Isaiah In the Uncomfortable Middle

The three months before this past month, living and crying was the rule of the day. Grief mixed in with competitive fire gave Isaiah Thomas a way through his sadness, a way to dig through a cataclysmic fog. And then, on a perfect day in summer, as if a lost sister and a gimpy hip weren’t enough of a weight, Isaiah Thomas found out he was traded.

Stunned was first. Then numbness. Then heartbroken. Again. This spring Thomas did everything for the Celtics. He played through suffering, pain and injury. He gave them his blood but, of course, there is no such thing as loyalty in sports. It didn’t matter much when it came time to letting Isaiah go, his past was suddenly ephemeral, the Celtics leading 4th quarter scorer hero. The logic of it was pretty simplistic. When you have a chance to get a better player you get a better player.

The nuts and bolts, regardless of how much sympathy you have for Thomas and I have a lot,  is Kyrie Irving is better at playing basketball than Isaiah Thomas. They both can score. But Kyrie with the ball is magical. Isaiah with the ball is selfless. He can be dynamic when the game is on the line. The main difference between the two, once you extract out Isaiah’s height, is that Isaiah Thomas is all heart and guts and fire. Kyrie Irving is all talent.

Perhaps in a few years we will see that the Cavaliers won the trade even if Isaiah Thomas has a short career in Cleveland. The Cavaliers received- maybe- the first pick in next year’s draft which is insurance against whatever Thomas may do in the future.

As for right now, Isaiah is situated for a trip (possibly) to the NBA Finals playing with LeBron James. It is LeBron James, however, that makes all of this seem eerily like walking a tightrope and holding your breath. No one knows how any of this is going to turn out. Feast? Famine? Or something in the middle?

LeBron James recently commented he would love to play with Russell Westbrook. Westbrook has yet to sign his OKC extension and he doesn’t have to sign it until next summer. The money is the same. But it is the timing of his comment that is so striking. Isaiah Thomas is his current point guard. Talking about another point guard feels a little bit like LeBron whispering out loud what he thinks of Thomas, which is, I must say, what many think of Thomas the basketball player.  If he is your point guard, you are not winning a title. He just can’t guard anyone. Welcome to the Cavs ‘bro.

Isaiah is one of those players who has to go through things. He wasn’t born on a sunny NBA day. He was the last player taken in the 2011 draft, the Kyrie number one pick draft. The only reason he stayed at the bottom so long was his size. During the Pac-12 championship game Isaiah hit the game winner to win the title. He was a scorer in college. But scouts all said the same thing.

Very small, even for a point guard. Ability to get inside will be largely negated by the size of NBA players. Shoot first point guard who sometimes struggles with turnovers. Will struggle to matchup with NBA guards defensively. Sometimes hurts his team by trying to make highlight reel plays instead of making the simple pass. Prone to over-dribbling. Spent much of his time in college playing shooting guard. Will force his offense at times. Can get caught trying to leak out for fast breaks too often. (Eric Yearian, June 2011.

Drafted by the Kings, Thomas was their bench get buckets player and his third year he averaged 20 points a game. Clueless to what they had in their midst, the Kings did what the Kings do. They traded Isaiah to Phoenix instead of offering an extension. Phoenix, coached by Jeff Hornacek, had the brilliant idea of a small perimeter three man weave with Thomas, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. Except none of the above could guard anyone and someone was always standing around watching and waiting for the ball. Goran Dragic was disgusted by it and was on an expiring deal. He wanted out and so the Suns blew everything up at the trading deadline in 2015. Bledsoe stayed. Dragic went to Miami and Thomas went to the Celtics where he had the best seasons of his career as a scorer which the Celtics badly needed. How badly?

He scored 52 points against the Heat, 29 points in the 4th quarter, breaking a long Celtic drought. Not since Larry Legend dropped 60 in 1985, had anyone accomplished such elite numbers. The next month, he hit a game winner in Atlanta after ignoring Brad Stevens time out. After his sister’s tragic passing, Isaiah scored 33 points. On his sister’s birthday, he dropped 53 points.

If only he was taller. But he can’t help that. He can only work with what he has.

Grateful to a point and then worried about Isaiah’s hip while watching Kyrie burn bridges in Cleveland, Danny Ainge had amnesia. He used Isaiah as a piece to get Irving. Thomas was numb, shell-shocked, confused. Boston had become his touchstone, his home. They loved him there. He loved them back. What the f__k? He had laid everything on the line for the Celtics. To add insult to injury, LeBron wasn’t exactly opening his arms in welcome. James later began idolizing a James-Westbrook duo.

How bad is Isaiah’s hip? It depends but worse case scenario means he is out until after the All-Star break so for sure Isaiah, more than likely, will come off the bench. Early timetables have him back at the beginning of the year. Isaiah will start off his Cavs career by working with Dr. James Rosneck, a Cleveland Clinic hip specialist. They will take it slow and re-evaluate before the start of training camp to work up a timetable.

Isaiah Thomas, on his fourth NBA team, is once again in the middle of joy and burden and he will not fully understand the consequence until it happens. It is a mystery that he is in flux but not a surprise.  We know the reason. The business of the NBA made Isaiah expendable.

No one knows when he will return and what that return will look like. Derrick Rose taking his place means Thomas will have to fit in and adapt when he returns, all this in a contract year.

Isaiah has never ever been lucky. Except. He is on a team with LeBron James. That gives Isaiah a lot of cover unlike his Celtics run where they needed him to save them. Savior not needed on the Cavs, just offense and effort on defense and the heart Isaiah is famous for.

He wasn’t supposed to be here, not in the NBA. He wasn’t supposed to be here in Cleveland. He wasn’t supposed to be good enough to swap for a number one pick. But he’s made lemonade out of lemons his entire life. The Cavs and the bum hip are up next.

Isaiah, to no one’s surprise, will more than likely do Isaiah things before it is all said and done. Whether that will be enough is up in the air, but he’ll bring to Cleveland what Cleveland fetishizes en masse.



photo via llananba