- The NBA's smallest star casts its largest shadow over the 2017-18 season. Isaiah Thomas won't be on the floor to start the year, but he's out to prove the Celtics made a mistake. "It takes more than talent," he said. They lost a lot of heart and soul."
A green-and-gray mini basketball sits on a bed of sand-colored rocks next to the pool in the backyard. The ball belongs to five-year-old Jaiden Thomas, son of Isaiah Thomas, whose name and image grace the side of it. Jaiden brought the ball from Boston to Cleveland, a reminder that his father used to play for the Celtics and played so well they sold souvenirs with his picture on them. Jaiden’s family does not have a hoop at their new home in Westlake, Ohio, a two-story brick traditional with a circular driveway framed by oak trees. So if they want to shoot, they cross the quiet street to the Strong residence. “Excuse me,” Isaiah said, when he first knocked on the Strongs’ front door one overcast afternoon in late September. “Can we use your hoop?”
Joyce Strong laughed because nobody had put a ball through that rusted rim since her daughter, Terry, moved out a couple decades ago. And she apologized because at some point a snow plow rammed the black stanchion, knocking the basket slightly off-center. “That sounds perfect,” Isaiah replied. As he and Jaiden fired jumpers from the Strongs’ cement slab, Joyce and her husband took stock of their affable new neighbors. “I think that’s the point guard the Cavs just got,” Tom said, looking for the local newspaper to provide confirmation. “I don’t know,” Joyce responded. “Isn’t he too small?”
For six years NBA officials asked the same question, until last season, when Thomas provided a definitive answer. No, he is not too small, and yes, the Kings were foolish to bench him and the Suns senseless to trade him and others irresponsible to overlook him. At 5'9", Thomas averaged the most points in the Eastern Conference, putting up totals Kyrie Irving would envy: 41 against Detroit and Portland, 44 against Toronto and Memphis, 52 against Miami and 53 against Washington. The Wizards outburst came in the second round of the playoffs, six weeks after Thomas injured his hip at TD Garden, when he attempted a layup over four Timberwolves and 7-foot center Karl-Anthony Towns crashed down on top of him. But the Celtics were scrapping for the No. 1 seed in the East. Thomas wanted to play. Then his 22-year-old sister, Chyna, died in a car accident on April 15, the day before Game 1 of the first round. Thomas needed to play.
“Hoop is what lets me forget about everything else,” Thomas says. “The court was the only place I felt comfortable. At home, I’d just sit around and think about my sister, which hurt. On the floor, I was free. Emotionally, I wasn’t even there.” Cortisone provided anesthetic for the hip, basketball for the heart. Numb all over, Thomas kept fighting around triple teams and hurtling through 7-footers until the East finals, when he couldn’t push off his right foot or cross over anybody.
So much intrigue has unfolded since: interminable doctor’s appointments, physical-therapy sessions, MRIs. Thomas was traded from Boston to Cleveland, and then he wasn’t, and then he was. His hip became the most scrutinized body part since Donald Trump’s hands. At his house in the Seattle woods, he tried to mourn his sister’s death with family and friends, but peace was elusive. For the first time, it seemed, no one questioned his height and everyone his health.
Thomas won’t play on opening night against the Celtics and there’s a chance he won’t even play on Christmas Day against the Warriors, but his presence will loom over this entire NBA season, casting a shadow longer than his frame. If Thomas comes back at full strength from a torn labrum in his right hip—and the date doesn’t really matter, as long as it’s before April—the Cavaliers will be deeper and tougher than ever, a lock for the Finals and a threat to the Warriors. But if Thomas returns a lesser version of himself, the Celtics have a chance and the Dubs a repeat. “Something crazy is going to happen again,” Thomas says, “because that’s how it always goes with me.”
The Trade—Irving to the Celtics; Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, the Nets’ first-round pick next year and the Heat’s second-round pick in 2020 to the Cavs—was preposterous enough, on multiple levels. For one thing, players don’t ask to leave LeBron James, as Irving did. For another, conference rivals don’t swap franchise point guards, especially when one of those floor generals is a happy and loved 28-year-old who played through injury and grief while recruiting landmark free agents in successive summers. “None of it made any sense,” Thomas says. “It still doesn’t make any sense. I’m still asking, ‘What the hell happened?’ It’s a trade you make in NBA2K. It’s not a trade you make in real life.”
Four days after the deal was first agreed upon, Thomas flew to Las Vegas for the Floyd Mayweather–Conor McGregor bout. Thomas has been close to Mayweather since 2011, when they met at a training session in Vegas and went to a Robin Thicke concert. Thomas sat in Mayweather’s locker room at T-Mobile Arena as trainers wrapped the champ’s hands for McGregor. “What the hell is going on?” Mayweather asked. Thomas had just completed a physical, a formality to finalize the trade, but Cavaliers doctors came away concerned Thomas would miss more time than originally anticipated. Mayweather used his final minutes of fight prep to query his friend.
“I left Cleveland, everybody was excited, everybody was on board,” Thomas explains. “Then I get off the plane in Vegas and there are all these stories about my hip. People were looking at me like I had one leg.” His 2017, which started with so much promise, was ending with so much pain. “Best year of my career,” Thomas says, “worst year of my life.” At the fight, he sat a row in front of Warriors forward Draymond Green, two second-round picks made good. From Green’s perspective, the uncertainty surrounding Thomas was not strange. It was standard. “This,” he said, “is your story.”
In February 2012, as a rookie drafted 60th overall, Thomas was the Kings’ starting point guard. “That summer,” he begins, “they brought in Aaron Brooks.” He won back the job by January. “That summer, they traded for Greivis Vasquez.” He regained his spot by December. “That summer, they didn’t even offer me a contract.” Five teams expressed interest in Thomas, who had averaged 20.3 points and 6.3 assists in his third season with the Kings, but he signed with the first one he visited. Even though Phoenix already employed point guards Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, Thomas felt wanted, a foreign sensation. “I should have waited,” he admits. “I fell into it.” Seven months later, the Suns sent him to Boston at the trade deadline, 10 minutes after they shipped Dragic to Miami. “Boston?” Thomas said to himself when he heard the news on the team bus. “Not Boston.”
The Celtics were rebuilding, but Thomas expedited the project. Not only did he become a back-to-back All-Star, one year he wooed free agent Al Horford on a trip to Atlanta and the next he lured Gordon Hayward over a dinner in Boston. “We made the Celtics cool again,” Thomas says. His older son, James, advised him as recently as July: “You should play with LeBron. You should sign with Cleveland.”
“Stop that,” Thomas hushed. “We’re trying to beat Cleveland!” When Thomas scored 53 points against Washington, he took a moment at the free throw line to savor the Garden’s MVP chants. “Damn,” he thought, “this is everything I wanted.”
It lasted 10 days. In Game 6, the Wizards leveled him with a sledgehammer screen and his right leg throbbed. Effects of the pre–playoff cortisone shot had waned. “I never felt pain like that,” Thomas winces. After an agonizing flight home to Boston, he put up 29 and 12 in a Game 7 triumph to the amazement of Celtics doctors. “I don’t know how you’re doing this,” one marveled. The stakes were too high to sit. Perhaps they were also too high to play.
Five months have passed and Thomas rises from his kitchen table to stretch his right hip. “No doubt about it, I should have sat out the playoffs,” he says. “No way around it, I made it worse.” After Game 2 of the East finals, the Celtics shut down Thomas, and he braced for surgery. “I thought I’d get it done in a couple days and start rehab,” he recounts. Thomas went to New York City for an appointment with Bryan Kelly, a leading orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery and an expert in hip preservation. According to Thomas, Kelly prescribed rest rather than surgery and asked him to return for another MRI in six weeks, when inflammation diminished. Thomas, a regular at Seattle’s renowned pick-up runs, wasn’t even allowed to shoot with Jamal Crawford.
On July 18, Thomas underwent another MRI in New York, attended by Celtics general manager Danny Ainge and team officials. Thomas wasn’t recovering as quickly as he’d hoped, but he left New York encouraged. “It was a good appointment,” he recalls. “Dr. Kelly told me I should continue to rest it.” The Celtics dispatched a physical therapist to Seattle to work with Thomas twice a day in August. He knew Irving wanted out of Cleveland. He had no warning he might be involved.
Sacramento and Phoenix, Aaron Brooks and Eric Bledsoe, provided an early education in the business of basketball. But they could not prepare Thomas for Aug. 22. He has wracked his brain for reasons the Celtics moved him, having been assured performance and personality were not among them. Ainge acknowledged that Thomas’s health played a role, as did his contract. By any normal measure, Thomas is richly compensated at $6.2 million this year, but in the NBA he is a dime-store steal who finally reaches free agency next summer. The irony, of course, is that Thomas jeopardized both health and earning potential while playing hurt for the Celtics.
“I’ve been looking at this wall for five hours,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens texted Thomas after the trade, “trying to figure out what to say to you.” When Sacramento let Thomas walk in 2014, he left town telling himself, “F--- Sacramento. I’m about to kill those dudes.” When Phoenix exiled him the following winter, he pledged, “O.K., now they’re gonna get it.” But there will be no revenge tour this time. “Boston is going to be all love,” he vows, with one exception. “I might not ever talk to Danny again. That might not happen. I’ll talk to everybody else. But what he did, knowing everything I went through, you don’t do that, bro. That’s not right. I’m not saying eff you. But every team in this situation comes out a year or two later and says, ‘We made a mistake.’ That’s what they’ll say, too.”
The trade sat in transactional purgatory for a week as the Cavs investigated Thomas’s hip. They knew he would miss games. They needed to gauge how many. Meanwhile, reports circulated with outside doctors drawing foreboding comparisons with other cases. “They hadn’t even seen one of my MRIs, and they were acting like I was damaged, like this might ruin my career,” Thomas says. “I’m not damaged, I’m just injured. But mentally it messed with me. You don’t know what the Celtics are saying to save their ass or what the Cavs are saying for leverage.” Thomas called Kelly and asked, “Am I missing something? Is there something I should know?” The doctor tried to calm him, citing other patients with more severe conditions who returned to all-NBA levels.
The Cavaliers squeezed another pick out of the Celtics, the 2020 second-rounder, an attempt to mitigate some risk. They wanted to bet on Thomas, but they couldn’t be sure when he will heal or how he will perform. In truth, they still can’t. They are far more optimistic, though, than when they first acquired him. Thomas is working out six days a week, running on an AlterG antigravity treadmill and doing defensive slides in the pool. When the Cavs practice, he lifts, and when they lift, he hits the court. He drains one-dribble pull-up jumpers. Shuttling side-to-side remains a challenge. According to Thomas, the inflammation and bone bruise in his hip are actually more restrictive than the torn labrum, which some athletes are able to endure without much hindrance.
From New York, Kelly confers with Cavaliers doctors about treatment plans and rehab schedules. Thomas wants to beat the organization’s timetable, late December or early January, and his wife recently caught him sleeping with a basketball at night. But he can’t apply the pressure on himself that he did before. He wears a pair of sandals with slow printed over his left foot, grind over his right. The sandals are purple, the color of his Washington Huskies, one team that couldn’t trade him.
“The nice thing about the Cavs is nobody is in a rush,” Thomas says. “Most places are trying to get you back, which isn’t always best for you. These guys know they’re going to play in June. It’s a given.” When Thomas went from Phoenix to Boston two years ago, he got a call from his namesake, who informed him he’d been upgraded. When he went from Boston to Cleveland, Isiah Thomas rang again, with a similar message: “Every time you fall down, you always get up, and the situation is better than you thought it would be.”
He may need a few more conversations to be convinced. “I felt like I was building my own thing in Boston and we were close,” Thomas laments. “We were so close! Dang! That’s what hurts. We went from the lottery to the conference finals. We just got Hayward. We were right there. Think of all the national TV games we were about to have.” He slaps his side. But he also recognizes that his son James, the LeBron fan, had legitimate reasons for pushing Cleveland. “I get to be with the best player in the world now,” Thomas says. “I’ll only have one guy on me. All the double and triple teams will be on 23.”
Before training camp, the Cavaliers convened in Santa Barbara and Thomas reminisced with Kevin Love about their old AAU squad in Portland, United Salad. “Horrible name,” Thomas cracks, “great team.” Love, who used to host Thomas for pregame sleepovers, told his friend in so many words that the salad days are here again. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue is already drawing up sets for Thomas and Love, Thomas and LeBron. Isaiah visualizes Oracle Arena, a Finals MVP trophy in his arms and a max contract on the way. Men who are 5'9" don’t make the NBA without king-sized confidence. “I just gotta get healthy and show the world again,” Thomas says. “That’s not a question for me. It’s only a question for everybody else.”
Thomas always believed the Celtics matched up better with Golden State than they did Cleveland, but Eastern bedrocks have shifted and identities have changed. The C’s are more skilled than they used to be, the Cavs more defiant. “Boston is going to be good,” Thomas predicts. “They’ve got really good players and a great coach. But it takes more than talent. They lost a lot of heart and soul.” Thomas is limited on defense, but the same goes for Irving. Crowder helps cover gaps, a sticky wing the Cavs could have used on Kevin Durant last June, allowing LeBron to roam.
Celtics coaches still text Thomas, checking on him. The first couple of weeks in Cleveland were awkward, when the family was staying at The 9 hotel downtown, in the midst of the Indians’ 22-game winning streak. Jaiden was starting kindergarten and fireworks kept exploding outside his window after bedtime. “Is it always like this?” wondered Thomas’s wife, Kayla. But by mid-September they were ensconced in tranquil Westlake, neighbors dropping off cupcakes and Kayla reciprocating with candles. Jaiden, who spent the past two years in a Cambridge apartment, scooted around the neighborhood with new friends he called his bros. “If they’re happy,” Thomas says, “I’m happy.”
Make no mistake, however, the Thomases are renting. “We were about to buy a place in Boston,” Isaiah laughs. “We won’t ever do that again.” He is understandably wary of NBA politics and power brokers. But he trusts Dr. Kelly—even though he has asked a half-dozen times if he should have undergone the operation—and Aaron Goodwin, the agent who is advising him. If Thomas does not fully recover, he can always get the surgery as a last resort. “My career is a fight,” Thomas says. “I’m not a regular superstar where whatever happens, it’s all right. Every day is a fight. I need people who understand that fight.” Basketball’s smallest heavyweight pauses to consider where his bout stands.
“Oh, we’re only in the middle rounds,” he declares. “I’m playing till I’m 40.”