Isaiah Thomas is on his way to Los Angeles to play for Magic Johnson and Company. It is expected to be a short stay. Isaiah needs the ball in his hands and the Lakers play the Warriors way. Pick and roll depressed, shooters and screens, ball movement. It’s not D’Antoni shoot it or move it but it is close with a little bit of Julius Randle bully ball mixed in. It isn’t Isaiah’s game. He’ll get his touches but he’ll also get his recriminations about moving the ball and not holding it in his hands. What failed for him in Cleveland will fail for him in Los Angeles except he won’t have the LeBron vortex sucking his energy dry.
Isaiah, despite these past few months of Cavs horror, is an amazing story. He was the last pick in the 2011 draft. On an August evening in 2017, he was traded for the first pick in that same draft. It was an abysmal failure. Isaiah is shooting 37%. He was the center of dissension in the locker room. He didn’t fit in, wouldn’t adapt his game. A lot of the Kobe Bryant intangibles are the Isaiah package except he doesn’t have the Bryant talent or size. Or, luck.
A few years ago, Thomas was part of the Suns angst that was put in play when Goran Dragic wanted out. The Suns, then coached by Jeff Hornacek, decided to usher Thomas out of town too, to Boston.
It was in Boston where Thomas career was revived. He played 179 games. 32.2 minutes. 36.8% from three. 6.0 assists. 24.7 points. His offensive rating was 117. 23.7 points the last two playoff runs established Isaiah as a NBA star.
Isaiah Thomas breathed new life into the Celtics who didn’t have a star. The question Isaiah has to answer is can he play with another dominant star? He couldn’t find a middle ground with James. Whereas Kyrie was willing to compromise and swallow his frustrations about the LeBron shadow, Isaiah isn’t built that way. He pushed back. And that is why he is gone.
The chemistry on the Cavs was atrocious and a lot of factors were involved, basketball things. They were old and yet tried to play the modern way of three point shots or bust. But their lack of footspeed kept them from grabbing up their misses, getting easy baskets, defending elite athletes. With Jordan Clarkson who has elite speed and athletic Larry Nance Jr who defends, plus marksman Rodney Hood and defender George Hill, the Cavs are younger and happier.
Isaiah is a star but just not the right kind of star. As nice a player as Isaiah Thomas is, he can’t be the player. When he is the best you have to offer, you are going to stumble. As for the Lakers, they want Isaiah to play in their system of multiple touches, moving the ball, getting a good shot. Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle are their drivers to the rim. The Lakers lead the NBA in points in the paint. For Luke Walton, defensive energy is a must and Isaiah can’t go through the motions or Luke just won’t play him.
The secret about Isaiah is that of all the All-Stars in 2017, he was the one who made the least money. His contract is so friendly at $6 million that the Lakers, I am sure, wish it was grandfathered in to some lifetime deal but lo and behold it ends in a few months. The Lakers are set on luring a superstar. Isaiah doesn’t qualify, even if the Lakers fail the Paul George, LeBron James test. His style of play isn’t how the Lakers want to be in the league.
For sure, Isaiah saved the Celtics. A year ago, Thomas led the C’s in 4th quarter points. Sometimes, it seemed he had the biggest heart and cojones, a big game in such a small body but this is the NBA. Big always dwarfs small. The perception of Isaiah is he lacked empathy when he was in Cleveland. He was visibly frustrated and it was perceived as if it was all about him.
His size is always an issue. It is what his size allows him to do and not do. Isaiah can be guarded and he can’t guard anyone.
It doesn’t matter in the regular season when you go from team to team, and city to city, and players are tired or bored, or, tired and bored. But in the playoffs, against a strong team like the Warriors, Thomas can be contained on the offensive end and his defense is a disaster.
Isaiah Thomas had the worst defensive rating of all the Cavs players, 116. He is coming to the Lakers and will have their worst defensive rating. That is something he has to own. When he cannot give you 30 points and shoot 44%, his defense is going to be what everyone is talking about.
He is in the unfortunate and uncomfortable position of playing for a contract. The idea of anyone giving hm the max, given his deficiencies, and given how GM’s have to be hawkish about the books, makes it seem like a fairy tale, his $200 million dollar dream. But. He has a few months to prove everyone wrong and to repair his reputation.
Fair or unfair, Isaiah is taking the fall for what went wrong with the Cavs. Call him a scapegoat. Call him an excuse. The bust that was the Kyrie for Isaiah trade is being conflated as an Isaiah Thomas basketball problem. It’s not unfixable. But he is on the clock.
As are the Cavs. Their new additions are young and athletic. They will give LeBron James a chance. But only George Hill has been tested. It is a work in progress. The Cavs had no choice. Once ugly infects NBA locker rooms, it is Armageddon.
Peace is on the way. For Isaiah. For Cleveland. For all of us.
photo via llananba