling comments regarding his impending free agency last summer. They went as follows (via USA Today Sports):
“‘I’m a max (contract) guy, so I deserve the max,’ Thomas told CSN New England on Friday, echoing comments he made a year ago. ‘We’ve just got to continue to take care of business on the court and let the cards fall where they may. I’m happy for all the guards and all the other guys getting their money, because they deserve it, but my time’s coming.
‘They know they’ve got to bring the Brinks truck out’ Thomas said with a smile.”
Unfortunately, after the season Thomas has had, it would appear the Brinks truck can stay parked right where it is.
The diminutive floor general was only able to partake in 32 contests in 2017-18 – 32 contests in which he failed to show he was close to being the difference-maker he became over the prior two years due to a troublesome hip injury. In those 32 games, Thomas’ averages were decent – 15.2 points and 4.8 assists nightly – but they came on paltry shooting splits of 37.3/29.3/89.3.
Even more troubling is the fact that Thomas couldn’t finish the season, as the same hip ailment flared up again, forcing Thomas to shut things down on Mar. 28.
Although the Los Angeles Lakers point guard claims that the problem is now fixed and he’s on the road to being 100 percent healthy, his lingering injury will undoubtedly be a cause for concern among teams potentially interested in acquiring his services this summer.
The Brinks truck won’t be appearing for Thomas, but there’s a chance he can land either long-term security in the form of a multi-year deal from a rebuilding organization or a more lucrative one-year contract from a team with contention on its mind.
We break down Thomas’ likeliest suitors.
A rebuilding franchise with money to spend this summer who could choose to use some of it on a talent like Thomas will be the Chicago Bulls.
Team vice president of basketball ops John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman are both sitting on seats that couldn’t get much hotter heading into 2018-19. Perhaps taking a swing for the fences on a flier who may potentially pay off as bountifully as Thomas could be a way for the front-office tandem to buy themselves some job security going forward.
Especially if the 5-foot-9 point guard can find even a bit of his 2015-2017 magic.
As far as how a team fit would go, the Bulls do already have a young lead guard they’re invested in by the name of Kris Dunn, who, after struggling as a rookie, showed promise in his sophomore campaign this season. Putting up 13.4 points and 6.0 assists per game in 2017-18 while exhibiting outstanding defense acumen, Dunn proved he most certainly has a place in this league.
However, his inefficient scoring (44.5 effective field-goal percentage for his career) and his advanced age for a second-year player (Dunn’s already 24) still pose question marks as to what his exact upside may be.
If Chicago’s brass isn’t completely sold on the Providence product’s star potential, they could take a chance on Thomas, who has already displayed, if nothing else, special offensive abilities when he’s performing at his peak capacities.
Financially, the Bulls are set to be about $40 million under the projected salary cap of $101 million, leaving them options as to what they can offer prospective free agents.
Regarding a potential Thomas contract, something along the lines of a two-year, $16 million agreement (with a player option on Year-2) would make sense. After all, Lou Williams, another undersized score-first guard but one not plagued by a bad hip, just signed for that exact price, albeit for three years, free of options.
Thomas can use the two-year deal (which, in reality, is more of a one-year deal) to convince teams he’s all the way back next season, before hitting unrestricted free agency in 2019 in search of the payday he covets.
It could prove to be a worthwhile gamble for what’s starting to resemble a lame duck front office.
San Antonio Spurs
With Tony Parker on his last legs and Dejounte Murray not showing much as a scoring threat, the San Antonio Spurs could find themselves lacking a game-changer at the 1-spot heading into next season. Gregg Popovich and general manager RC Buford could choose to address that concern with Thomas.
For starters, it’s not like it’d be the first time they signed a once-great player coming off a major injury scare. Rudy Gay tore his Achilles in his last year with the Sacramento Kings, joined the Spurs this past summer and exceeded expectations by providing relatively efficient scoring and better-than-expected toughness on the less glamorous side of the ball.
If there’s any team that could perform a similar turnaround with Thomas, it’s the Spurs. And if Thomas can get healthy and find his old form with San Antonio, he could provide a huge boost to the team’s mediocre offense, which ranked 17th in efficiency in 2017-18.
As far as potential terms, the Spurs are set to be over the cap to start 2018-19, leaving them with just the standard/non-taxpayer mid-level exception (MLE) to offer Thomas, which is projected to be worth $8.6 million.
That price is probably around the most the former Washington floor general will receive on the open market anyway, so provided there’s actual interest between the two parties, contract value shouldn’t be a problem. San Antonio could opt to offer Thomas the full standard MLE on a two-year basis, with a player option on the second season, which is the exact same deal Gay got last summer.
New York Knicks
Lacking both star power (outside of a certain Latvian big man) and competent point guard play, the New York Knicks could be a very intriguing landing spot for Thomas.
The young Frenchman Frank Ntilikina seemed like a lock to man the spot for years to come, but New York seems transfixed by the idea of playing him off the ball, where his shaky ball-handling and limited court vision may be masked more easily. And the recently acquired Emmanuel Mudiay, another young point guard set to be a Knick for the next two seasons, hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire since landing in the Big Apple.
So why not go out and sign Thomas to take over the spot for the next year or two?
At best, he becomes New York’s most exciting point guard since Stephon Marbury, forming a fantastic pick-and-pop partnership with Kristaps Porzingis. And at worst, if Thomas flames out and fails to find his old form, the Knicks are in the midst of a rebuild anyway – as long as he doesn’t take away from the 19-year-old Ntilikina’s development, signing him could prove a worthwhile risk.
Monetarily, a potential union between Thomas and New York gets tricky. Essentially, unless the team figures out a way to get out from under Joakim Noah’s albatross of a contract this summer, be it through trade or buyout, all they’ll have to offer the undersized point guard is the standard MLE.
Would that be enough to entice Thomas? Maybe. But if the Knicks are offering the same contract figure as a contender who also shows interest in Thomas, which situation would the two-time All-Star favor?
Impossible to know, but perhaps the chance of being a team’s top perimeter scorer would appeal to Thomas, who has thrived best in situations where he’s unquestionably been the guy on offense.
Los Angeles Lakers
If no other team steps up to the plate as a Thomas suitor, a return to his current team, the Lakers, can’t be ruled out.
No franchise is set to have more available cap space this summer than Los Angeles, who have been rumored to be strongly interested in chasing the two biggest names on the market: LeBron James and Paul George.
If the Lakers land either of the two elite talents (especially the former), Thomas’ chances of returning greatly diminish. However, if Magic Johnson and Co. strike out with both, bringing back their current core, including Julius Randle and Thomas, wouldn’t be the worst fall-back plan.
Thomas’ best stretch of 2017-18 came as a Laker; in an 11-game sample size between Feb. 23 and Mar. 14, the former Boston Celtic put up 18.4 points, 5.8 assists and 2.5 three-pointers nightly while shooting 36.4 percent from deep and 93.6 from the charity stripe.
Although Thomas certainly won’t be the guy in Los Angeles, not with so much invested in Lonzo Ball’s future, reports state that the Lakers are interested in bringing the seven-year vet back on a one-year deal, similar to the one they gave Kentavious Caldwell-Pope last summer. Via ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski:
“Despite a looming surgical procedure on his right hip, the Los Angeles Lakers continue to hold an interest in exploring a free-agent deal with guard Isaiah Thomas this summer, league sources told ESPN on Wednesday. [….] Lakers coach Luke Walton and the front office have been encouraged by Thomas’ fit with the team, and Walton feels he’s had a positive impact on the younger players, team sources told ESPN.”
The contract Caldwell-Pope received from the Lakers was worth one year and $17.8 million. Los Angeles likely won’t go that high with Thomas, but could offer him something ranging between $10 million and $12 million, as long as the contract doesn’t go longer than one season.
That type of deal would give Los Angeles an excellent sixth man who will be eager to prove himself, and give Thomas the freedom to explore the market again in the summer of 2019, when way more teams will have available cap space to use.
You can find Frank Urbina on Twitter @frankurbina_.
HoopsHype’s Alberto de Roa contributed to this article.