One year ago, Isaiah Thomas was regularly mentioned in the same breath as Kyrie Irving and John Wall. Today, the two-time All-Star guard more closely resembles Enron and Lehman Brothers.
The Nuggets reportedly agreed on Thursday to sign the 29-year-old Thomas to a one-year contract for the veteran’s minimum, a deal that represents the fourth stage of a precipitous decline that saw his max-contract dreams evaporate in just 12 months.
First, Thomas was traded by Boston to Cleveland without warning, dashing his developing life as a beloved and high-usage franchise face. Then, once he joined the Cavaliers, he battled a hip injury and fit questions alongside LeBron James. Then, without getting the chance to compete for a title, he was dealt to the lottery-bound Lakers at the trade deadline, promptly finding himself buried on the second unit. Finally, he entered the free-agency market and generated so little interest that he was forced to settle for a second-unit role and a bargain-basement deal with a non-marquee, non-playoff team.
The worst part: Things actually could have gone worse. Given concerns over his health, his lack of size, his struggles to adapt to his changing circumstances, it briefly seemed possible that Thomas might be forced to play overseas next season. Who wants a starting point guard who shot 37% from the field and ranks among the league’s worst defenders? Who wants a back-up who still views himself as an MVP candidate? Who is rushing to sign a player who just underwent a long-delayed hip surgery in March?
While Denver’s best offer was peanuts compared to his theoretical value during his Boston days, the deal looks a lifeline. Thomas’s numbers (15.2 PPG, 4.8 APG, 12.6 PER) were down across the board last year, and his impact stats fell off a cliff once he could no longer deliver value as a multi-dimensional scorer. Over 32 games with the Cavaliers and Lakers, he ranked 501st out of 521 NBA players in Real-Plus Minus, meaning he was virtually unplayable at both ends.
His pretty lay-ups turned into blocked shots. His step-back swishes turned into ugly clanks. And his three-point range deserted him. Defensively, he was an easy target, like always, given his 5-foot-9 stature.
This qualifies as damning with faint praise, but Thomas somehow represents an upgrade for the Nuggets. Last year was a transition season behind promising starting guards Jamal Murray and Gary Harris, as Denver parted ways with 36-year-old Jameer Nelson and then gave up on Emmanuel Mudiay by trading the 2015 lottery pick to New York. With Will Barton in line for a promotion to life as a full-time starter, the frontcourt-heavy Nuggets have a roster chasm when it comes to second-unit playmaking and offense initiation.
When will Thomas be fully healthy? Can he regain his scoring form? Are his best days gone for good? The Nuggets just happen to be desperate enough to explore those questions.
Denver represents a reasonably attractive platform for Thomas to attempt to resuscitate his market value. In addition to the Nuggets’ need for bench pop, there’s shared history between Michael Malone and Thomas. Coach and player were together in Sacramento for the 2013-14 season, when Thomas played his way into a four-year contract with Phoenix. Then, as now, Thomas was fighting to establish himself as a difference-maker, and Denver is surely betting that it will help to have a familiar face around now that his career has come full circle.
It’s worth noting too that Thomas won’t face the intense scrutiny that followed him in both Cleveland and LA. There’s real value to life in the shadows for a rehabbing player that’s trying to rediscover his identity.
Like Golden State’s unexpected play for DeMarcus Cousins, this signing works because Denver’s worst-case scenario is a clean break should Thomas struggle with his health or role. The Nuggets can simply move forward—no harm, no foul—at the first sign of tension, shifting the full responsibility for this partnership’s success to Thomas.
To rejuvenate his volatile stock, Thomas must prove that he has processed his hard knocks and given real thought to his ideal fit on a winning team. However, buying into a “less is more” approach is never easy, especially when a long-anticipated cashout never materialized.