For Cavs, Wizards guard Thomas Offers a Glimpse of the Strange Ol' Days

Sam Amico

A lot has transpired since the Cavaliers traded Kyrie Irving, and they will see a reminder of that Friday in our nation's capital.

His name is Isaiah Thomas and he was supposed to be the key piece to the Irving deal with Boston back in August 2017.

That was just two years ago. But today, Irving is with the Brooklyn Nets and Thomas the starting point guard for the Washington Wizards. 

You remember Thomas, don't you?

You certainly remember Irving.

Trading him was general manager Koby Altman's first order of business. Altman took over for David Griffin, who couldn't come to terms on a new contract. Not long after, Irving said he wanted out.

Welcome to your dream job, Mr. Altman. Good luck.

Altman discussed several trade scenarios with several teams. Some offered the equivalent of peanuts, a tall soda and Cracker Jacks for Irving. That's because they were afraid Irving might leave in free agency in 2019.

The Celtics were not afraid. They put together what they believed was a strong offer. They really wanted Irving and they wanted him to know it. Then he left in free agency anyway.

But back to Thomas and the Cavs. They meet again (7 p.m., FOX Sports Ohio).

When Altman made the trade, Thomas was coming off a season in which he led the Eastern Conference in scoring at 28.9 points per game. It was a career year.

He was also coming off a season in which he suffered a major hip injury against the Cavs in the playoffs. No one was sure how well Thomas would recover. At 5-foot-9, it's hard enough to have success in the NBA. Obviously, Thomas found a way. The question was, would a player his size be able to withstand the pounding his body (specifically, his hip) would take on nightly basis?

That uncertainty was partially how Altman convinced the Celtics to throw in the draft pick. Not just any pick, mind you. It was highly likely a lottery pick. Oddly enough, it arrived to the Celtics via the Nets.

Along with Thomas and the pick, the Cavaliers acquired veteran small forward Jae Crowder and young center Ante Zizic.

For the Cavs, only the pick (now Collin Sexton, selected eighth overall in 2018) and Zizic remain.

TRADING PLACES

Thomas' hip became a major story of the early 2017-18 season. This is when LeBron James was still on the team and the Cavs still had championship dreams.

Thomas finally made his Cavs debut in January of that year. Within a couple weeks, he proved to be a lousy fit and was even the source of a some drama in the locker room. 

The Cavs couldn't wait to get rid of him. His contract was coming off the books at the end of that season, so Altman knew there would be a decent market.

Altman was right.

As part of a roster-wide purge at the February trade deadline, Altman sent Thomas and Channing Frye (and a late first-round pick) to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Cavaliers received Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson in return. Nance Jr. and Clarkson remain a major part of things for the Cavs. 

Thomas appeared in just 15 games with the Cavs that season, 17 with the Lakers. But his hip troubles resurfaced and the Lakers shut him down. They made no effort to re-sign him.

So Thomas latched on with the Denver Nuggets late in free agency in 2018. It was a deal for the veteran's minimum. This for the man who once said the team hoping to sign him as a free agent had "better back up the Brink's truck."

Instead, Thomas received the type of paycheck that's usually reserved for guys whose main goal is to be decent in the G League. The Nuggets never sent Thomas down to the minors, but he was nailed to the bench -- making just 12 appearances for a West contender.

Like the Lakers, the Nuggets made no effort to bring back Thomas.

The Wizards, however, were desperate for point guard after an Achilles injury to All-Star John Wall. And Thomas was desperate for a place to play.

They became a match made in basketball heaven. Or maybe more like basketball purgatory.

“I chose the Wizards because they looked me in the eye and told me they would give me an opportunity," Thomas said earlier this week. “I know who I am. I’m one of the best basketball players in the world."

PAST IS THE PAST

Thomas' hip no longer seems to be an issue. But he did injure his thumb entering the season, pausing his start with the Wizards.

He has appeared in five games, started the last two, and is averaging 13.6 points and 6.4 assists. Thomas and standout shooting guard Bradley Beal will undoubtedly be a major challenge for the Cavs' young backcourt of Sexton and rookie Darius Garland.

Still, like the Cavs, the Wizards are 2-5. The Cavs are 0-3 on the road and looking at this like a game they can get.

A lot of it will depend on if they can keep Thomas out of the lane. He's not the player he once was, but he is looking at least as functional as he did with the Cavs.

He seems to have come a ways since his time in Cleveland, and the Cavs are comfortable with the present and excited about the future.

But for Thomas and the Cavs, Friday's game will also have a touch of the past. It is likely to remind both parties what could have been, and what never really was.

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