Will pending free agent Isaiah Thomas get career back on track?

Ron Jenkins/Getty Images
14 Comments

DETROIT – Some people believe a bad ending between Isaiah Thomas and the Cavaliers was inevitable.

“I think somebody is f—ing stupid,” said Channing Frye, whom Cleveland traded with Thomas to the Lakers as part of a deadline day shakeup.

Nothing was inevitable with Thomas. Nothing is inevitable with Thomas – certainly not his desired Brinks truck.

Thomas will enter unrestricted free agency this offseason trying to reclaim his star standing. Less than a year after finishing fifth in MVP voting, he’s just trying to convince everyone he’s not a sixth man.

Time is running out. In one of the most unfortunate aspects of the trade for him, Thomas went from a team that would have given him an extra couple months to show progress from his hip injury to one that will end its season in a couple weeks. Thomas might finish even sooner, as he left the Lakers to consult doctors about treatment options for his still-ailing hip.

The trade also dented Thomas’ reputation. The Cavs and Lakers seemingly used him more for his expiring contract than on-court ability. The good team didn’t want him. The bad team just wanted to clear cap space. Fairly or not, Thomas not working in Cleveland will reflect poorly on him.

But it didn’t have to turn out this way.

What if Thomas underwent surgery? What if he played for the Cavs’ minor-league affiliate in an extended rehab stint? What if he assumed a smaller offensive load while not yet at full strength? What if the Cavaliers tweaked their system more to accentuate his skills? What if he realized things he said wouldn’t go over well while he was struggling on the court? What if teammates had been more sensitive to what he was trying to overcome? What if Cleveland had been more patient? What if everyone made more of a concerted effort not to judge him against Kyrie Irving, whom the Cavs dealt to the Celtics for a package that included Thomas?

“There are so many things that had to have happened for the situation to be what it what was,” Frye said.

Yet, this is the way it went, and Thomas now has no choice to deal with it.

He has played a little better with the Lakers – but not well and certainly not near his peak form. Still, there advantages to being with Los Angeles.

“Here, he was able to play through his mistakes, where in Cleveland, there was a lot of pressure to be, you know, Isaiah,” Frye said. “Which is almost unrealistic at times, now that I look back at it.”

The big question: Will it ever be realistic again?

Thomas’ determination is incredible. Just 5-foot-9 and the last pick of the 2011 draft, he built himself into a star.

But he’s also 29 now and dealing with a lingering hip injury. Quickness and agility are built into Thomas’ game, and he can’t be the same player if he doesn’t move as well.

Especially in a tight salary-cap environment, teams will have major questions about his health.

They’ll also inquire about his willingness to be a team player. Many of those concerns stemming from his time in Sacramento and Phoenix dissipated in Boston. But they reemerged in Cleveland.

The day Thomas joined Los Angeles, Lakers coach Luke Walton took him out for dinner and calmed a brewing storm. Walton told Thomas told each other what they wanted from each other.

“It’s been a great relationship ever since,” said Walton, who wouldn’t divulge specifics of their conversation but just kept gushing about Thomas:

“He’s been amazing teammate.”

“He’s kind of like having an extra coach on the floor.”

“What he has brought to our group from a leadership standpoint has been awesome.”

Until saying he needed to leave the team, Thomas kept insisting he was healthy enough to play.

“Whatever it is, it hasn’t shown on his face at all,” Walton said. “He’s upbeat. He’s great with his teammates, great with the coaching staff. He’s got just a great way about him that’s fun to be around.”

It’s the type of assessment that could make the difference in a team gambling on Thomas next summer. As the previous couple seasons showed, the upside is high.

“I think Isaiah is a great player, and I think when he gets this opportunity, the way he’s built and wired, he’s going to shock the world or prove somebody wrong,” Frye said. “Or I’m going to be wrong.”

It’s so easy to root for Thomas, the underdog made good. He made it this far. Why can’t he rise from the bottom again?

But injuries are fickle, as the Cavs learned the hard way. Even if Thomas overcame hip woes earlier in his career, it only gets harder with age.

This can’t be what Thomas imagined while playing through injury and on a cheap contract to help the Celtics advance in the playoffs last season. But after he aggravated the injury, Boston pawned him off in the Irving trade, and the Cavaliers cut bait last month.

So, Thomas must face an uncertain future where nothing is inevitable – just as always been the case.