Isaiah Thomas in search of a new home to reclaim his career
Denver Nuggets coach Mike Malone thought he needed backcourt depth. The Nuggets had traded former lottery pick Emmanuel Mudiay months before and were using natural shooting guard Jamal Murray as their point guard.
So Malone decided to offer old buddy Isaiah Thomas a one-year chance to reestablish himself after hip injuries had derailed his career. Malone coached a young Thomas in Sacramento and had remained close to his former pupil.
The reunion hasn’t gone exactly as planned. First, Thomas required another hip procedure that would cost him more than half the season. Second, the Nuggets have drafted so well of late that 2017 second-round pick Monte Morris turned into a reliable rotation player and claimed the reserve role at point guard.
So when Thomas returned to the lineup last month, Malone gave him a handful of games to etch a role. Eventually he had to admit that it wasn’t working. So Malone had the difficult conversation of letting Thomas know he was no longer part of the rotation.
A man who averaged 28.9 points per game and was named All-NBA two years ago with the Celtics wasn’t good enough to get bench minutes for the Nuggets. It was a humbling conversation for Thomas and painful for Malone, who promised Thomas an opportunity.
Malone was noncommittal about playing Thomas on March 18 against the Celtics but eventually played him seven first-half minutes. He returned to the bench Wednesday against the Wizards and did not play.
The question is whether Thomas has a chance to return to his previous form of an unstoppable scorer who for a brief time was a franchise cornerstone. He is a free agent this summer and said he’s 100 percent healthy after two years with hip issues.
But in a league that’s being infiltrated by youngsters, G League players, and overseas prospects, will a team take a chance on the 30-year-old Thomas?
“If that opportunity is here, I’m open to any and everything,” Thomas said. “I’m blessed to be able to play in the NBA and feel like myself again, and I’m just waiting on a real opportunity to show what it is I can do. It’s tough because you don’t expect to have to be patient after the things I accomplished. But you roll with the punches. That has just been my story. I always know to look ahead, and whenever my name’s called I’m going to be ready.”
“I know how it is in this league. Opportunities come and go. But they always come back and when that time comes back, I know I will be there.”
Early in Thomas’s career, the rap on him was that he wasn’t a point guard, only a scorer. In Phoenix, he was criticized for not being able to coexist in a three-guard lineup with Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. In Boston, he erased that perception and became a superstar.
But now the question is whether Thomas can still play. And if he can, will he accept a reserve role or will the fire always push him to start? To want more? To chase greatness even though it’s probably no longer attainable?
“I just want a legit opportunity, whatever the role may be,” he said. “I know I can play at a high level again. Physically, I feel great. When the summer comes, I’m going to figure out the best opportunity that’s best for myself and my family.”
“You’ve got to be selfish at that point, especially in free agency when you’re able to pick where you want to go. I think you do what’s best for yourself. I know given the opportunity, I’ll do the rest. That’s all I’ve ever asked since I came in the NBA is for a real opportunity and I’ve always taken advantage of it. This isn’t the first time in my career I haven’t played. I know how to work. I’m going to continue to grind and I know when my name’s called for me working out every day, multiple times a day, I’ll be more than ready. I know I’ve got to be patient.”
Thomas’s thirst for basketball is so immense that he went on Twitter when the Nuggets arrived in Boston and asked his followers where there were good pickup games. Thomas ended up playing with some Emerson College students after the team’s Sunday night practice there. He signed autographs and took pictures, returning to his role as the everyman favorite in Boston, even if for just one night.
“That run was a minus-50,” Thomas joked. “It was probably the worst one I’ve ever been a part of. It was great to interact with those guys and play with them. It was for fun. I was already so tired but yeah, it was pretty bad.”
Blood runs thick for Morris twins
The Morris twins had a unique experience on March 8-9 in Los Angeles. The Thunder were playing the Clippers at Staples Center on March 8 and Markieff, a member of the Thunder, was in action. Marcus, in town with the Celtics, watched the game courtside. A night later, the Celtics played the Lakers at Staples Center and Markieff, on a Thunder offday, stayed in Los Angeles to watch his brother play, and Marcus nearly landed in his lap after falling down following a 3-point attempt to end the first half.
Each will be a free agent this summer. Marcus got off to a blazing start but has cooled off considerably of late. Markieff started the season with the Wizards with the hopes of re-signing a long-term deal. But he took a vicious elbow to the chin from LeBron James in a meeting with the Lakers and suffered whiplash.
The Wizards, trying to clear salary-cap space and change the chemistry on their roster, then traded Markieff to the Pelicans for Wesley Johnson. Markieff was waived by the Pelicans and signed by the Thunder. (Marcus said there was never any consideration for Markieff to sign with the Celtics because of a lack of playing time.)
The brief in-season reunion was a nice respite for the twins, and they were able to connect with agent Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, whom they signed on with last summer. Approaching 30 years old, the twins are seeking career-defining contracts after a difficult situation for both in Phoenix, where they felt they were shortchanged by the organization after claiming the Suns had promised to keep them together.
“When you’re able to represent guys like that, it makes you appreciate the job because they appreciate you because a lot of times in our business that’s not always a 50-50 thing,” Paul said. “What they bring as people is just integrity. In the world we live in today, that’s hard to find and I’ve been blessed with that with a lot of guys I represent, which is key.”
It’s well known how close the twins are. They have identical tattoos, nearly identical beards, and each had children within a year of each other. Markieff is bigger, a legitimate power forward-center. Marcus is a small forward who has played some power forward in Brad Stevens’s smaller lineups.
The twins, who share many off-the-court interests, also chose to hire the same agent. Their bond is undeniable.
“Sometimes you need that [connection during the season], especially when you’re a twin,” Paul said. “It’s no different than seeing a familiar face with your family. No different to be able to eat your mom’s fried chicken or mac and cheese.
“Sometimes you just need that and as humans . . . I try to tell all the guys, it’s a long season, it’s a roller coaster, and a lot of guys do a lot of preparing on the court, working on this move or that move, but mental toughness at this level is such an important attribute to have and those guys have it.”
The twins recognized Klutch Sports’ reputation of getting clients, most notably James but also players such as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, paid handsomely. They want a slice of that pie as they enter perhaps the final long-term contracts of their careers.
“The thing about it is I’ve always had a relationship with them, I’ve always had a relationship with their mom, and we just clicked,” Paul said. “It wasn’t a long conversation. They told me what they were going to do and they followed through and that was it.”
Hawks see better times in future
The Atlanta Hawks may be headed for yet another draft lottery, but they are a franchise on the rise with a bright young first-year coach in Lloyd Pierce, along with Rookie of the Year candidate Trae Young, and promising youngsters John Collins, Kevin Huerter, and Taurean Prince.
What’s more, the Hawks have played so well in the second half of the season they have probably cost themselves a shot at the No. 1 overall pick — a.k.a. Zion Williamson. The Hawks entered Friday with a 25-48 record after a stunning win over the playoff-bound Jazz. They have the league’s fifth-worst record. The teams with the four worst records have an equal shot at the No. 1 pick. Still, the Hawks will add another premium young player through the draft next season barring a trade. They are a franchise on the rise after general manager Travis Schlenk completely rebuilt. The face of the franchise is the multitalented Young, who is reminding NBA observers of a young Stephen Curry.
The coach behind this uprising is Pierce, a former college teammate of Steve Nash who may earn some Coach of the Year votes. Pierce said that his young players aren’t playing young anymore, and that has been the key to a 12-13 mark since Feb. 1.
“I think of the things that are encouraging, really is that every time we play there’s really no more rookie moments,” Pierce said. “I don’t look at our guys and say, ‘Man, he’s having a rookie moment.’ Our guys have stepped up in big moments in different ways.
“I think some of the mistakes, turnovers that we make, we know we shouldn’t make and we know we’ve been past that. We moved past that pretty early and that’s why we’re stringing together some good games, some competitive games. So it’s just good to see the growth happen quickly and it’s good to see all of them grow at the same time.”
“Trae gets a lot of the attention, but you see it with Kevin, you see it with John, you see it with Taurean, you see it with DeAndre’ [Bembry]. You see all of those guys all find ways to come into the game and impact. We even have Jaylen Adams out there, who was our two-way [contract player] as the backup point guard in less than a year and he’s shooting 40 percent from three. So none of the guys are afraid of the moment and all of them have found a little niche at the NBA level and doing it together, and I’m excited about that.”
Young is pushing the Mavericks’ Luka Doncic for the Rookie of the Year award and his post-All-Star-break numbers have been impressive: 24.9 points per game, 8.7 assists, 4.5 rebounds, 40.4 percent from the 3-point line, 44.2 percent shooting.
“He’s hard to guard and the reason that position is challenging is the elite players in our league — you don’t really have that traditional point guard in our league anymore,” Pierce said. “They’re all dual threats, passing and scoring. Kyrie [Irving] may be the most elite in terms of being able to do that. So Trae fits right into that mold where he’s tough to guard. Teams that want to switch, he’s going to go by them. You put a bigger body [on him], he’s crafty and shifty on them, you bring 7-footers out there and he’s throwing the ball between their legs with bounce passes.
“He’s a tough cover for any opposing team regardless of how good defensively you are because he can pass and because he can score as well.
“But all of those guys and I have a number of favorites; Kemba Walker, Mike Conley, Kyrie, Steph, they’re all fun to watch and they’re all explosive, and I think Trae fits that same mold where on any given night they can explode for 30-plus. They can explode for 10 or more assists, and Trae’s been able to show he can do that and he has that ‘it’ factor. His clutch points in the last half of the season have been way up at the top, big shots, big plays, not afraid of the moment. Any special player relishes that role and he definitely does.”
The key for Young and the Hawks has been taking care of the ball. Atlanta was horrible in the first half with turnovers. Young was erratic with his floor leadership and the Hawks fell behind early in games because they couldn’t run a cohesive offense.
“For us, a lot has been made about us leading in scoring since the All-Star break,” Pierce said. “The real change is we’re not turning the ball over, and we are 30th in the league in turnovers, but we’ve been 15th since the All-Star break. It starts with Trae. For Trae, just being able to command our offense when you’re shooting it better, you’re being selective, you’re being smart and you’re being wise about the shots you’re taking. We’ve got a lot of guys that are benefitting from his passing equally, as well. When you’ve played 70 games, you learn.
“I saw those things contribute to our growth as a team, but specifically with Trae he seems to understand to learn to get the ball to his teammates.”
Former lottery pick Thomas Robinson joined G League Maine for the final four games of the season hoping to claim the Celtics’ final roster spot. The Celtics have had an open spot since trading Jabari Bird to the Hawks. The ankle injury sustained by Aron Baynes may entice the Celtics to give Robinson a chance. Though limited offensively, Robinson brings toughness and rebounding and also another big man to defend in the paint. It’s uncertain whether coach Brad Stevens trusts Daniel Theis to defend big men or rookie Robert Williams to play quality minutes during a playoff run. Adding Robinson to an NBA contract would put the Celtics deeper in luxury taxes, but it may be worth it to add another interior presence. Baynes was diagnosed with a Grade 2 ankle sprain and may be out until the playoffs . . . A foot injury to Malcolm Brogdon forced the Bucks to re-sign point guard Tim Frazier, who had been released by New Orleans, and waive promising center Christian Wood, who coincidentally was claimed off waivers by the Pelicans. Wood, a former UNLV product, had played so well during last year’s Las Vegas Summer League that he earned a roster spot. But he was unable to crack the Bucks’ rotation. Several contenders may have been interested in claiming Wood, but the Pelicans, one of the first teams eligible for a claim, nabbed him. There is a scarcity of player movement at this time of season because any player waived is not eligible for a playoff roster, leaving players from overseas or free agents as the only players available for contenders . . . Jason Terry is the latest former NBA standout to join the Big3 League. Terry, who played with the Bucks last season, had been waiting for another NBA call and working as a TV analyst. Terry signed with the Big3 on the final day players could agree to join the league for this summer season. Former Celtic and current TV analyst Brian Scalabrine will return for his third season in the Big3 . . . Doc Rivers ended speculation that he would leave the Clippers to coach the Lakers by agreeing to a long-term extension with the Clippers. Rivers had contemplated stepping away from the game and going back to television several years ago, but he said he’s become energized and prepared to lead his team back to prosperity. The Clippers have enough salary-cap space for two maximum free agents this summer.