Fresh off a second-team All-NBA nod, Isaiah Thomas said the following to A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston (via AJ Neuharth-Keusch of USA Today) in July 2017 when discussing his upcoming free agency.
“I’m a max [contract] guy, so I deserve the max. 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 Brink’s truck out.”
Since that time, Thomas has been traded twice while working his way back from a hip injury that sidelined him for six-plus months. Whereas the diminutive point guard once dreamed of a long-term deal with a $30-plus million starting salary, he now may find it difficult to land a third of that this summer.
The first red flag arose in August, when the Boston Celtics shipped Thomas to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the deal that netted them Kyrie Irving. The Cavs temporarily held up the deal due to concern over Thomas’ hip, but they eventually acquiesced when Boston tossed in additional draft compensation. In September, Jason Lloyd of The Athletic reported Thomas’ timetable to return remained uncertain, as he was dealing with a loss of cartilage and arthritis in his hip in addition to a torn labrum. The Washington product proceeded to miss the first two-and-a-half months of the 2017-18 season.
Upon making his Cavaliers debut in January, Thomas looked like a shell of his former self. In 15 games with Cleveland, he averaged 14.7 points on 36.1 percent shooting, 4.5 assists, 2.1 rebounds and 1.5 threes, a far cry from the 28.9 points on 46.3 percent shooting, 5.9 assists, 3.2 triples and 2.7 rebounds he put up with Boston last season. Thomas has long been one of the league’s worst defenders, but the Cavaliers hemorrhaged 118.6 points per 100 possessions during his 406 minutes on the court, by far the worst mark of any rotation player.
Between Thomas’ on-court struggles and evident off-court frustration, it quickly became clear that his time in Cleveland had run its course after only a month. On the day of the trade deadline, the Cavaliers thus sent Thomas, Channing Frye and their own 2018 first-round pick to the Los Angeles Lakers for Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson. It was a stunning admission of failure from Cleveland, but the team as constructed at the time had little chance of even making it to the NBA Finals, much less winning a championship.
Thomas deemed his opportunity in L.A. to be a “fresh start,” and he quickly took advantage in his first outing with the Lakers, going off for 22 points on 7-of-12 shooting, six assists, four triples, a steal and a rebound in 31 minutes against the Dallas Mavericks. Afterward, he told reporters that he “felt like I got my powers back playing on this team,” adding he was “happy to be with a young team that is exciting, that likes to get up and down. That’s my style of play.” (Subtweet much?)
Over Thomas’ ensuing two games, however, reality set back in. He got ejected after a scuffle with Rajon Rondo during L.A.’s Valentine’s Day loss against the New Orleans Pelicans, finishing with three points on 1-of-1 shooting, two assists and a rebound in fewer than five minutes. The next night against the Minnesota Timberwolves, he chipped in only seven points on 3-of-15 shooting to go with five turnovers in 25 minutes.
Thomas will face even more adversity beginning Friday, when rookie point guard Lonzo Ball is set to return from an MCL sprain that has sidelined him for the Lakers’ past 15 games. Though L.A. has no incentive to tank this season—its first-round pick will go either to the Celtics (if it’s between second and fifth) or the Philadelphia 76ers (if it’s first or later than fifth)—the development of young prospects such as Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Julius Randle take precedence over a few additional late-season wins fueled by Thomas.
Following Thomas’ Lakers debut, he told reporters that he didn’t “want to mess anything up,” and he expressed willingness to do whatever head coach Luke Walton needed him to do. However, he quickly hedged by saying, “My job is to help where I can. I am still in my prime. So it is not like I am taking a backseat to anybody. I am here to be who I am and here to make a difference on this team, and I am excited about the opportunity.”
While the Lakers have flirted with the idea of playing Thomas and Ball alongside one another at times, the former may wind up moving to the bench upon the latter’s return. Whether Thomas is able to keep his cool under those circumstances—particularly if losses begin to mount—may go a long way toward determining his future beyond this season.
Outside of the Lakers, who can carve out $60-plus million in cap space this summer, Thomas’ free-agent prospects appear bleak. The other teams with $20-plus million in practical cap space (via Spotrac)—the Chicago Bulls, Philadelphia 76ers, Atlanta Hawks, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and Sacramento Kings—either have young point guards they’re grooming to be franchise cornerstones or, in Houston’s case, a Point God who is likewise set to become a free agent this summer. Move further down the list, and the same holds true for the Brooklyn Nets (roughly $16.7 million in practical cap space) and, to a lesser extent, the Utah Jazz ($11.7 million).
Thomas’ best chance of landing a big-money deal outside of L.A. may be the Orlando Magic, who just shipped Elfrid Payton to the Phoenix Suns for a second-round pick at the trade deadline. If another team signs restricted free agent Aaron Gordon to an offer sheet that the Magic decline to match, they’ll have money to burn and few marquee free-agent targets to pursue. However, Orlando already has roughly $83 million in guaranteed salary on its books for 2018-19, and it’s likely to add another $3-5 million with its 2018 first-round pick. Unless the Magic can find a taker for Bismack Biyombo (owed $17 million in 2018-19), Evan Fournier ($17 million), Nikola Vucevic ($12.75 million) or Terrence Ross ($10.5 million), they won’t be able to offer Thomas anywhere near the max contract he once expected. And if they retain Gordon, they’ll be out of the running for Thomas immediately.
Given his bleak free-agent market, Thomas should hope the Lakers strike out on their plan A for this offseason (luring two max-contract stars such as Paul George and LeBron James), which will force them to pivot like they did this past summer. Rather than sign mediocre free agents to long-term deals, L.A. likely would shell out huge-money, one-year contracts, much like it did with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (one year, $17.7 million). The lack of long-term security wouldn’t be ideal for Thomas, a 29-year-old coming off a major hip injury, but that may wind up being his only chance of landing a deal north of $10 million annually. Until the bloated contracts signed during the summer of 2016 begin coming off teams’ books, non-superstar free agents will find their options limited.
In the meantime, Thomas must bite his tongue and be on his best behavior for these final 25 games with the Lakers. If he begins chirping to reporters as much as he did in Cleveland, he’ll become even less attractive of a free-agent target.
Given the heights Thomas was at a season ago, it’s somewhat unfair that he has to prove himself anew, but life comes at you fast in the NBA. Before teams can feel comfortable investing heavily in the Pizza Guy, they’ll have to be sure he’s fully recovered from his hip injury and that he can play within the constructs of a team not centered around his ball-dominance.