Isiah Thomas continues to marvel at the brilliance of LeBron James.
James piled up eight consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference finals from 2011 to 2018, hoisting three championship banners along the way. Now James has his Los Angeles Lakers primed for their first trip to the NBA Finals in a decade, with only the upstart Denver Nuggets standing in their way.
“Look at every legend’s coaching tree and you can see how, philosophically, their greatness is formed,” said Thomas. “Kareem, Magic, Bird, Jordan, myself, you can look at our coaches in college and the pros and study the way we learned the game. LeBron James came out of high school. Who was his teacher? LeBron is a genius-type basketball mind, and that’s why I refer to him as the Einstein of basketball.”
During his Hall of Fame career, Thomas played deep into the NBA playoffs for five consecutive seasons, which may as well have been an eternity in professional basketball. But James has set a new standard in postseason excellence, still dominating the league at the age of 35.
“I admire his insatiable appetite to be on top and stay on top,” said Thomas. “I’ve never seen a player dominate so many statistical categories. We’ve had players dominate certain areas, but we’ve never seen a player that truly does it all. And he’s done it, without fail, for 17 years. For now, Kareem is the best that’s ever done it. But by the time he’s done, LeBron James will be the best we have ever seen play the game of basketball.”
Thomas possesses a rare basketball portfolio. He won a national title at Indiana University, two championships with the Detroit Pistons, and has served as a broadcaster, coach and team executive. Now 59, he takes immense pride in highlighting the game that completely transformed his life.
Considering his elite status in the NBA, Thomas was asked if he was hurt by his portrayal in the Michael Jordan–led The Last Dance documentary, which carefully chose its details, painting a narrative of Jordan as the hero and Thomas as the villain.
“I thought we played basketball and everybody went home,” said Thomas. “To feel that way after all these years, the level of whatever he’s carrying around, I think all of us who watched it were a little shocked by it.”
No stranger to adversity, Thomas’s loudest response has been his compelling coverage to the NBA playoffs. In addition to his work as an NBA analyst for Turner Sports, Thomas is also an integral part of TNT’s newest series connected to the game, The Arena. The show runs before the next three games of the Western Conference finals, providing a perspective on social justice, the NBA strike, life in the bubble and COVID-19 vaccine testing. These topics are not usually discussed in the lead-in to the conference finals, but with a panel that includes Cari Champion, Thomas and Draymond Green, it is an opportunity for viewers to gain a deeper perspective of those they watch on the parquet.
“We’re looking at the players outside of the arena as citizens,” said Thomas. “We critique their game when they’re in jersey, but also explore how life is for them and their families during this particular time in America. People are starting to listen and hear their story, more than just as basketball players, but as citizens in the United States.
“We’re able to look at all things, racially, culturally, socially, systemically. I can speak to these subjects as a player as well as with my scholarly background, and The Arena gives us a platform to jump into the nuance. It really connects sports, politics, race and culture, and gives us the chance to talk about it and respectfully debate.”
Thomas adds a personal touch to his coverage of the Lakers-Nuggets conference finals series. He famously led the Pistons to two NBA championships with Chuck Daly as the team’s head coach, but he was also especially close with Brendan Malone, an assistant on Daly’s staff. Malone is the father of Nuggets coach Michael Malone, who Thomas has known for decades.
“I’ve known Michael Malone since he was 18 years old,” said Thomas. “Brendan Malone was our assistant coach in Detroit, and he has been a part of every NBA job I’ve ever had. He was our coach in Toronto, he was with me in Indiana, and for a while in New York. Our families are very close, and not only has he been a great coach to me, but he’s also been a great mentor for me and helped me navigate America through racial turmoil and strife. I love Brendan Malone, and I’m extremely happy to watch Michael succeed.”
Malone pieced together a coaching masterpiece in the Nuggets’ final three games against the Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference semis, making in-game adjustments that helped propel the team to three straight victories against a heavily favored Clippers team.
“You need coaching when things are bad more than when everything is going well, and he coaches and inspires his players to be better,” said Thomas. “Look at the confidence in Jamal Murray during big moments. He doesn’t shy away from the ball, he goes to it. His growth and maturity are directly traced to Michael Malone’s strengths as a coach and a person.
“Look at how the situation was handled with Michael Porter Jr. asking for more touches. Coach Malone didn’t embarrass his player on national television, he didn’t bench him. He coached him. Had Coach Malone handled the Porter situation differently, that could have led to the team having a big blow up. But he’s been around basketball his entire life, he’s been through great moments and firings. Basketball is a game you never master. You’re forever learning, and he understands that.”
There will certainly be a plethora of lessons for Malone and his Nuggets to learn against the Lakers, who controlled the opening game of the series, using their game plan to effectively limit emerging star Nikola Jokic.
“The way the Lakers were able to defend Jokic and put him in foul trouble early, that impacted the whole game,” said Thomas. “It took away a lot of his aggressiveness, which made me think back to old-school Celtics-Pistons playoff matchups. The elimination of one player off the floor for a certain amount of time, that used to be our strategy. We knew we couldn’t beat the Celtics if Bird, McHale and Parish played 40-plus minutes...The Lakers were able to get Jokic in foul trouble early and that totally disrupted Denver’s game plan and took them out of their offensive rhythm.”
In order for Los Angeles to advance to the NBA Finals, Thomas noted that Lakers coach Frank Vogel needs to remain committed to JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard at center, noting that two players who seemed irrelevant to the team’s title aspirations are now suddenly pivotal in its quest to reach the Finals.
“Jokic has had an advantage in every series because he’s been able to use his size and weight, and he’s a great outside shooter,” said Thomas. “His post play and interior play were truly a problem for the Clippers, but it’s a tough matchup with McGee and Howard, two traditional, classic centers. The post game has been totally eliminated from most NBA offenses, so this is rare, but McGee and Howard and good low post defenders, and they pose problems for Jokic.”
Thomas retired after the 1993–94 NBA season, but he remains a part of playoff lore, including stats that are still relevant in 2020. Lakers point guard Rajon Rondo recently passed Thomas on the career playoff assist list, and Rondo jumped into the top 10 this past Friday by passing Jordan. A trip to the NBA Finals could allow Rondo to elevate himself as high as sixth on the list, as he seeks to win his first NBA title since 2008 and redefine his basketball legacy.
“Rondo and LeBron are two of the smartest players in the league and they’re two of the best facilitators,” said Thomas. “After all those playoff battles, now they’re doing it on the same team in the playoffs. When it comes down to playoff basketball, it comes down to how long you sustain that concentration. From a mental standpoint, there aren’t many better than Rondo.”
One constant through the history of the NBA is that championships are never handed out. Teams need to forcefully rip away the torch from their predecessor, like Bird’s Celtics did the Sixers, Magic’s Lakers to the SuperSonics, Thomas’s Pistons to the Celtics, and Jordan’s Bulls to the Pistons. As history continues to repeat itself, Murray will have to find a way to lead his Nuggets past James, though that feat is more likely to happen in 2021 or 2022.
“Right now, I question if the Nuggets can beat the Lakers in a series,” said Thomas. “They definitely have the talent, but do they have the basketball IQ to compete with LeBron James? He’s smart enough to find out what you do defensively, then exploit it. And with Anthony Davis, LeBron has the perfect player to attack all areas. Davis was a point guard in high school before he had his growth spurt, which reminds me a little of Marcus Camby.
“Davis has that hunger to win, and LeBron has all those intellectual skills. That’s what made Bird, Magic and Kareem so difficult to beat. Along with their physical gifts, they were exceptionally smart. For a small player like me, I counted on beating people with my wit. LeBron’s intellect, which has been on display for the past 17 years, separates him as a player. It is going to be very, very difficult for the Nuggets to prevent him from his next trip to the Finals.”