It’s been more than two years since Isaiah Thomas stood atop of the NBA landscape, the final pick of the 2010 Draft that became an All-Star. Dismissed as too short or too selfish for NBA stardom, Thomas led a Brad Stevens-coached Celtics team to unprecedented heights.
He eyed a maximum contract, told the Celtics they should “back up the Brink’s truck” as he prepared to cash in on free agency, anticipating his career-defining contract.
Then he tweaked his right hip in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, seriously aggravating a two-month-old injury that ended up costing him not only the rest of the postseason but most of the next season.
There would be no max contract. Instead, with a surgically repaired hip, Thomas signed a minimum deal with the Denver Nuggets.
Coach Mike Malone relegated Thomas to the bench because he was ineffective. No longer seeking anything close to a max deal, Thomas is now seeking an NBA chance. He signed a deal with the Washington Wizards, a team in rebuild mode, hoping to prove he’s healthy and, at age 30, can regain that previous prowess.
Thomas’s story was a clear lesson to many of his NBA brethren: Don’t play injured. Don’t put the team before yourself. Rest even on nights when you don’t want to preserve your body.
Kawhi Leonard sat out nearly an entire season and played just 60 regular-season games in the next because he didn’t want to play hurt or risk any serious injury. No one is going to give Thomas a cut of their free agent earnings, but they obviously have learned from his plight.
The Celtics shipped Thomas and his bad hip to Cleveland in a trade that netted Kyrie Irving. And although they would probably do the deal again, it was viewed as a team rendering an injured player useless despite his sacrifices for the team.
Thomas is still waiting for his retribution.
“Sure I took a bullet for everybody,” he said. “And that’s in terms of max contracts, all that. People not playing to get their max deals, I took a bullet for sure. But that was a decision that was made at that point in time.
“If you remember, I was going through other stuff [his sister Chyna’s death] at that time. So basketball was the only thing that was helping me through that time off the court. But I feel like, yeah, even with the Kawhi Leonard thing, he sat out for a reason. He seen my situation. The list goes on.”
The term “load management” has become a popular term describing the strategy of resting players as a way to help keep them healthy.
Thomas’s situation was a piercing lesson to those players who feel obligated to play in every game, even when hurt. Thomas likely cost himself upward of $80 million with his decision to continue on a hip that needed surgery.
“Load management I think is smart for players,” he said. “We play a lot of games. We battle against the best players in the world, but players now are looking out for themselves more than the team looking out for them.”
After playing just 44 games over the past two seasons — and none for the Nuggets during their playoff run — Thomas was seeking a chance for playing time. The Wizards were seeking a quality guard to replace the injured John Wall and the traded Tomas Satoransky.
“The thing with Denver is the opportunity just wasn’t there,” Thomas said. “As a team they played really well. Guys I felt like played better than what was expected. And I didn’t want to mess up the success they were having and coach makes a coach’s decision to take me out of the rotation.”
Washington is in transition mode. They have jettisoned several veterans and surrounded guard Bradley Beal with young players. Thomas will be a stopgap until the younger players are ready. But he’s fine with the opportunity after being disregarded the past two years.
“The biggest thing for me with signing with a team this summer was getting a legit opportunity to show I can still play and play at a high level,” he said. “When I met with the Wizards last week, they really wanted me and it was like a genuine want. And that’s all I want.
“I’m feeling great. I’m back to feeling like my old self. I’ve been healthy for a while and this is the first summer in two years where I can really work on my body and work on my game. I haven’t been able to get better in two years.”
LA, LA LAND
Making the best out of situation
The Los Angeles Lakers waited on Kawhi Leonard and was apparently one of the three teams — along with the Toronto Raptors – he considered before he chose the Los Angeles Clippers.
Mere minutes after Leonard made his decision, the Lakers signed Danny Green and JaVale McGee.
The Lakers finished their summer by adding former Celtics Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley — a former client of agent-turned-GM Rob Pelinka — DeMarcus Cousins, Quinn Cook, and Troy Daniels.
It wasn’t exactly what the Lakers wanted. They wanted a Super Duper team with Leonard, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis. But the Lakers filled out their roster with veteran players on shorter contracts to prepare to make another run at a max free agent next summer.
“We felt like there were two strategic pathways and we were confident in either of them,” Pelinka said. “ ‘Adding a third star’ path and the alternative path is building a roster-depth pathway. We did a lot of strategic planning for both forks in the world. We ended up on the roster-depth pathway and we’re excited about that.
“The other strategic thinking that was very important for us is we wanted to put ourselves in a position with LeBron and Anthony to be contenders in the short term, but we also wanted to make sure we had flexibility going forward. In July of 2020, we still have the ability to add a max player as we think about building a roster around Anthony Davis.”
Pelinka said the Lakers weren’t held hostage by Leonard, who waited until July 5 to make a decision. The Lakers were able to recover and fill their roster, but they also could have pursued another max free agent if they knew Leonard was not interested.
“We had been in very close contact with players and their representatives, being prepared for either fork in the road,” Pelinka said. “Once a decision was made by certain of the star players, we had everything lined up. It was not a process of waiting.
“You can tell everything went into place, in terms of our strategic plan for the roster-depth route. All of that work was going on simultaneously. It was a process of doing work and being prepared for what the decisions would be. Most of the free agents we signed with a two-year window.”
The Lakers brought back Rondo, McGee, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope from last year’s team, as well as G League product Alex Caruso. Rondo, 33, was limited to 46 games last season because of injury, but he is a pass-first point guard who will get the ball to James and Co. in their preferred spots.
“Rondo [had] an incredible success playing with DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis [in New Orleans],” Pelinka said. “Keeping Caruso was big for us. Retaining him was key. Avery Bradley, just a tenacious defender. His ability to make the corner three and defend the perimeter [is helpful].”
Cousins is looking to resurrect his career after the past two injury-plagued seasons with the Pelicans and Warriors. There were times where the Warriors couldn’t use Cousins in the playoffs because he was a victim of the opposing pick-and-rolls because of his poor defense. But there were other instances when he looked like the dominant player that made the All-NBA team with Sacramento.
Cousins, who will turn 29 next month, has lost weight since the Warriors’ Finals loss and he appears determined to regain his All-Star form. He signed a one-year deal for just $3.5 million.
“He’s one of the most talented bigs in the league, if he can come in with that mind-set,” Pelinka said. “I know he’s committed really locking into his body and getting it to a place of elite performance. He’s wanting to come here and understand even better what it means to sacrifice for a team.
“Every year you come back as a different person. Last year was hard for him because the team he was on didn’t win a championship and he got hurt in the playoffs. That was a year of trial. I look at him as an X-factor. If he can come back and play in All-Star caliber form, it really raises the bar of our team and what we want to do. I’m excited with his commitment.”
Magic Johnson, who resigned as Lakers president in April and called out Pelinka for betraying him, apparently had a conversation with Leonard during his free agent process. Johnson lauded Pelinka and the Lakers for their free agent signings and expressed excitement for next year’s team.
Pelinka, who has not disparaged Johnson publicly, said he is pleased with the backing.
“We’re incredibly grateful for his supportive messages,” Pelinka said. “We know he’s pulling for the Lakers. He’s made that very clear. He’s been nothing but supportive and excited about the roster and the team and the players that we have.”
The red, white, and . . . Brown?
Believe it or not, Team USA Basketball has a competition this summer. The FIBA World Cup begins Aug. 31 in China with the United States opening round-robin play against the Czech Republic the next day. Team USA will commence Aug. 4 and the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker are members of the 20-man squad that will be pared down to 12 for the tourney.
Celtics forward Jaylen Brown was not invited to either Team USA or the Select Team, but that does not reflect how USA Basketball feels about Brown. Chairman Jerry Colangelo said Brown is on the program’s radar.
“We didn’t think, as far as the Select Team, we didn’t think that would be appropriate,” Colangelo said of Brown. “This is his third year coming up. It’s basically for first-year guys and maybe a couple of second-year guys. At least that’s in theory what it is. I’m looking at the number of people we had at the position. That’s the only thing. It has nothing to do with talent. I like him. I think he’s a heck of a player.
“First of all, we don’t even know what’s going to happen for sure. Are we going to have more fallout? Are we going to have more people who are not going to be there? He could always be. He’s on a short list, let me put it that way.”
So Brown appears on the cusp of getting a Team USA invite. This year’s club will not have some of the regulars from past Olympics and World Championships. Harrison Barnes and Kyle Lowry are the only two returners from the 20-man roster for the Rio Olympics. Anthony Davis has also just declined to participate in next month’s camp. So there could be opportunity for Brown.
“You’ve just got to go about your business and, if the phone rings, be ready to go,” Colangelo said. “But we have a lot of respect for him as a player. It didn’t fit this time, that’s all.”
With new coach Gregg Popovich, Team USA again will be a heavy favorite to coast to a gold medal. But there will be heavy competition for the 12-man roster. Players such as Paul Millsap, CJ McCollum, Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, and Donovan Mitchell will have a chance to crack the roster for the first time.
“We show up [in Las Vegas] Aug. 4 for training camp and we’ll be [there] for a week,” Colangelo said. “We may have to replace one or two people. It’s really interesting. It’s hard to predict.”
With so much young talent emerging and such a renewed interest in playing for Team USA, roster turnover has been dramatic over the past several years. And it’s been a long three years since the Rio Games. That team consisted of players such as Carmelo Anthony, DeAndre Jordan, and DeMarcus Cousins.
Colangelo said the roster will have a different identity.
“We won the Olympics in ’08 and in ’10, we were in Istanbul for the World Championships and we had 12 different players,” Colangelo said. “It was a total turnover. I joked after we won it. The media said, ‘Who are you going to have in ’12 for the Olympics?’ I said, ‘What we’re going to do, we’re going to have a game and we’re not going to let anyone see it. And whoever wins the game will be the people that represents us.’ I was kidding.
“Basically, you gotta have turnover. Players need to know there’s a real legitimate shot. Nobody has a lock-stock-barrel-guaranteed position. That’s the way it has to be. I see the way it turns over, there’s six new people every time. That’s what I see.”
There’s a reason why the Celtics haven’t announced the two-way contract for rookie guard Tremont Waters or the one apparently agreed to by DePaul sharpshooter Max Strus. The Celtics are trying to figure out how many players they want to invite to camp to compete for that final roster spot. They are also scanning the free agent pool to see if a quality player wants to play in Boston for the league minimum. Players such as Kenneth Faried, Jeremy Lin, Thabo Sefolosha, Lance Stephenson, Lance Thomas, Vince Carter, and Iman Shumpert are still available and the Celtics are going to stand pat until they figure out the right move. But Waters, the 51st overall pick, has agreed to a contract . . . Speaking of Celtics free agents, the question was asked, couldn’t the Celtics have re-signed Marcus Morris because they had his Bird rights if they were willing to pay the luxury tax. The answer is yes and no. Because the Celtics signed Kemba Walker into salary-cap space and did not execute an even sign-and-trade with Charlotte for Terry Rozier, the Celtics had to renounce Morris’s rights to bring Walker on. The Celtics would have loved to have re-signed Morris and they tried to give themselves salary-cap flexibility by working on sign-and-trades with Brooklyn for Kyrie Irving and Philadelphia for Al Horford. But as expected, any deal with conference rivals can be difficult and both teams asked the Celtics for more draft pick compensation than they wanted to give. The teams didn’t want to take back players because they were already getting a max player in Irving and a near-max in Horford, so, to help the Celtics’ cap, Brooklyn and Philadelphia wanted first-round picks, something the Celtics were not willing to do. Perhaps the Celtics could have worked out a sign-and-trade for D’Angelo Russell with the Nets, but they already had their eyes on Walker . . . Also, in an obscure rule, the Celtics were allowed to rescind the rights to center Daniel Theis and then bring him back with Bird rights as long as they executed the deal by July 13. The Celtics maneuvered the cap in order to sign Theis and have enough money for Vincent Poirier and Brad Wanamaker. The Celtics also rescinded the rights to Wanamaker before bringing him back on a one-year contract.
Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report. Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.