By Will Baldwin
May 15, 2017, the Boston Celtics have just eliminated the Washington Wizards in game seven of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Celtics All-Star point guard, Isaiah Thomas had 29 points and 12 assists in the deciding game, once again showing his skill set on the biggest stage of the NBA playoffs and, reiterating to the the entire league his value.
Yet somehow, just 14 months later, Thomas signs a free agent contract with the Denver Nuggets for the veterans minimum. So the question becomes, how did Isaiah Thomas go from seemingly a max contract level player to a minimum contract in 14 months?
After an impressive three year college career at the University of Washington, Isaiah Thomas decided to go pro, foregoing his senior season. Thomas would go on to be selected 60th overall in the 2011 draft, (the final choice of the draft) by the Sacramento Kings.
Following a surprising three year stint with the Kings (most experts did not think he would even make the team) where he improved in scoring every season all the way to averaging over 20 points per game his final season in Sacramento, Thomas would be acquired by the Phoenix Suns in a sign and trade.
Thomas would only last half a season in Phoenix, as the organization decided their three point guard system was not working. The Suns would trade Thomas to Boston, where Thomas would seem to finally find a real home.
In 2015-16, his first full season in Boston, Isaiah Thomas would shine, setting career highs in virtually every statistic and, making his first All-Star team, becoming just the second player in NBA history to be an All-Star standing under 5’10. 2016-17 would be even better for the guard as he would lead the Celtics to the best record in the Eastern Conference, finish fifth in MVP voting, make his second All-Star team and, finish third in the NBA in scoring with over 29 points per game.
Making just under $7 million a year, Thomas was considered not only the best bargain in the NBA but also, due for a massive, likely max contract type, raise following the 2017-18 season when Thomas would be a free agent.
Then it all changed.
Not all at once of course but rather, slowly, over the course of a year that was anything but fair for a player who had completely defied the odds.
March 15, 2017, that is when it all really began to change. Thomas was described as having ‘tweaked his hip’ against the Minnesota Timberwolves however, it was much worse. The injury we now know was a right femoral-acetabular impingement with a labral tear but the Celtics and Thomas treated it like a regular hip strain. He would sit out the next two games and the entire NBA community thought virtually nothing of it. In fact, all would seem fine until the playoffs.
In the first round of the playoffs, disaster would strike for the Thomas family as Isaiah’s younger sister Chyna tragically was killed in a car crash. Thomas somehow would will his Celtics to the second round despite all of the personal tragedy surrounding him. Then, on what would have been Chyna’s 23rd birthday, with a message written to her on his sneakers, Thomas would score 53 points in a win over the Wizards.
Once the Celtics finally dispatched of the Wizards in seven games, it was time for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
After getting humiliated at home in game one, the Celtics needed an answer in game two to try and save their season. Instead, the Celtics would finish the game without their all-star point guard. Thomas had left the game following an awkward collision in a drive to the basket in the second half of another Celtics loss. It was Thomas’ last game of the season.
Thomas had reaggravated his hip injury.
The Celtics would last three more games against the Cavaliers before falling in five games. Although 2016-17 had been a fantastic one for Boston, with the amount of assets they had, a trade for an impactful all-star level player seemed virtually inevitable.
In mid-August, the once inevitable became reality when the Boston Celtics would acquire Kyrie Irving in a trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers. In return, the Cavaliers would get the Brooklyn Nets first round pick, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, a second round pick and,
Thomas would not debut for the Cavaliers until early January thanks to his hip injury. The result was obvious: Isaiah Thomas had lost his trademark quick first step. The culprit was almost assuredly his hip injury, which was later found to of been made significantly worse while playing in the playoffs for the Celtics.
After fifteen disappointing games, Thomas was shipped to the Lakers at the trade deadline. There, he would once again struggle to recreate the magic he had seemed to find with ease in Boston. After seventeen games for the Lakers, Thomas chose to finally have the surgery he had been avoiding on his hip, ending his season.
So, Thomas headed into free agency, unhealthy, unproven and considered by many, unsure of his actual ability. In Cleveland, he had constantly made comments about how good he was and those continued to Los Angeles, all making it seem like he was unaware of the player he had become.
In the first couple days of free agency, Thomas was rumoured to only one place, Orlando. The reason was simple, many thought they were the only organization desperate enough to offer the embattled point guard.
Imagine, just fourteen months prior, Thomas seemed to be guaranteed well over $20 million per season for upwards of four to five years and somehow, impossibly so, it seemed his only suitor was desperation itself.
Finally after over a week of free agency without the offers he wanted, Thomas agreed to a minimum contract with the Denver Nuggets. The pitch was basically, come off our bench as a key figure with the potential to get more and more minutes so you can show your worth to us and the NBA.
In fourteen months, Isaiah Thomas lost his sister, likely over $100 million, his health and the respect of the NBA. Now, it is up to the five foot nine point guard to defy the odds once again and prove he has the ability to earn a major contract with an NBA franchise.
No matter who your team is, it is hard to imagine at some point this season not cheering for the man who somehow lost almost everything in just fourteen months.