By Eduardo Monk Jr.
After days of will they-won’t they, Cleveland has finally pulled the trigger on an Isaiah Thomas deal. They sent him, Channing Frye and a first round pick to the Lakers for Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. Coming off a serious hip injury that knocked him out of the 2017 playoffs and much of the 2018 season, Thomas is currently suffering through the worst season since his rookie year with a meager 14.7 points on a 36.1% shooting clip while being a total defensive liability game in and game out, sitting at the eighth-worst mark in the league with a -.015 defensive win shares.
Oddly enough, he’s only an offseason removed from his All-Star year placing third in the league for scoring. The Cavs shocked the world with a Kyrie for IT swap in the offseason and it has thoroughly blown up in their faces. He didn’t even see the court until January and when he did finally make his first appearance, he has only made things worse for an already sliding Cavaliers. They were humming along at 24-13 pre-Thomas and though had a few deadly flaws, Thomas in the lineup only multiplied the flaws, going a lackluster 7-9 with the second worst defensive rating in the league once he made his “heroic” return.
So obviously, a change was necessary. If they wanted any chance to keep up with the Warriors or even the Celtics for that matter, Thomas had to go. And while they didn’t get a Kyrie Irving in return, Clarkson is a strong depth piece to aid the underachieving offense and Nance’s rebounding is going to be a relief. And after a total flurry of moves on the deadline, Cleveland has changed up just about everything on the roster.
But that’s not the focus of this article. Cleveland has completely torn down their roster and that’s an article for another day. Thomas is only months removed from being the prodigal sun of the city of Boston and is on his third team in six months, something that only happens with low-level role players and bench warmers. Now in the league’s most prestigious franchise and out of the toxic situation in Cleveland, can Thomas pull his career back from the brink?
After a compelling three season stint in Sacramento who woefully traded him to the Suns for a 67 game tenure, he then found himself in the spotlight for the first time as a Celtic in 2015. That year, Thomas dazzled his way to 22.2 points per game en route to his first All-Star appearance. His following season saw massive improvements across the board with a jump to 28.9 points per game and in the process, willed his way onto the All-NBA team.
And now his fall from grace was just as explosive as his rise. And now he has landed on a rebuilding team with an undisputed point guard in Lonzo Ball. And after trading off former second overall pick D’Angelo Russell to make room for the UCLA star, it appears Magic Johnson and co. are all in on the eldest Ball brother.
This leaves Thomas in a very awkward spot if he wants to start. A two point guard lineup is dicey at best (James Harden is a combo guard and can play both the one and two so Houston doesn’t count), especially considering Thomas’s ineffectiveness without the ball in his hands. While Ball is still a do-it-all type player who can take backseat and keep the offense flowing without scoring, the presence of Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma means the Lakers are not going to hand the offense off to Thomas.
More than likely now, he will be backing up Ball and for a two-time All-Star, that has already not sat well. Thomas has brought some quintessential Cleveland Cavalier drama over to the Lakers already stating his distaste in coming off the bench. This is understandable but in all reality, if Thomas wants to get his career back in line, he must accept this new role as the sixth man.
The five foot nine point guard is already pushing thirty and after years of being the primary scoring option for his quickness and shiftiness, the league has figured him out. He could get away with shoddy defense on a Boston team where Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart could take opposing team’s finest offensive players, however in Cleveland he was expected to take on a more defensive role because nobody else could. Outside of Jae Crowder and maybe LeBron, there wasn’t a defensive minded player on the Cavs who could cover up for Thomas’s lackluster defense.
Coupled with the hip injury that sapped a decent chunk out of his said quickness, he became the player teams keyed in on instead of the key player on a team. He was in the wrong situation on the wrong team to succeed. He can’t be relied on defensively and the hip injury relegates him to a solid pop off the bench, which perfectly lines up with his current spot on the Lakers.
Coming off the bench means he is no longer relied on so heavily on defense and he can add offense with nothing to lose. If his shot wasn’t going in Cleveland (which was often), the game became LeBron James-on-five basketball. Now, any offense he can provide even if he isn’t the most efficient player imaginable is welcomed with open arms. Considering his age and the hip injury, it’s very possible he will never regain his former All-Star form, but Sixth Man of the Year will always be in the conversation for him.
That is if he accepts the new role. While Magic Johnson has gone on record in saying “It’s not about starting, it’s about how many minutes you get. He’s going to get a lot of minutes,” Thomas’s agent has gone to explicitly state he is not coming off the bench. Thomas himself has made it clear he’s “ecstatic” to play in purple and gold, we will just have to wait and see how much drama if any, this stirs up once he suits up.
All in all, Thomas deserved better in Cleveland and now he gets into a much more favorable situation as a Laker. If LA uses him as the primary bench scorer and avoids his defensive woes, everything just might smooth out for him. Here’s hoping we can enjoy some of King of the Fourth basketball before it’s too late.