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No Brinks truck: Isaiah Thomas takes historic tumble from top five in MVP to minimum salary

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In the summer of 2016, as he was stuck on a relatively low-paying contract he’d signed years earlier and lesser players were landing massive deals, Isaiah Thomas looked ahead to his 2018 free agency: “They better bring out the Brinks truck.” He backed up that statement with a top-five finish in MVP voting then declared again last summer: “I’m a max guy. I deserve the max. … My time is coming. They know they’ve got to bring the Brinks truck.”

Yesterday, Thomas agreed to a one-year, minimum contract with the Nuggets.

Thomas’ fall has been sharp and costly. The Celtics traded him to the Cavaliers last summer, and his physical was so troubling, Boston sent Cleveland an extra pick to complete the deal. Thomas tried to rehab his hip without surgery, missed a long chunk of the season then came back hobbled. Even on a team with LeBron James and slowed himself, Thomas played his same ball-dominant style anyway – to the detriment of the team. Thomas was destructively inefficient as he tried to work his way back. He also played a part in the Cavs’ toxic chemistry. The Cavaliers traded him to the Lakers before the deadline due more to his expiring contract than playing ability. Thomas played a little in Los Angeles then finally underwent surgery.

As he found this summer, there just isn’t much of a market for 29-year-old 5-foot-9 point guards with attitude concerns and far larger health concerns.

Maybe that isn’t fair. Perhaps, Thomas – who was the very last pick in the 2011 draft and has repeatedly exceeded expectations – deserves more benefit of the doubt.

Maybe it is fair. Small guards tend to drop off quickly around Thomas’ age, and his hip injury only exacerbates worry.

It’s definitely historic.

Clyde Drexler earned $1,378,000 while placing second in MVP voting. He earned the same salary the following season then got a raise to $1,578,000 the season after.

That’s the last time a player earned less than Thomas’ $2,029,463 salary for next season while finishing top five for MVP or within two seasons after.

It was also more than 20 years ago.

The salary cap has risen considerably since, especially for the last few years with the new national TV contracts in effect – part of the reason Thomas thought he’d get paid. Instead, he’ll earn less than 2% of the salary cap.

That’s by far the lowest mark for a player in a top-five MVP season or within two seasons after.

Here are the smallest percentages of the salary cap a player earned in a top-five MVP season or within two seasons after since 1991 (as far back as Ryan Bernardoni’s salary data goes):

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Especially disappointing for Thomas: He also ranks No. 2 and No. 4 on the above “leaderboard.” He outperformed his previous contract – a four-year, $27 million deal signed in 2014 – and believed he’d be rewarded handsomely this year. But he got hurt and declined then settled for the minimum.

Only Chris Paul – who finished second for 2008 MVP while still on his rookie-scale contract – comes close to Thomas’ percentage of the salary cap while in a top-five MVP season or within two seasons after. In fact, most of the seasons on the above list were by players on their rookie-scale deals.

The most comparable veterans are Scottie Pippen, who finished sixth for 1996 MVP, and Drexler. Drexler eventually got a raise to a $9.81 million salary (and traded to the Rockets the same season). Pippen also got his massive deal in Houston, part of his trade from the Bulls.

But Thomas’ big payday remains elusive.

He’ll have a chance to prove himself in Denver and regain his Brinks-truck momentum. But he’ll do so backing up Jamal Murray, and Thomas will be on the wrong side of 30 when he re-enters free agency. Even if he stays healthy next season, teams will not forget about his hip injury.

This story probably won’t have a happy ending.

Watch Zion Williamson score 25, lead Pelicans to crucial win vs. Trail Blazers

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Zion Williamson had 25 points for his seventh straight game with at least 20 points, and the New Orleans Pelicans beat the short-handed Portland Trail Blazers 128-115 on Friday night.

The No. 1 draft pick was playing in just his 11th game after a right knee injury sidelined him for the first half of the season.

The Pelicans, who led by as many as 22 points, have won four of their last five games.

The Blazers, who have lost three straight, were without Damian Lillard, who is expected to miss three or more games because of a groin injury that occurred in Memphis last week. It kept Lillard out of the All-Star Game and the 3-point contest last weekend.

Lillard is averaging a career-high 29.5 points and 7.8 assists per game. His absence hurts the Blazers, who went into the game 3.5 games back of Memphis for eighth in the Western Conference standings.

And it’s not just Lillard: Portland had only nine players available for the game.

CJ McCollum took over as point guard and finished with 27 points and 10 assists. Hassan Whiteside added 19 points and 12 rebounds.

The Pelicans were among four teams, along with the Blazers, fighting for those last playoff berths with just a third of the season left. Coach Alvin Gentry said he’s treating the last 27 games like a college season.

“We want to play to get into a tournament. We want a high seed. Those are the things that we’ve talked about. Obviously, we have to play good basketball,” Gentry said.

The Pelicans also won the previous three meetings this season with Portland. Earlier this month in New Orleans, Williamson had 31 points and nine rebounds in a 138-117 victory over the Blazers.

Williamson, who played just one season at Duke before going pro, went into the game against the Blazers averaging 22.1 points and 7.5 rebounds.

His streak of games with 20-plus points is the longest among NBA rookies this season. And he was the first player since Michael Jordan to have 20 or more in eight of his first 10 NBA games.

Lonzo Ball’s 3-pointer put the Pelicans up 29-17 in the opening quarter. But the Blazers closed within 40-38 early in the second on Whiteside’s dunk. It was as close as Portland could get, and Williamson’s dunk gave New Orleans a 54-46 lead.

Williamson’s layup pushed the Pelicans’ advantage to 65-50 and New Orleans led 73-63 going into halftime. He led all players with 19 points.

Consecutive jumpers from Carmelo Anthony and Whiteside’s dunk pulled Portland within 80-75 in the third quarter. The Pelicans pulled away with a 12-0 run to head to the fourth with 102-83 lead.

Portland closed the gap a bit in the fourth when back-to-back 3-pointers from Trevor Ariza and McCollum got the Blazers within 114-105. Jrue Holiday‘s 3 and Ball’s layup extended New Orleans’ lead again and fans at the Moda Center headed for the exits.

Holiday finished with 20 points and nine assists.

Pascal Siakam scores 37, Raptors remain red hot with win vs. Suns

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TORONTO (AP) — Pascal Siakam had 37 points and 12 rebounds and the Toronto Raptors beat the Phoenix Suns 118-101 on Friday night for their 16th victory in 17 games.

Serge Ibaka scored 16 points, Fred VanVleet and Terence Davis each had 14, Kyle Lowry had 13 points and 10 assists and OG Anunoby aded 12 points for the defending NBA champion Raptors.

After Toronto’s franchise-record 15-game winning streak ended with a loss at Brooklyn in the final game before the All-Star break, the Raptors bounced back by starting the second half with their eighth consecutive home victory.

The Raptors have not lost back-to-back games since an overtime loss at Indiana on Dec. 23 and a home loss to Boston on Christmas Day. Toronto has gone 19-1 since.

Siakam connected on 12 of 19 attempts, going 5 of 9 from 3-point range.

That was just one fewer than the six 3-pointers the Suns managed on 34 attempts. Phoenix shot 17.6%t from long range, its lowest mark of the season. No Suns player made more than one shot from distance.

Devin Booker scored 21 points and Deandre Ayton had 17 points and 10 rebounds for Phoenix. The Suns lost for the seventh time in nine games.

Ayton returned to the starting lineup after missing the final two games before the All-Star break because of a sore left ankle.

Phoenix trailed 93-78 through three quarters, but the Suns cut the gap to six points, 96-90 on a basket by Ayton with 8:08 left to play. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson made a pair from the line, and VanVleet and Siakam both scored to put the Raptors up 102-90 with 6:58 remaining.

Booker missed a 3 with 4:45 left that would have made it a four-point game. Anunoby scored on a dunk and, after another missed 3 by the Suns, Ibaka banked home a 3-pointer to restore Toronto’s 12-point cushion.

Moe Harkless says no buyout with Knicks: “I’ll be here the rest of the year”

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Moe Harkless went from a guy often starting and playing critical minutes for a contender in the Clippers to being the matching salary in a trade and finding himself on the woeful Knicks.

“It is definitely an adjustment with the way things are,” Harkless told Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News. “Everything is different, the culture and everything.”

If there was a player nobody would blame for wanting a buyout and the chance to get back to a team playing for something, it would be Harkless.

That’s not happening. Multiple reports have surfaced that he is not talking buyout with New York running up to the March 1 deadline. The latest comes from Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

Then Harkless was even more direct speaking to Bondy.

“I’ll be here the rest of the year,” he said.

Harkless has fans in NBA front offices, with the Lakers rumored to be among them (although they are about to land Markieff Morris in a similar role). Harkless could play good defensive minutes on the wing down the stretch for a team, buying rest for key guys, plus in the playoffs he could be advantageous in certain matchups.

Morris and the Knicks have time to change their minds, but it sounds like he will play out the season in New York then be a free agent next summer.

Lakers reportedly will waive DeMarcus Cousins to clear roster spot

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If the Lakers are going to add Markieff Morrisas has been rumored — or anyone else via free agency, they are going to need to clear out a roster spot.

That has the Lakers looking to waive DeMarcus Cousins, a report broken by Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.

Cousins signed with the Lakers over the summer but never set foot on the court with them after tearing his ACL during summer workouts (which led to a scramble and L.A.’s fortuitous signing of Dwight Howard). He was around the team and rehabbing, and while they would never officially rule him out, Cousins was never expected to play.

He was not waived before because his $3.5 million salary might have been useful in a trade. When that didn’t materialize at the deadline it, became likely he could get waived.

It’s highly unlikely a team picks up Cousins this season, while he continues to rehab from his injury. However, it might be a good roll of the dice this summer by a team to sign him to a minimum contract for next season. Cousins still has some NBA basketball in him, if he can just stay healthy.