The 60th and final pick of the 2011 draft, Thomas looked to be one year away from inking a "max" contract that could have been worth more than $150 million. Friday, he agreed to a one-year deal with the Nuggets for $2 million — the veteran minimum.
Lindsay Bemis still has the text message on his phone. It was just a few words, but it turned out to be as prescient as it was ominous.
Toward the end of March, 2017, after watching yet another magnificent performance by Isaiah Thomas, the former Curtis High basketball coach shared an observation with the former Curtis High basketball player.
It looked like you were limping a little bit,” Bemis told Thomas.
Let me ask you something: Can you feel bad for someone who has accumulated nearly $30 million worth of salary doing what he loves most? Can you sympathize financially for someone who, if not reckless, should spend the rest of his life in the 1 percent?
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It’s a serious question, because the human condition condemns many of us to think about what we could have had instead of appreciating what we actually have. So can you … should you feel sorry for Thomas?
When Bemis sent that message, Isaiah was the NBA’s second-leading scorer and front man for the soon-to-be top-seeded Boston Celtics. When not getting texts from Bemis, the former Husky was getting them from Tom Brady.
The 60th and final pick of the 2011 draft, Thomas looked to be one year away from inking a “max” contract that could have been worth more than $150 million. Thursday, he agreed to a one-year deal with the Denver Nuggets for $2 million — the veteran minimum.
What Bemis saw two Marches ago was a nagging injury that progressed into a calamitous one. Thomas’ hurt hip forced him to miss two games earlier that season, but didn’t seem to have a damning effect. He re-aggravated it in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, but played through it and helped Boston win the series.
Then, in Game 2 of the conference finals, Thomas ran into a screen by the Cavs’ Kevin Love, which caused swelling in the hip and ended his season. To say he hasn’t been the same since that game is to say Pompeii hasn’t been the same since Vesuvius.
Devoid of his bounce, the 5-foot-9 Thomas was one of the least productive players in the NBA last year. After being traded to Cleveland in the offseason and then to the Lakers a few months later Isaiah watched his scoring average drop from 28.9 points to 15.2 and his field goal percentage from .463 and .373.
Real Plus Minus, an advanced stat ESPN uses to measure a player’s total value, ranked Thomas 501st out of the 521 who stepped on the court last season. His previous achievements are probably the only thing preventing him from having to play overseas.
Part of you has to wonder if Thomas was exhibit A for why Spurs star Kawhi Leonard didn’t play this season. Like Thomas last summer, the former Finals MVP has one year left on his contract, but stayed on the bench despite team doctors clearing him to play after his quadriceps injury.
Do you play through the pain knowing it could end up costing you tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars? Compliments such as “he’s a warrior” don’t show up in a checking account.
The Disney ending to the Thomas saga would be him finding his old form and swimming in suitors next summer. It would befit the career of a man who has consistently defied expectations. Thomas reminded the world of his greatness as a Celitc earlier in the week on his Instagram account, posting gaudy stats accompanied by the words “so quick to forget! I’ll remind them though.” Bemis chimed in as well, saying “he’s proven everyone wrong every step of the way. Anyone who wants to doubt him now is going to eat his words.”
Bemis may be right, but reality tends to beat Disney 99 times out of 100. A lifelong defensive liability due to his height, Thomas isn’t trying to overcome a broken pinkie or strained oblique, but an injury to a part of the body that has derailed titans such as Bo Jackson.
Perhaps reuniting with former Kings coach Mike Malone will spawn some magic. Perhaps the hip surgery he had last March was the beginning of a full recovery. Perhaps that nightmarish 12 months was the necessary plot twist in one of the most remarkable NBA stories ever.
Most of us ant Thomas to feel good again. In the meantime, despite all his success, it’s hard not to feel bad.