A year ago, everything was perfect for Isaiah Thomas. He was a two-time All-Star, which meant he was no longer a novelty act. He was leading the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference and turning fourth quarters into performance art while becoming a Boston folk hero.
By season’s end, IT would be a legitimate Most Valuable Player candidate, finishing fifth in the voting ahead of two-time MVP Steph Curry. In producing one of the best offensive seasons in Celtics’ franchise history, Thomas was named second-team All-NBA. The Brinks truck was surely on its way.
One year later, and Thomas is on his way to Los Angeles to play for the Lakers. It’s the second time he’s been traded in last six months and the second time he’s been shuffled along at the deadline.
Three years ago, his trade to Boston revitalized the franchise and set them on a course toward annual contention. Now, he’s merely trying to get his career back on track after a disastrous run with the Cavaliers.
So much has happened to IT in this past year that it’s impossible to put it all into context.
His beloved sister Chyna died unexpectedly in a car accident just before the start of the playoffs. Shaken with grief, he poured in 33 points in an emotional Game 1 performance against the Bulls. After flying cross country and back between games for the funeral, he continued to play valiantly as the C’s rallied from a 2-0 deficit to win their first playoff series in five years.
Coaches and teammates marveled at his resiliency. Several nights he was on the verge of tears on the postgame podium, yet he never missed a game.
It’s trite in the face of personal tragedy, but Isaiah bonded with the city of Boston in a deep and meaningful way. This went far beyond epic playoff performances and galvanizing moments. The connection was as real as anything in the itinerant universe of professional sports could ever hope to become. The city genuinely loved him and he loved it right back.
That bond was solidified in the second round against the Wizards, where many felt that John Wall was the best player in the series. Thomas responded by scoring 86 points in the first two games as the Celtics won both.
The series proved to be long and hard, with each team holding serve on its home floor. In Game 6, Thomas appeared to aggravate a hip injury that had kept him out of a pair of games earlier in the season. There was some doubt that he would be able to play in Game 7, but there he was, outplaying Wall in a 29-point, 12-assist performance for the ages.
The hip finally got the best of him against the Cavs in the conference finals. The precise wording was, “a re-aggravation of a right femoral-acetabular impingement with labral tear.”
Too damaged to continue, Game 2 against the Cavs was the last we saw of Thomas in a Boston uniform. Despite the injury, Thomas continued to work on the Celtics’ behalf, playing a leading role in the free agent recruitment of Gordon Hayward. And that’s when things began to break down.
Surgery was ruled out, but there were unanswered questions about how long it would take Thomas to rehab and get back on the court. With the clock ticking down toward his free agency and the Celtics thinking about challenging Cleveland in the East, there was precious little time to wait.
The end came with a shocking late-summer trade to the Cavs, of all teams, for Kyrie Irving. Concerns over the hip held up the deal for a time, but just like that, the love affair between IT and the Celtics was over.
It wasn’t until January that Thomas was able to return to action. At the time, there was optimism within the Cavs’ ranks that IT would continue their momentum. That optimism didn’t last long.
He was a poor fit offensively alongside LeBron James, and his defensive issues were part of a team-wide epidemic. No longer able to hide him amid other plus-defender, as had been the norm in Boston, the Cavs’ woeful defense left him exposed. There was a team meeting made public that had him questioning Kevin Love, and several on-court interactions between Thomas and his new team that spelled trouble.
The end in Cleveland came quickly. Just 15 games into their shotgun marriage, Thomas was traded to the Lakers in a salary dump. The move opens up a coveted second max free agency slot for Los Angeles this summer.
Where that leaves Thomas is unclear. With Lonzo Ball already on board and free agency beckoning, IT doesn’t figure to be in their long-term plans. At least, not in the way Thomas would like to be in someone’s plans.
Perhaps he can get his career back on track while Ball mends from a knee injury. Maybe he can go back to being the super Sixth Man that many believed he’d be once he left Sacramento all those years ago. Hopefully, he can find a new home this summer where he’s allowed to just be IT.
Isaiah Thomas deserves that much. He gave his heart and his hip to his work, but this is a cold, cruel game sometimes.