Storyline: Isaiah Thomas Free Agency

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Thomas has dropped in free-agent stature almost through no fault of his own. The problem here is his hip, which front-office execs around the league fear is either pre-arthritic or already arthritic. Maybe the only way that Thomas has hurt his own free agency has been by not choosing to have hip surgery sooner during last season, when he was an All-Star and an MVP candidate for the Celtics. “It’s a red flag that he did not have surgery on it,” one general manager told Sporting News. “If you have a problem that can be fixed heading into your free-agent year, you get surgery. If there is concern that you can’t fix it with surgery, that means probably there is something more wrong. It is something that, obviously, the doctors will look at closely.”

Off the floor, he would be subject to more swelling and increased pain. Of course, he’s gotten accustomed to hip pain in recent years. But any team that signs him this summer will protect itself against the possibility that Thomas has serious hip damage. “I think everybody likes the guy,” the GM said. “You root for him. But do you want to pay him $12 or 14 million when you know you’re also paying for all the headaches that his health could give you? Someone will get him, but it’s going to be a low-risk deal.”

A year ago, Thomas seemed destined to land a maximum contract in the summer of 2018. Now, he faces a questionable market in which there are already only a few teams with max slots available. Will anyone want to spend that kind of money on a player with an unproven hip? Thomas said he was unconcerned with free agency. “The results will show that the surgery only fixed it,” he said. “The world knew that I never got my labrum fixed when I was going through that and trying to heal on my own. … The decision that I made it felt like it was the best decision for me personally, individually, as a basketball player for the rest of my career.”

“I don’t know what will happen in terms of [Isaiah Thomas’] contract, but he deserves to make money in this game,” said Olynyk, who signed a four-year, $50 million deal with the Heat this summer. “He’s brought a lot to the game, brought a lot to that city in Boston. Anywhere he goes, he gives his heart and soul to the game of basketball. Last year, [during our playoff run] we didn’t know it, but he was sacrificing his own career for everybody in that city. No one knew that at the time.

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.”

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.”

And the system? “I was pleased with [Isaiah Thomas’] willingness to come off the bench in L.A.,” David Griffin said. “[It] will be very important for next season that teams believe he is willing to do whatever it takes to win and isn’t caught up in the semantics of a starting role. His willingness to speak up immediately in Cleveland was a terrible fit for the locker room, but not entirely a negative. If he is in a role as veteran leader, as he was in L.A., it can be important, positive trait.” Added Billy King: “He needs a system that allows him to shoot whenever he wants. This year, you heard some of the knocks on him before he got to Boston. That he wasn’t the greatest teammate. That you couldn’t find the right system to put him in because he needed to shoot all the time. Then he went to Boston, and Boston needed him to shoot all the time. That’s also probably why they were looking to move him, because they were building around Gordon Hayward and looking to play a different way.”

And while Thomas sees himself as a starter, he told The Times he wouldn’t rule out returning to the Lakers in a role similar to what he has now, coming off the bench for significant minutes. “I like it here, I like the situation I’m in, the system, coaching staff,” Thomas said. “Organization’s been great to me. If things work out I would love to be here. You just never know. With free agency you’ve got to keep your options open. I have no complaints since I’ve stepped foot and put a Laker uniform on.”

“I want to be great,” Thomas said. “I want to win MVP, I want to continue to be an All-Star. Their goals probably aren’t that yet. Coming straight into the league especially at 19, 20 years old. They’re in it for the experience just to figure things out on their own. And then on top of getting to the playoffs and winning championships, I want all that and it might not be their mindset yet. But at the same time being on this team I’m trying to put that in their heads that you can do whatever you put your mind to. Why not think big?”

One of these days – doubters be darned – Isaiah Thomas plans on being a headliner again too. “I’m not no sixth man,” he declared in an interview with USA TODAY Sports this week. “And I won’t be a sixth man (in the future). I just want everybody to know that, like clear as can be. I’m a two-time All-Star and a starter who has done things that a lot of people in this league haven’t done (when) given that opportunity. But I got traded into a situation I can’t control. There’s nothing bad against (Lakers coach) Luke Walton. There’s nothing bad against the Los Angeles Lakers. I’m taking advantage of the opportunity they’ve given me, and then (we’ll) end the season off strong. And that’s all I can do. I’m not coming in here saying, ‘Oh, I want this, or this is going to happen.’ No, that’s not me. I’m just going to come in here and be a professional, and when my name is called I’m going to be more than ready for any opportunity I’m given.”

And Isaiah Thomas, who has learned time and again that he can only control so much, will keep searching for the hoops happiness that has been so tough to come by of late. “At the end of the day, when free agency comes, I’m going to go where I’m wanted, and wanted the most, and wanted to be Isaiah Thomas,” he said. “And I’ve got to make the best decision for me and my family, and that’s all that I’m going to be worried about when that time comes. But for right now, I’m a Laker and I’m here at least until the end of the season and I’m going to do whatever I can to make this team better.”
5 months ago via ESPN

Isaiah Thomas isn’t sure what free agency holds for him this summer but said Thursday that his “résumé speaks for itself” and that if given the opportunity he can do what he did in Boston again. “All you need is one team to love you,” Thomas said after the Los Angeles Lakers’ morning shootaround in Miami. “It’s like the draft all over again. You just need one team. So that is all I am doing and working toward. Until then, I am focused on doing whatever I can to make this the best team possible. “My resume speaks for itself. What I can do on the basketball floor speaks for itself. I can’t do nothing but control what I can control, and that is taking advantage of any opportunity that I am given and playing my heart out. But come July, I got to weigh my options to do what is best for myself and my family.”

After years of wild spending, only a few teams have much cap room—and none as much as the Lakers. With the No. 1 pick they got from the Cavs (Cleveland’s own pick, not Brooklyn’s), the Lakers might even get someone to take Luol Deng’s $18 million a year, creating two max slots with $12 million left over. With necessary discounts from James’ $35 million and George’s $30 million, Thomas, on an expiring deal, could have a place here, not as a ball-dominating point guard but an explosive sixth man who could be a huge plus in today’s fast-paced, firepower-oriented, floor-spacing game.

The best part for the Lakers is that Thomas could work in any case, helping them recruit more stars, whether they land two, or one, or none. For the first time in a long time, their strategy isn’t hit-or-miss but flexibile. Thomas’ struggles returning from surgery dimmed the memory of his years leading the Celtics back into prominence, making him an icon among icons in their market. Coming off the bench would make Isaiah’s size easier to work around. It’s not something he would have embraced in Boston of Cleveland but he might here, knowing he has to find somewhere he fits in.
6 months ago via ESPN

One, the Cavs will be under some pressure to retain him because he’s a prime asset from the Kyrie Irving trade. Though the Cavs made it clear behind the scenes that they saw the Nets’ pick as the primary carrot, the Nets’ stronger-than-expected play this season is threatening to push that pick deeper into the lottery. Currently, it is projected to be the ninth pick. A team, even a rebuilding team as the Cavs might be if James walks, cannot allow prime assets to leave for nothing. Second, Gilbert loves underdogs like Thomas. He sees himself as an underdog, a self-made billionaire who went to Michigan State, not the Ivy League. In 2016, Gilbert was the driving force behind paying $2.4 million to buy a draft pick to take Kay Felder, an undersized point guard from Oakland University who attracted Gilbert because of his ability to overcome challenges. Felder didn’t make it with the Cavs, but Thomas is the embodiment of what the Cavs were dreaming of with Felder.

Adrian Wojnarowski: “It puts Isaiah Thomas in a really difficult place. He’s gonna be a free agent at the end of this season and he’s looking for the biggest financial score of his career. And both teams dragging him through this is really unfair to his future because he may very well get through and be fully recovered when he gets into free agency next year. The focus is really on how soon can he play this season. But it’s certainly damaging his value around the league, and probably unfairly so.”

But questions remain about Thomas, who was hobbled by a serious hip injury during the most recent playoffs and is still set to undergo tests before training camp to establish his status. What’s more, the fact that he infamously called for the Celtics to “Back up the Brink’s truck” next summer when he’s eligible for a huge payday means Cleveland will have to eventually find clarity on this front. For James’ part, he’s on record as a huge fan of Thomas. “(The Celtics) got a clear-cut star and that’s Isaiah,” James said in late December. “The notion that they don’t have a star I think is ‘fugazi’ as Donnie Brasco would say. Earlier I was watching the movie. So, they’re a good team for a reason and it starts with the head of the snake and that’s Isaiah.”

For Thomas’ part, he swears he isn’t pondering the possibilities just yet. “Honestly, I haven’t looked that far, but I know when that time comes it’s definitely going to be a decision that I make that’s best for me and my family,” Thomas told USA TODAY Sports on a recent visit to the NBA A to Z podcast (before the trade deadline). “I love Boston. They changed my career. They’ve given me an opportunity of a lifetime, and I can’t thank them enough. But at the end of the day, as a businessman and as a professional basketball player, I’ve got to keep my options open. “I would love to be in Boston. I would love to bring a championship to Boston, and hopefully one day be a Boston Celtics legend like Danny Ainge said…You know this game is business, and you never know what’s going to happen. So I’ve definitely got to keep my options open.”

“The Lakers (have) always been a team I wanted to go to, I mean desperately – before I was on the Celtics,” Thomas said in the A to Z interview. “My Dad, being a Laker fan (growing up in Tacoma, Wash.), I was brainwashed as a kid of being a Laker fan, so that’s all I looked up to. I definitely (wanted to go there), especially in the draft (when) they had four second-round picks. “And when I did work out for the Lakers, they were interested in me and they thought they would pick me – which, they didn’t. And also, when I was a free agent, they were showing interest but that was the year they were waiting on, like, Carmelo (Anthony) and those types of guys to decide if they would come to LA, so I wasn’t like the first option. And then they ended up getting Jeremy Lin, so…”
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