Whether the end might be this week or this season, Isaiah Thomas has never been shy about reflecting on or being honest about his unbelievable journey.
What will always be the most regretful decision of his career is deciding to play on a hip that needed surgery, that caused pain and discomfort after every game. He did it because he loved the game, because he loved playing for the Celtics and was then the face of the franchise.
This was prior to the Jayson Tatum era. This was when Jaylen Brown was a rookie. The Celtics were Isaiah’s franchise and he couldn’t let the franchise down. He had to keep balling.
Eventually, there was so much hip damage he was scratched from the Eastern Conference finals against the Cavaliers and needed two procedures to fix it. The injury cost him a major payday as a free agent and turned him from All-Star to journeyman.
His is a cautionary story. Players around the league saw how Thomas was traded after sacrificing his body for his team. Whether the trade for Kyrie Irving was viewed as a win for then-Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge or not, he was viewed negatively by many of the league’s players for his dumping the injured Thomas.
Why has load management increased? Why do players now elect to have surgery instead of playing through the pain? Thomas is the prime example of why players consider self before team.
Thomas is in the final days of his first 10-day deal with the Hornets, his seventh NBA team since the Celtics. He isn’t the same physically as five years ago, but he’s pain-free and healthy. However, his chances may have already dried up.
“I don’t want to put any names out there, but every time I’m around the league, whether I’m on 10-days or in the warm-up lines or interacting through games, guys always come up to me and say, ‘What you do is inspiring. If it was me, I would have already quit,’ ” Thomas said. “Guys always talk about the injury and playing through things. My advice to anybody who’s going through injuries is take care of yourself, first and foremost. Don’t worry about anything. The most important thing is take care of yourself. If you can play then go try to play, but if you can’t and it can obviously hurt your future you’d better sit your [expletive] down and really evaluate those moments and evaluate that situation and really do what’s best for you.”
Thomas is aware he sacrificed for his brethren. The constant chatter among former players and NBA fans is that this generation is soft, they don’t play through pain. That may be the case in some situations, but for Thomas, who was on his way to a $100 million deal, playing hurt cost him his career.
“I think everybody knows I took a bullet, but you live and you learn and you move past that and get back to space in my mind that I was when I was healthy before I was injured,” he said. “I’m thankful for those situations I’ve been through, they have hurt my career for the most part, but I’m back, I’m healthy, and I’m just waiting for a real opportunity to be part of something and take advantage of what opportunity I do get down the line.”
In Charlotte, Thomas has been reunited with former Celtics teammate Terry Rozier, now a cornerstone with the Hornets. Rozier’s development into a standout shooting guard has been a coup for a franchise that was in need of a talent infusion.
“We sit right next to each other [in the locker room], just like we did in Boston,” Thomas said. “It’s dope to see his growth. I was there when he was a rookie and not really playing that much. And to see that he’s one of the cornerstones of the franchise, taking advantage of the opportunity. I know how much he cares about being really good at the game of basketball. It’s amazing to really sit back and see a player like that when he first came in and to see his maturity on and off the floor, and like I said, I’m just here to help to push him in ways maybe some people can’t.”
In an era where mental health is finally receiving deserved attention and consideration, Thomas said he’s in a good place. He’s gotten over the bitterness of losing out on that career-defining contract and his body betraying him. His two sons are growing into young men. He’s still getting NBA interest — albeit in 10-day contracts — and he’s finally able to play without any discomfort.
“I’m great, I’m in a great place mentally; I’m in a great place physically. I’m appreciative of this opportunity,” he said. “My ultimate job is just to stick in the league again, try to get an opportunity where I’m impactful, whether I play or not. That’s the ultimate goal. I know I’ve got a lot of years left in the league to play at a high level if given the opportunity, but I also know what I can bring to a team whether I play or not. That’s leadership, accountability, and all those things that I bring to the table, no matter what happens.”
What bothers Thomas is a lack of true opportunity. His shooting percentages on these 10-day contacts have been far below his career averages, but he’s not received extensive looks. He’s been expected to deliver immediately or get waived.
“It’s been very challenging; at the end of the day, I’m human,” he said. “It’s been tough, but ever since I was able to get past my injury it’s kind of been way easier. Obviously, it’s been frustrating not to be able to stick on a team, not to be able to get the real opportunity to show that I can still play at a high level, but I’ve been through so much, it’s great to be back even on a team.
“All those little things that not necessarily I took for granted because I never took the game of basketball for granted, but just being around the team, being around the coaching staff, that means everything to me. That’s so big. Just fighting the fight that I fought my whole life.”
Thomas was the 60th and final pick in the 2011 draft. Yet his scoring average is the fifth highest of anyone in that draft, behind Irving, Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson, and Kawhi Leonard. Thomas has battled to carve out roles, battled for playing time, erased perceptions that 5-foot-9-inch players could not flourish in a league of giants.
“People always ask me, how do I keep going? I have no other option,” Thomas said. “This is what I love to do. This has been my story of having to fight each and every step of the way. It’s never been easy for me. Eleven years in, why would it start being easy now? Overall, I’m in a great place. I can’t complain. My family’s healthy. I’m healthy. The Hornets seem to like me a little bit so that makes me have a smile on my face. I try to keep pushing and keep staying positive.”
And Thomas remains a rabid fan. He follows every player in the league, including many of his former teammates in Boston. He is complimentary of the current Celtics, obviously wishing he could be part of their ascension. But it hasn’t happened and likely won’t.
“It’s dope to see them play really well,” he said. “Everybody was on their helmet about how bad they were playing early on. Now it’s like they’re playing like the best team in the league, which is expected because of the talent they have on the team. Jaylen was a rookie when I was there. He is such a special player. Jayson Tatum is one of the best players in the world. Marcus Smart is the soul of that organization. You can’t win without that guy. Al Horford is an ultimate professional that brings it every day, and you respect guys like that. I’m not surprised with how well they’re playing. I’m happy for those guys.”
No hard feelings following trade
Ben Simmons returned to Philadelphia on Thursday and watched as his new team, the Nets, whipped his previous team, the 76ers, in their first meeting since the February trade that sent a disgruntled Simmons to Brooklyn for a disgruntled James Harden.
Simmons sat at the end of the bench, still out with back issues. Harden, meanwhile, finished with 11 points on 3-of-17 shooting.
This is the trade Harden wanted. He wanted out of Brooklyn. The perception was Harden was angry that Kyrie Irving refused vaccination, making him ineligible to play home games because of New York City’s vaccine mandate, and therefore forcing Harden to play more at point guard.
The Nets took a hard stand with Irving, not allowing him to play in road games, either. The club changed its mind midseason and allowed Irving to play road games, potentially disturbing the team’s chemistry and offense.
Kevin Durant sided with Irving and remains loyal to his friend. Harden was not so loyal to Irving’s cause. Irving tried to downplay the matchup but acknowledged he has no idea why Harden was so eager to leave.
“It makes for good stories,” Irving said. “It makes for good narratives. It makes for good build-up for our league and it’s never too personal, but we understand that as competitors we want to win the game. We got in there with a resolve and a focus and ready for whatever. It’s not about any of the matchups, it’s about us going in there and being a great team and building on what we set out to do.”
Irving has been a divisive force on teams before. In Brooklyn, he teamed with Durant to sign and chase championships. Durant missed their first season together while recovering from a torn Achilles’. In season two, Harden came aboard via trade but had hamstring issues, and Irving sprained his ankle in the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Bucks, derailing their title chance.
When they appeared primed for a long playoff run this season, Irving refused to get vaccinated. Irving did not address his vaccination status when asked why Harden was unhappy.
“Some of those questions James can answer better,” Irving said. “I was coming in late into things and I was told one thing and told another thing, and the trade deadline comes up and now it’s a whole different situation. Now I’m answering questions about what happened. I don’t have a timeline of whether or not things could have gone better or not.
“I thought we were in a good swing, but everybody has their own visions starting off seasons, everybody has their own visions starting their careers and ending their careers. If that’s what James wanted, then I respect his decision. That’s just what it is. I wish him nothing but peace and love.”
The Nets will get Simmons when he’s healthy, and also added Andre Drummond and Seth Curry in the deal. Irving appears to be in a good place.
“We have a great friendship, but it didn’t work out,” Irving said of Harden’s time in Brooklyn. “Things could have been communicated better for all of us, as men. But hey, no hard feelings here with me or anyone else. It’s organizational, so all of us communicating. We’re all responsible for it. But we’re in the same league. It’s not like he went somewhere different, where we’re not going to see him again and see him in the summertime. It’s great for the league to build up things like this, but we have a group in the locker room that we want to be mature about going into Philly and handling business and them moving on.”
Durant has been supportive of Irving and indifferent to Harden’s issues. That hasn’t changed.
“You can look at it like Ky’s not playing and I got injured and [Harden’s] never won a championship before,” Durant said. “So he wanted to make a decision to get on a team that got to get him to that contending [status], being one of the last teams standing. You look at it from his perspective. You can’t control how somebody feels. Hopefully he stays healthy and his team stays healthy and we have a great year, we have a great year and we can move on from this.”
The Hornets could be one of the most disappointing teams in the Eastern Conference, in a total free fall since being in the middle of the playoff race just a few weeks ago. On Jan. 28, the Hornets beat the Lakers to improve to 28-22, three games ahead of the Celtics, who lost to the Hawks the same night. After their loss to the Celtics on Wednesday, the Hornets trail Boston by eight games and are fighting to remain in running for the play-in tournament. Why? The Hornets are not the same team without Gordon Hayward, who has been out the past few weeks with an ankle injury. Hayward has been oft-injured since joining the Hornets, just as he was with the Celtics. He’s expected to return for the postseason, but that could be a one-and-done situation unless Charlotte makes a late-season run. Coach James Borrego is in a difficult position with All-Star point guard LaMelo Ball, who has been prone to mistakes and poor shot selection. The Hornets’ defense has also slipped considerably, allowing 44 points to Jayson Tatum a night after Irving scored 50 against them. The club has some decisions ahead with improving forward Miles Bridges set to become a restricted free agent and recently acquired Montrezl Harrell a free agent. The core of the team is signed through at least next season, but the goal of Michael Jordan’s club was to build off last season’s play-in appearance … The Wizards were considered done after Bradley Beal underwent season-ending shoulder surgery but have been revived with the acquisition of Kristaps Porzingis. But every game is critical and Porzingis is getting accustomed to his new team after being injured the past few weeks. Washington signed Tomas Satoransky after he was waived by the Spurs and added Ish Smith. The struggles of the Hornets and Hawks have enabled the Wizards and Knicks to continue their playoff pushes … The Celtics have until Tuesday to decide on second 10-day contracts for Malik Fitts and Kelan Martin. The club could open two roster spots if those contracts are not renewed.