Not too long ago, Isaiah Thomas tried, and failed, to suppress a mocking smile when talking about the Washington Wizards.
In 2017, the matchups between the Wizards and the Boston Celtics had mushroomed into a full-on rivalry, and before a regular season game played in January, Wizards players decided to dress in all black as though they were attending a funeral for the team in green. Thomas, then the Celtics’ mighty-mite MVP candidate, heard of the Wizards’ plans and, when asked by reporters, offered a satire for the grave attire.
“That’s cute,” Thomas said with a dimpled sneer that revealed he wasn’t actually sharing a compliment. “It’s definitely not no Game 7. It’s not the playoffs, but if they want to take it that serious, then they can.”
Much has changed in only two years, and Thomas is no longer smirking at the Wizards. Both the team and the former all-star player desperately need each other. He wants an opportunity, and they, as Thomas once referred to the Wizards, require a capable point guard.
On Monday, Thomas agreed to come to Washington on a discount (one year for the veteran’s minimum of approximately $2.3 million). The meager contract, however, is a sacrifice he needs to make as he hopes to revive his stalled career.
Thomas, a dynamic scoring guard generously listed at 5-foot-9, was the living embodiment of a motivational poster — the last player selected in the 2011 NBA draft who went on to make the all-NBA team in 2017, the same year he finished fifth in MVP voting. Since the end of that 2016-17 season, however, Thomas’s career has been derailed by surgery and rehabilitation on his right hip. Boston traded Thomas to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and he has appeared in just 44 regular season games across two seasons for the Cavaliers, Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets.
With the Wizards, Thomas will have a blank slate and a chance to stand out within the void left by John Wall’s injury. Wall may miss the upcoming season — a reality Washington acknowledges, which is why the team applied to the NBA for a disabled player exception — but this absence will possibly open a starting spot for Thomas.
If given the minutes and freedom to play his game, Thomas can attempt to recapture his shooting touch, which has been affected by his hip issues. After the 2016-17 season, when Thomas connected on 37.9% of his 3-pointers, he has averaged poor percentages from beyond the arc: 25.3% with the Cavaliers, 32.7% with the Lakers and 27.9% with the Nuggets.
It’s still anybody’s guess whether Thomas can score with as much vigor now that he has two healthy hips. He couldn’t show the extent of his recovery last year with Denver, which was one of the top teams in the Western Conference and already had a set rotation by the time Thomas made his season debut just before the all-star break. In 12 games, Thomas averaged just 8.1 points and 15.1 minutes. In six of those appearances, Thomas used the limited court time to reach double figures in scoring, but he only shot efficiently twice (a 3-for-5 night for 11 points against Oklahoma City and a 5-for-11 performance for a season-high 16 points in his second game back against Dallas).
While it’s a stretch to believe Thomas can return to being the same player he was during his final season with the Celtics and score almost 30 points a night, he could help take pressure off the Wizards’ best player, Bradley Beal. Despite his shooting percentages at his past few stops, Thomas can provide Washington with better backcourt depth. And the Wizards apparently believe his defense won’t be too detrimental.
Even when Thomas had MVP-level offensive numbers, his statistics could not cover his defensive woes. As a smaller player, Thomas has physical limitations in stopping opponents from trying to score over him, and when he was on the floor during the 2016-17 season, the Celtics surrendered 113.0 points per 100 possessions.
Still, Thomas seemed aware of his reputation. After a 2017 playoff game when then-teammate Avery Bradley described Thomas’s defense as “underrated,” Thomas stopped the praise.
“Don’t hype me. Don’t hype me,” Thomas said. “They say I’m the worst defender in the league. I’m fine with being the worst defender.”
It was his scoring, not defense, that set Thomas apart in his greatest season, when he dropped 53 points against Washington in Game 2 of their second-round playoff series. But that Celtics-Wizards rivalry now rests in peace, after 17 of the 22 players who logged minutes in that Jan. 24, 2017, “funeral” matchup have moved on and both teams have veered in separate directions. The greatest sign of this change is the peace agreement between two former enemies — the team nearing a rebuilding phase and the player needing a reset.