BOSTON (CBS) — We know professional athletes are paid by the truckload so it’s understandable if you’re less than inclined to hold a pity-party for any multi-millionaire who’s underpaid for his market or may not maximize his wildest financial dreams. Isaiah Thomas could never see that Brinks truck he spent years calling for and, naturally, few are ready to break out even tiniest of violins.
But this isn’t about literal cash. It’s a rags-to-riches tale that simply wasn’t supposed to go this way. The brief but impactful face-of-a-franchise and seemingly Cavalier-in-waiting was the Celtics’ captain in every sense of the word – despite never actually holding the title – and he deserved better.
Feels like yesterday in some sense, but it’s been 30 months since February 19, 2015, when Thomas – then a confident sixth-man – was acquired by the Celts from the Suns for a now laughable return of Marcus Thornton and what turned out to be the 28th pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, Skal Labissiere. To this day, Phoenix general manager Ryan McDonough’s wished for a mulligan.
The C’s were 20-32 when Thomas first suited up in his new uniform against the Lakers under then second-year head coach Brad Stevens. In something of a sign of things to come, the reserve guard erupted for 21 points in just 25 minutes, but endured a shortened night after drawing a pair of technical fouls for disputing an offensive foul. Thomas exited with Boston trailing by four with 5:03 to play in the fourth, and his club went on to lose in overtime, but that contest showed two things that never waned during his time in Green:
Thomas was an offensive sparkplug capable of carrying his new squad, and he was someone who carried himself with his emotions both on and off the floor.
After that first loss to Los Angeles, Boston finished Thomas’ first season with a 20-9 record. A happy-to-be-there series sweep at the hands of the finals-bound Cavs followed.
Over Thomas’ next two full seasons calling the parquet home, he earned a team-friendly total of $13.5 million while proving invaluable with his contributions. Two All-Star nods – the first of his career – and, after the first, he set his sights on All-NBA. He achieved it, while landing fifth in the league’s MVP voting and challenging Boston’s all-time single-season scoring record. Without him, the Celtics were a hard-working team with fans actively rooting for lottery balls. With him, they were a hard-working, more talented 53-win No. 1 seed whose fans were actively rooting for another team’s lottery balls.
All the while, Thomas played a pivotal role in recruiting highly sought-after free agents Al Horford and Gordon Hayward, each of whom agreed to contracts that will pay them at least four times the $6.3 million Thomas will earn this year. That didn’t matter to Thomas. Remember his celebration after Hayward’s signing was announced on July 4? He just wanted to win. In Boston.
Thomas’ swan song season won’t be remembered singularly, though, for his career-high average of 28.9 points or personal-best shooting from the field (46.3 percent) and charity stripe (90.9 percent). Even his often indescribable, breathtaking King In the Fourth late-game heroics won’t be the lasting memory that truly bonded the guard with this city.
When Thomas’ sister Chyna tragically died in a car accident across the country on the eve of last postseason, his teammates – the same ones who one reporter irresponsibly suggested weren’t all fond of their leader – crumbled around him. As he totaled 53 points and eight assists to account for more than a third of the C’s offense in a pair of losses to open a first-round series with the Bulls, the rest of his mates mostly fell flat.
While pledging to forge on with a visibly shaken group — both emotionally and mentally — Stevens held his team together and Boston rallied past Chicago by winning the next four games after Thomas returned from his sister’s funeral in Tacoma, Washington. He didn’t miss a game.
It took a seven-game survival of Washington in round two, but Thomas did the impossible again while scoring 53 points in Game 2 on his late sister’s birthday – following 10 hours of dental surgery – then he added 56 points and 19 assists in Games 6 and 7 on a re-aggravated hip injury that almost cost him the decisive matchup.
Come the Celtics’ first conference finals since Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen were all still friends, Thomas’ strained right hip became too severe to continue, despite his requests. Celts doctors pulled the plug in the second half of a Game 2 blowout. The guard’s final stat line in his last home game for the team that put his stardom on the map: two points (both free throws) on six misses from the field, six assists, three rebounds, and a turnover in 18 minutes. And a minus-32 rating.
For so much of the year, he was a mid-80’s Larry Bird. Then, he limped off like Larry Bird in Game 1 of the 1992 conference semis.
In the five weeks Thomas was available to the Celtics during last spring’s playoffs, he was embraced by Boston fans like never before and as few athletes here have been in recent years. Watching him on tears on the sidelines, cradled by close friend Avery Bradley, it didn’t feel like we were staring at a millionaire. Getting lost in one heroic performance after another in the postseason in the wake of personal tragedy, he seemed both superhuman and relatable at once.
Thomas didn’t accomplish what Pierce or Garnett did and the idea of retiring his No. 4 won’t (and clearly shouldn’t) be entertained. But Thomas, like those superstars, never wanted to wear another uniform. He was a fixture in the community and an idol on the floor. He wanted to finish the job he started under the vision of Danny Ainge and guidance of Stevens and take the Celts from a sub-.500 team to a champion. He didn’t get that chance.
Sports, like anything, are a business. While borderline shocking, Ainge’s heart-wrenching decision to deal his All-Star a week ago certainly wasn’t unjustified. Kyrie Irving is a younger (25), bigger (6-foot-3), more dynamic, superior talent to Thomas, with a brighter future and his prime still years away. He also has a ring and produced one of the biggest shots in finals history to get it.
Though Thomas would surely disagree, and the boulder-sized chip on his shoulder would undoubtedly grow in the unlikely event he reads this, it’s reasonable to believe he peaked last year. His offensive dominance in the fourth quarters of games was record-setting. It was the perfect situation for him in an offense constructed around his talent. Had he stayed, he wouldn’t have regularly repeated those feats next to Hayward, and he most definitely won’t now alongside LeBron James.
That, too, is all to ignore two gigantic factors: Thomas’ health and contract status.
The widely reported holdup in the Celts’ trade with the Cavs being finalized surrounds Thomas’ still-injured hip. As he enters his walk-year with multiple previous demands of being compensated as a max-player, it’s entirely possible he (or the Celts’ medical staff) cost himself that opportunity. By postponing an inevitable surgery that may have left him at full-strength by midseason had he gone under the knife two months ago, or waiting for when he’s ready to return (he’s still not running) to play on an ailment sure to linger, the Brinks truck appears to be pulling away. By delaying the deal and effectively proclaiming Thomas damaged goods, the Cleveland brass may be soiling his medical reputation across the league for next summer.
Then again, if anyone’s shown the propensity to defy the odds and do the unexpected, it’s The Little Guy.
Irving, meanwhile, is a four-time All-Star and undisputed max player with two years and about $40 million remaining on his deal. He’s also reportedly expressed enthusiasm over staying in Boston long-term. Ainge and ownership no longer have to wrestle over whether to give a high-performing 5-foot-9, soon to be 29-year-old guard with a history of taking a physical pounding inside a pact in the neighborhood of $30 million a season.
Thomas is privately feeling betrayed and emotionally wounded he wasn’t shown the loyalty he likely feels he earned, even as he heads to a franchise that’s reached three straight NBA finals and hoisted one banner. He’s occupying his spare time playing NBA 2K17 – using his new team to trounce the one for whom he wanted to retire.
The business side won out. If you aren’t over the trade, you will be soon. Honestly, Thomas will likely move past the deal before most fans. That’s the way it works. Thomas knows that. He’s heading to his fourth team in five years.
Still, Thomas’ time in Boston will never be forgotten. The guy who campaigned, “Pick Me Last,” went from the 60th and final pick in 2011 to an All-NBA talent who never stopped inspiring and, for that, he was beloved.
Beloved by his coach.
Beloved by fans.
And Thomas felt the same.
It won’t be the same seeing Isaiah Thomas looking down at his wrist in another uniform, especially when that inevitably comes at Boston’s expense. But, like it or not, it’s time to say both thank you and goodbye.