CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In case there were any doubt as to whether Isaiah Thomas wanted to return to the Celtics — the organization that traded him after he played through the tragic death of his sister and with a damaged hip that needed surgery — the answer is yes.
It’s the Celtics who aren’t interested, and now as a member of the Charlotte Hornets, with his 10-day contract winding down, Thomas expressed disappointment that a reunion between him and the team he obviously adores hasn’t happened.
“I’ve tried to have conversations about that, but it’s hard to speak on because I’ve opened my arms to try to come back in so many ways,” he said Tuesday, a day before the Hornets host the Celtics. “And it’s not even playing and trying to pick up where I left off. I’m past that moment. I know there’s been times where I can help in that locker room.
“This is from the outside looking in, but I felt like there’s times where Brad [Stevens] could make a call and give me an opportunity, and it hasn’t happened, so that’s very frustrating because of the relationship we have, the friendship we’ve been able to have over the years.”
Former Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge traded Thomas after the 2016-17 season to the Cavaliers in the deal for Kyrie Irving. Thomas, who turned in one of the best statistical seasons in Celtics history in 2016-17, had been dealing with hip issues for months, but he helped carry the club to the Eastern Conference finals before finally breaking down.
Thomas’s hip damage was extensive, and he has required two procedures to finally be pain-free. But while the pain is gone, the two-time All-Star has played with seven teams since Boston, unable to stick on a roster because of the perception that he is a shell of the player who averaged nearly 29 points per game five years ago and his size and lack of quickness prevent him from playing adequate defense.
Also circulating, Thomas believes, is the idea that he would demand the same role he previously had with the Celtics and the organization would be pressured by Thomas loyalists to play him, especially if the Celtics were to lose.
Thomas, 33, said he’s willing to accept any role with an NBA team on a standard contract.
“It sucks because that’s just the outside talking,” he said. “Nobody’s ever asked me what I think of situations coming to a team and not playing. Nobody’s asked me that, straight up.
“And when they do, I tell them exactly what I told you. Whether I play or not, I can make a positive impact in any organization each and every day. That’s who I am. That’s who I’ve always been.
“That’s unfair and that’s something that I can’t control, and that was the big reason that Brad and even Danny years ago, when I offered to come back and tried to come back, it was like, ‘Man, the pressure from the outside. The pressure from the fans.’
“I can’t control that. They want to see me play, but I’m not going to egg it on and say, like, ‘Yeah, since they’re calling my name to play, I should be playing.’
“I’ve never been that person. I think that’s a cop-out and easy way to say things. I’m not saying that’s a cop-out on Danny or Brad, I’m saying I can control those situations of the outside world wanting me to play. That’s easy to do.”
Stevens, his former coach, is now president of basketball operations. And he has had numerous opportunities to sign Thomas, even to a 10-day deal. But, privately, the organization believes Thomas wouldn’t play much and is below average defensively, and Stevens is hesitant to burn a roster spot, especially facing potential backlash if Thomas doesn’t have a 10-day contract renewed.
Ainge’s decision to trade Thomas, though viewed as a good deal in league circles because it netted Irving in return (that obviously failed miserably), was unpopular among many players who thought the Celtics dumped an injured Thomas after he led the organization’s resurrection in the mid-2010s.
How would the Celtics faithful react if the club signed and then dumped Thomas again?
Coach Ime Udoka said Tuesday that point guard was not a position of need this season, but it was a position of concern when the Celtics moved backup Dennis Schröder in February.
Payton Pritchard has soaked up Schröder’s minutes, while the recently acquired Derrick White has played some point, but the Celtics could use another experienced floor leader. But it’s obvious Thomas will not have that opportunity.
“That’s disappointing in a lot of ways because I love Boston, I love everything about the city of Boston, and the people who showed me the most love is obviously from Boston,” Thomas said. “It’s frustrating, but like I said, I’ve done my part in so many ways to make a comeback and make a reunion and it’s not even about playing.
“I could just help, and I tell everybody I could help without putting the ball in the basket. And I think a lot of people understand that and know that, but things happen and I’m not faulting anybody for not being able to come back.
“I just thought with how close [Brad and I] are, how close I am to a person like that, I thought there would be an opportunity, but there isn’t. You move on and you wish them well and I still have a lot of love for everybody that impacted my life with the city of Boston.”
Thomas’s 10-day contract with the Hornets expires Saturday. Entering Tuesday’s game against Brooklyn, he had played in one of two games, scoring 10 points. It’s light-years from those big fourth-quarter buckets with Thomas pointing to his wrist to indicate it’s his time to shine. That was nearly five years ago.
The Celtics were able to recover from the disastrous Irving trade and reach the Eastern Conference finals in 2019-20, but they are just recently responding positively under Udoka after a disappointing final season under Stevens.
Thomas and the Celtics will always share a bond. There will always be the golden times, and that disheartening ending, but the divorce appears final and Thomas said he’s ready to move on, with the hopes of recapturing that NBA dream, even if it means just sticking on a roster and serving as a mentor.
“Obviously I want to play. Who wouldn’t?” he said. “But that’s not everything for me, because each and every day I can make an impact on a younger guy. I can make an impact on a coaching staff. I can make an impact in the locker room, and that’s bigger than me going out there and playing 40 minutes a game and starting.
“Yes, I know, given an opportunity, I can play at a high level still, but I’m not chasing that. I know if that opportunity comes, [I’ll] take it and run with it and not look back, but if it doesn’t, I’ll still be in here every day working with a smile on my face, impacting the guys that look up to me.”