Gone is the bright-eyed scoring machine, out to prove to those who have doubted him since middle school that he can become an NBA star. That prospect has been replaced by a grizzled, 30-year-old Isaiah Thomas, burned by the business of the NBA, simply trying to prove he’s worthy of being a reliable player in the league.
The naysayers have returned, convinced he’s not the same brilliant scorer with the lightning speed and fearless demeanor. They say he’s damaged goods, a former All-Star with a bad hip with delusions of grandeur.
In his fourth stop after parts of three seasons with the Celtics, Thomas has landed in Washington, a rebuilding franchise looking for a backcourt spark with All-Star John Wall out for the season. Thomas needed another chance and the Wizards needed a point guard, and so far it’s been a harmonious partnership.
He was averaging 13.2 points and 6.2 assists in six games as he returned to TD Garden Wednesday night for the second time in another uniform. The last visit, with the Denver Nuggets, amounted to little more than a charity case for coach Mike Malone, who had moved Thomas out of the rotation but gave him some minutes because he was back in Boston.
This time, Thomas was in the starting lineup, joining Bradley Beal in the Wizards’ backcourt, and finishing with 18 points and seven assists in Washington’s 140-133 loss. It’s a legit shot to prove himself, another chance — perhaps a final chance — to show he’s capable of approaching his past accomplishments.
“It’s good, man, it’s the opportunity I wanted, to be able to show I can still play at a high level,” Thomas said Wednesday morning at the Wizards’ shootaround. “I’m just slowly getting my groove back. I haven’t played any meaningful minutes in two years. I know it’s going to take a while. I’m going to have some good games, some bad games.”
It’s difficult to discuss Thomas’s glorious run Boston without bringing up the painful ending. In March 2017, Thomas challenged Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns on a drive, and the 6-foot-11-inch Towns landed on him behind the basket stanchion, tearing the labrum in Thomas’s hip.
Thomas continued to play through treatment, carrying the Celtics to the playoffs and through the first two rounds, including a 53-point performance in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Wizards, and then 29 in the closeout game.
Thomas also played through the tragic death of his 22-year-old sister, Chyna, who died in a car accident during the 2017 first-round series against the Bulls. Long before the days of load management and emotional breaks, Thomas rarely missed a game.
In 179 games for the Celtics, Thomas averaged 24.7 points, 6 assists, 2.7 rebounds, 44 percent shooting, and earned two All-Star appearances.
On Aug. 30, 2017, with a chance to get Kyrie Irving, who wanted out of Cleveland, the Celtics traded Thomas to the Cavaliers. Thomas’s hip injury, the one he had played with for two months, was significant, requiring months of rehabilitation.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge was criticized by many players for making that trade, seemingly shipping off a player who had personified the team’s work ethic and reputation, while sacrificing his body in the process.
When asked if he’s forgiven Ainge, Thomas said: “I’ve moved on. I’ve moved on, for sure.”
But Thomas will always carry a “what if” in his baggage. What if he had decided to stop playing before the 2017 playoffs? What if the Celtics had decided to pass on acquiring Irving? What if Thomas had decided on immediate surgery? Would any of those had helped him get the max contract he desired, and helped him retain his status as one of the league’s most exciting players?
Thomas’s experience had a profound effect on NBA players, who viewed the Celtics as exploiting Thomas until he was no longer of use. Players such as Kawhi Leonard viewed Thomas’s injury as a lesson to take their careers and health into their own hands, leading to mistrust between players and certain teams and executives.
The team “load management” is a direct result of what Thomas experienced. Players are now requesting more time to nurse injuries, realizing future contracts depend on their health. Thomas’s decision to play through his hip injury may have cost him more than $100 million.
He is on a one-year, $2.32 million contract this season. He earned $2 million from the Nuggets last season.
“I don’t feel like [I took a bullet for other players]. I know I did, for sure,” he said. “Players have to be smart about their body, worrying about themselves, which you should. The most important thing is yourself. These organizations, most of the time, only care about what you can do for them. They don’t care if you get hurt. They don’t care about that at all, most of them. So take care of yourself, and guys are starting to do that. Look out for yourself and yourself only.”
Thomas is trying to lessen the pain of the past by making an even greater comeback. It’s going to take time. Thomas took two full years to reach complete health after finally deciding to have extensive hip surgery, and then taking his time to rehabilitate. His love for the game inspired him to play hurt, and recently his love for the game dissuaded him from coming back before he was truly ready to play again.
“I want it all back right now, but I know realistically I can’t,” he said. “I can’t skip any steps. I’ve been doing that. This opportunity has been good for me, coach [Scott Brooks] believes in me. My teammates believe in me and that’s all that matters.
“I had down days, just doing the same things every day, trying to get better. It’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I have a huge faith in God and I believe in myself and I always say, ‘It can’t storm forever. It’s gotta open up.’ ”