Finally, Isaiah Thomas had his moment. He was able to bask in his tribute video at the Garden. He absorbed all the cheers and reminisced while watching his greatest moments as a pro unfold. He admitted he almost cried. That was how touched he was by the gesture and by what he saw. But, in real time it all felt a little too late. Not fake but just yesterday. Like a consolation prize.
The tribute, a thank you bro to Thomas who sacrificed his body to keep the Celtics in the 2017 playoffs sadly punctuated how much everything has changed for Isaiah. And how nothing has changed for the Celtics. It’s the sort of divorce where one person gets richer while someone else gets poorer.
Once upon a time, Isaiah was the emotional leader and offensive alpha dog. Two years removed, he is barely part of the Nuggets rotation. He is an afterthought. Isaiah can’t score and he can’t keep others from scoring. It’s not for lack of effort that Isaiah Thomas finds himself in no-man’s land: no game left. He is trying to get back to that person he used to be even if that person he used to be has left the building.
After the Nuggets beat the Celtics, Isaiah said “I went through the worst situation you can possibly go through in life with these people and they were right there with me. Everybody in the city, the organization, they were right there with me, they went through that with me. That’s why Boston means so much.”
It’s the beauty and ugliness of the sport where the city and team that means everything also is the city and team that traded him. Danny Ainge didn’t believe Isaiah would ever recover from his hip injury. He hasn’t. The Boston fans adored Isaiah but realized Kyrie Irving is a much better player, albeit an imperfect personality. If you mixed Isaiah’s personality and flair with Irving’s handles and knack for shot making you might have some kind of prototype that would rival James Harden. But Isaiah is Isaiah. And Kyrie is Kyrie.
It’s impossible to have made it the way Isaiah made it, from last pick in the draft to the All-Star game, without a high level of confidence.
“If I get an opportunity, I’m going to be ready for it. I’m going to take full advantage of it. And when the summer comes, I’m going to just figure out what’s the best opportunity, what’s the best situation for me and my family.”
From a glance, it’s hard to see where he can play valuable minutes other than for a team that is developing players. Remember when he got to Boston and they were tanking? Isaiah wasn’t having it. At all. He came out like he was on fire. His first game in the Garden, he scored 21 points on 42% from three. The next game, another 21 points. He was going to go at it hard. Perhaps too hard.
His size makes a hip injury almost required. All of those running through screens and driving to the rim only to be hacked by bigger players. The body is going to pay the price. The body is going to remember.
He has only played 10 games this season. He can’t score. A lot of the Isaiah athleticism is gone. Two seasons ago, he finished 58% of his layups. Now, he finishes 44% of them. Everything else has gone downhill too, particularly his 3-point shooting. It’s not just that he can’t make jump shots. He can’t make free throws either. He’ll tell prospective employers he is working his way back. But he has been working his way back now for two years.
His biggest mistake, the biggest regret, the one thing he cannot take back is not having surgery at the end of the 2017 season. His free agent summer ruined his logic, all that Brinks truck backing up nonsense. If he had surgery, there would have been a rehab period and it may have cost him money. But not having surgery cost him more. It has cost him everything.
There hasn’t been a greater NBA story the past few seasons than Isaiah Thomas. He was the last pick in the draft. He’s 5-9. Every team he was on, thrived with him on it. And every team he was on got rid of him for the wrong reasons. Sacramento didn’t think they could re-sign him. Phoenix was blowing the house up. Boston was the first team that did the logical but not emotional thing. A grieving Isaiah who sacrificed for the organization didn’t matter. Better talent was in the building. Isaiah the terrific was gone.
It was a great two years in Boston, great when you reminisce. Exciting. Exhilarating. Mind blowing. Isaiah did some things that were amazingly brilliant, things a player 6-6 would do. He always had so much heart in a league where a good third of its players are comatose. But there comes a day when heart doesn’t matter and trying doesn’t matter. You do. Or, you can’t. That has led us here. Not the Isaiah end. But far from what Isaiah Thomas used to be. Watching him play now is like watching someone I don’t even know. A stranger is in the room. He says his name is Isaiah Thomas. I don’t believe him.