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Isaiah Thomas and How Everyone Gets Humbled

February 8th, 2018 · No Comments · Basketball, NBA

No one rides high forever. We may think we will, but it never quite ends that way. Life and/or death humbles us.

That notion hit me again tonight, as the Cleveland Cavaliers offloaded guard Isaiah Thomas to the Los Angeles Lakers.

Eight months ago, Thomas finished fifth in the NBA’s Most Valuable Player voting, just ahead of Stephen Curry, just behind LeBron James, after averaging 28.9 points per game for the Boston Celtics, the Eastern Conference’s top-seeded playoffs team.

The gritty, even reckless little point guard, all of 5-foot-9, then led the Celtics to the finals of the conference finals, versus Cleveland, after they ousted the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards.

In Game 2 of the Cleveland series, Thomas’s right hip pretty much broke. He could not return to the series, won by the Cavaliers in five games.

And his descent from “star player for the best team in the Eastern Conference” began.

Starting with the realization that Thomas, a “bargain” player in Year 3 of a four-season, $27 million contract, is not going to get that sort of exorbitant payday a player with his success over three seasons in Boston could expect.

The foreshadowing quote came in July of 2016.

Thomas had scored at a 22.2 ppg clip and made the All-Star team in the 2015-16 season and, while talking about his modest contract, at a July summer league game in Las Vegas, he told NBC Sports: “They better bring out the Brinks truck.

“They’re paying everybody else. I gotta get something.”

And, indeed, he certainly would have gotten a lot of something — had his hip held up for another 12 months.

But when he went down against the Cavs, he became damaged goods.

There was talk about how his right hip had caused him problems earlier in his career, including an incident in a March  game against Minnesota. The May injury, was described as a labral tear, and it was clear he would not be returning anytime soon.

Instead of surgery, Thomas opted to try to rest the hip and aim for a December return …

And then Kyrie Irving decided he wanted out leave Cleveland for Boston and the Celtics, somewhat cynically, but Thomas at the top of a package to get Cleveland to give up Irving. Eventually, they also had to send along a No. 1 draft pick, once Cleveland doctors got a look at his hip.

Thomas made his return in early January and “rusty” is a kind way to describe how he looked on the court. He was still 5-foot-9, but he seemed to have lost the quickness and athleticism that propelled him from the 60th pick in the 2011 draft to a fully fledged star.

Basically, he was terrible in 15 games with the Cavaliers. His deficiencies on defense were alarming — the Cavs were being outscored 115-100 when Thomas was on the court. His shooting percentage was a wretched 37 percent; he actively was making his new team worse.

The Cavs spiraled. It did not help that Thomas decided to be heroically blunt about the team around him, criticizing teammates and coaches and comparing them badly to the Celtics. The Cavs, 24-12 when Thomas began playing, had been 7-10 since, and he was seen as a major part of the finger-pointing and second-guessing that had swamped the locker room.

Today, Cleveland made a point of ridding themselves of what was supposed to be the centerpiece of their return on Kyrie Irving, and the guy who took over Irving’s role running the offense. And much of Thomas’s reputation as a “team” guy has evaporated.

He joins a Lakers team that intends to have him come off the bench, behind Lonzo Ball, as soon as the latter is healthy. And they may not even start Thomas while waiting for Lonzo; Brandon Ingram seems like a competent playmaker.

The fifth-best player in the league, a year ago, won’t be the fifth-best player on the Lakers. Because his hip broke.

And that Brinks truck? Thomas certainly will know not to bother waiting for it to pull up and cover him in cash.

Speculation is that, barring some profound shift in Thomas’s fortunes in these three months with the Lakers … he may not be able to command a contract longer than one season paying $5 million. Or less.

So, through no fault of his own, a tough little guy nearly overlooked in the draft, who played as hard as he could, scored a lot of points and turned himself into the best player on the league’s most popular team, suffered an injury last May that appears to threaten his career and his one shot at getting the sort of contract 50 to 75 middling NBA players can beat.

It is not clear Thomas feels humbled. The way he spoke to media about what he felt was wrong with the Cavaliers indicated a guy with a strong sense of self-belief. And good for him.

But it may just be a case of self-delusion. The Isaiah Thomas the league has seen since May 19 of 2017 may be a year away from being out of the league.

Humbling. It comes to all of us, and sometimes at just about the worst possible moment. Someday, Isaiah Thomas could tell you about it.



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