Isaiah Thomas, coming off the worst season of his career, will reportedly sign a 1-year deal worth the veteran’s minimum with the Denver Nuggets.
Until the last 12 months happened, this was supposed to be the summer that Isaiah — seven years ago the 60th and final pick in the NBA Draft — signed a huge, multi-year contract that would secure wealth for generations of his family. Instead, he’ll sign for something like $2 million, coming off a deal in which he was the most underpaid veteran in the league for a couple of years.
Now Isaiah has to prove himself ... again.
He had to prove himself worthy of NBA attention as a small, firecracker Pac-12 guard at Washington. He did. He had to prove himself worthy of playing time in Sacramento and then a starting role with the Sacramento Kings. He did. He had to prove he deserved his mid-tier contract with the Boston Celtics. He did. He had to prove his stats weren’t empty — that he truly was one of the best scorers in the league and not just a fluke. He did.
Isaiah fell short a few times, too.
He needed to prove he could work with Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic in Phoenix. That didn’t happen: he and Dragic both got traded away a few months in. He needed to prove he didn’t lose a step after hip surgery and that could play with LeBron James after being involved in the Kyrie Irving trade. Neither worked out.
In fact, the LeBron partnership went so poorly that he was traded again, this time to the Lakers, where LeBron would end up in 2018 NBA free agency. That knocked Isaiah’s own No. 1 free agency option off the board — signing Thomas to a lucrative 1-year deal was no longer viable for LA given how the Cleveland experience had gone down.
Really, the last year could not have gone worse for Isaiah.
If anything is new for Thomas, it’s this. In his meteoric rise in the NBA, from a kid who had to beat out lottery pick Jimmer Fredette for minutes, whose team was constantly trying to replace him despite averaging 20 points per game on a dirt-cheap contract, Isaiah has rarely failed. Even when things went sideways in Phoenix, that was more on the franchise than the player, and it lasted only a brief time before he reversed everything in Boston.
All his career, Isaiah has been fighting the burden of low expectations. That means fighting for minutes, fighting for shots, fighting for a starting role, fighting for a starring role, fighting for respect. Now he’s fighting failure.
There’s a lot to like about his fit and future in Denver. Unlike with Phoenix, he won’t be asked to share playmaking duties with other ball-dominant guards: the Nuggets have Jamal Murray at point guard, but otherwise rely on Will Barton and Nikola Jokic to create offense. Isaiah’s lackluster defense won’t draw special attention because the entire Denver defense is an eyesore. Can you really dig at the undersized Isaiah for being a matador when Jokic struggles to contain pick-and-roll action every time down?
The move also reunites Isaiah with Michael Malone, his coach for one season in Sacramento. It was Malone who first explored what Isaiah could really be, opening up the offense for him. It was under Malone when Isaiah averaged 20 points and six assists per game, moving from frisky Mr. Irrelevant to legit NBA talent worth chasing. (The free agent market was still cool, because the dude is 5’8, but it would have been more frosty had Malone not allowed him to reach maximum potential as a scorer and playmaker with those awful Kings.)
Given how things went in Cleveland, everyone will be watching how Jokic takes to Isaiah. Persistent rumors about locker room impact have followed Thomas throughout his career, from reported clashes with DeMarcus Cousins (be skeptical of those reports) to malfeasance in Phoenix. Isaiah’s mammoth success in Boston cleared much of that up, but getting unceremoniously shipped out of Cleveland brought it all raging back. Those concerns about personality fit almost assuredly remain secondary to fear about his hip injury recovery and its impact on his explosiveness. But both issues will be worth watching in Denver.
The Nuggets are making a huge play for the postseason after missing it again despite 46 wins. Denver’s pulled off quite a coup, arguably upgrading its roster with Isaiah and Michael Porter, Jr. (losing Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, and Darrell Arthur) while dodging the luxury tax. Between Thomas, Barton, Jokic, Murray, and Paul Millsap, there is plenty of firepower for the Nuggets.
Whether the team can lock in enough on defense to boost the win total by a few is a mystery. Malone, for his old reputation as a defense-first coach, has a poor record of finding solutions on that end, and only Millsap is reputed as a stopper (and he’s aging). Isaiah won’t help on that end. But we have evidence of successful teams that just dominate on offense (Cleveland, Minnesota). Denver has done that and can do that even more smoothly now.
Success for Isaiah means success for the Nuggets. In that sense, this is a perfect marriage. And if the Nuggets are successful with Isaiah playing a key role, that should allow him to cash in next summer, when most of the league is set to have salary cap space.
Isaiah’s proven himself many times before. What’s one more effort? Doubt his ability to succeed at the highest levels at your own peril. I.T. has proven he loves nothing more than proving people who doubt him wrong.
Remember when IT was lighting up the league with the Celtics? In Feb. of 2017, SB Nation’s Mike Prada explained how he was doing it.