Isaiah Thomas is not one to shrink under the lights. Unlike some of his NBA peers and others in professional sports, the bigger the stage, the larger his 5-foot-9 presence.
Kings fans need no reminders. He reminds them every time he steps on the court. The last player selected in the 2011 draft by then-general manager Geoff Petrie, Thomas dominated fellow rookie Jimmer Fredette in practices, believed he was destined to be more than an off-bench combo guard, and continues to make sure the world hears all about it.
That isn’t a chip on his shoulder, that’s a house. And that apparently hasn’t changed.
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With his flurry of recent tweets and comments, Thomas has made it abundantly clear that he still loves Boston and still resents Celtics president Danny Ainge for trading him to the Cleveland Cavaliers in last summer’s megadeal involving Kyrie Irving.
But the new year invariably presents a clean slate, and other than Irving, who wouldn’t want to play with LeBron James? No, here’s hoping Isaiah expunges the recent past, attacks his new job with the passion he displayed in previous stops in Sacramento and Phoenix, and rediscovers the wonder and joy of basketball.
He was right all along, of course. His small stature was nothing more than a brutal disguise. He was better than 99 percent of the NBA knew, and assuming he fully recovers, there is no reason to think his ascending career arc can’t transition from Boston to Cleveland. Besides. His is a wonderful story that needs to continue. Don’t stop now.
In his 2 1/2 years with the Celtics, Thomas became a two-time All-Star and a beloved figure and marquee player on a contending squad. He bled green – emotionally as much as anything – and dreamed of joining Larry Bird, Bill Russell, John Havlicek and all the other legends up in the rafters. When he played in the postseason opener the day after his sister, Chyna, died in an auto accident, and persisted into the conference finals despite a hip injury, he further endeared himself to the fans, only to be swapped a few months later in a deal that included Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 first-round draft pick.
While awaiting his Cavs debut these days – which could take place within the next week or so – Thomas travels with the Cavs and works out with trainers and assistant coaches hours before games. Prior to Wednesday’s game at Golden 1 Center, he went through an extended series of shooting drills, cutting and moving easily, without any visible signs of discomfort. The plan is for him to participate in a five-on-five scrimmage Friday and see how he responds.
Cavs coach Tyronn Lue, meantime, keeps scribbling notes and envisioning the possibilities. “He’s a dynamic scorer, can run pick-and-roll, come off screens,” Lue said. “He gets to the free-throw line. He adds a different dynamic to our team offensively. Play with pace. We want to attack and score early, and he can do that. It will be exciting to get him back.”
The addition of Thomas to a lineup that features James, who also happens to be a dominant ballhandler and the greatest player on the planet, figures to provide some high drama, particularly in the opening weeks. (See Oklahoma City and the bruising opening weeks for Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Until further notice, the one-ball regulation still applies.)
Yet while Irving wanted no part of playing with James, for reasons that mystify, Thomas is intrigued by the pairing and the prospect of advancing deep in the playoffs, perhaps for another rematch with the defending champion Golden State Warriors. Kevin Love’s recent move to center makes the Cavs even more formidable offensively.
“I think the adjustment will be fairly easy for Isaiah, assuming he comes back healthy,” said Jerry Reynolds, the Kings television analyst and former coach/front office executive. “Don’t forget that he came into the league and adapted to (DeMarcus) Cousins and Rudy Gay. With that team, they need someone besides LeBron who has the ability to break down defenses, and Isaiah can do that. Right now the Cavs kind of wait around to shoot 3s, waiting for LeBron to make plays. I think they are vulnerable if they are not making 3s at a high rate.”
With Thomas’ debut nearing, the conversation invariably will swing back to basketball, to the tantalizing images of Isaiah and LeBron together, and away from any real or perceived grievances dating to the offseason. The soon-to-be Cavs starting point guard stirred up social media in a candid Christmas Day interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols and offered similar observations in Wednesday’s first-person account of the trade/ordeal in The Player’s Tribune.
“I was very hurt because I gave them everything I had,” he said. “Like I gave them too much when I should have sat out (the playoffs). Especially with all the stuff I was going through. And when I say going through, with my sister passing and things like that. Like, you don’t do things like that.”
In reality, things like that happen in professional sports all the time. Players are traded. Players sign elsewhere. As badly as the Celtics broke Thomas’ heart, James’ departure to the Miami Heat crushed an entire city. Yet as James and the Cavs proved with their storybook reunion, divorces can be messy, but the pain doesn’t have to last forever. Here’s hoping Isaiah finds peace and prosperity in his new surroundings.