Had Isaiah Thomas been a free agent in the summer of 2016, he would have landed a very, very large contract. Some would argue that it would have been a max deal, as a historic cap spike caused NBA teams to deliriously throw huge sums of money at even so-so players. Thomas was not a so-so player. He was 27 and coming off a breakout season with the Boston Celtics that saw him named to his first NBA all-star team.
Had Thomas been a free agent in the summer of 2017, it is likely he would have landed a rich deal then, too. He had just put up an even better season, ranking third in the league in scoring (28.9 points per game), making the All-Star Game again, finishing fifth in MVP voting and leading the Celtics to the Eastern Conference finals during a heroic playoff run in which he played through both tragedy (his sister’s sudden death) and pain (oral surgery and a re-aggravated hip injury). Even amid concerns about the hip, teams highly valued Thomas last July.
But Thomas was not a free agent in 2016 or 2017. He instead was locked into a bargain deal the past four years, one of the NBA’s best by team standards and one that he well outplayed by any reasonable expectation. While there was a robust debate over his last two years in Boston as to whether a diminutive scoring guard would be worth a max contract, pretty much all sides agreed he deserved a lot more than he was making.
But the big payday Thomas appeared to have earned will almost definitely not be coming when he is finally free to negotiate his next contract this summer. A potent blend of bad timing, awful injury luck and cruel twists of fate conspired to likely ensure Thomas will never be compensated on par with his contributions on the court. The NBA hands out contracts more for potential than for past performance, and Thomas’s window to cash in on himself seemingly has closed.
It’s difficult enough for a 5-foot-9 man to make it to the NBA at all. Only 24 players 5-9 or shorter have done so. Thomas is one of them, albeit as the very last pick of the 2011 draft. Second-round picks very occasionally become valuable pieces. Seldom, if ever, do they threaten for the league’s most valuable player award. Thomas did that as well, when he finished fifth last season in MVP voting behind Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James, and ahead of two-time MVP Stephen Curry. He is also the only player his size to ever make an all-NBA team and to twice be named an all-star.
Thomas has always been an underdog outplaying others gifted with height. He knew size was his greatest obstacle, once claiming, “I’d be the best player ever” if he were taller, and his performance routinely made bigger men look small. He didn’t win MVP, but if he had, he’d have gone down as the shortest MVP ever by a full three inches. Six-foot Allen Iverson currently holds that title.
Through his unlikely rise, Thomas was often the best player on his team but never its highest paid. After last season’s campaign landed him in the MVP discussion, he made it known often how keenly aware he was of this disparity, saying the Celtics knew “they’ve got to bring the Brinks truck out” when he hits free agency in July 2018.
Those words came a year too early.
With Thomas nursing the hip injury tweaked while gritting his way through Boston’s deep playoff run, the Celtics executed a cold but wise basketball decision in August. They made Thomas’s looming free agency someone else’s problem, trading the guard who risked his future health and earning potential for their playoff run. They received Kyrie Irving from Cleveland in exchange.
Thomas’s hip kept him out much of this season and when he eventually took the court for the Cavaliers, he was far from his old self in the 15 games he played. Even healthy, it would have been debatable whether a sub-6-foot, 29-year-old guard deserved max money this summer. To survive in the NBA at his height, Thomas relied on superior athleticism and crafty shot-making. He has been sapped of the former, making it unlikely he will land on an all-star team again. If he can’t regain his speed, he may not even start again.
Last month, someone again passed the buck on Thomas. In a trade deadline deal, the Cavs sent him to the Los Angeles Lakers, his fifth team since 2015, a day after Thomas told reporters he was “tired of being traded.” Just a year removed from the MVP conversation, he suddenly found himself with just two months to restore a hopeful free agency asking price. But Thomas will now undergo surgery on his troublesome hip on Thursday, with an expected long rehab.
He likely will be on a sixth team by the end of free agency this summer. Either way, he shouldn’t expect the Brinks truck to arrive, even though he has under-earned to this point.
Despite being one of the top 24 players in skill level the two seasons before this, as shown by his presence on the all-star rosters, he was the 149th highest paid player in the NBA last season. The only other 2017 all-star earning less was the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, and that was merely because he remained on his rookie-scale contract. This season, an extension kicked in paying Antetokounmpo $100 million over four years — superstar money. Thomas, on the other hand, was then in his sixth season — well past his rookie deal — and approaching the final season of a front-loaded, four-year, $27 million deal. The means over the life of the contract he is paid the least in this, its final season ($6,261,395).
Add up Thomas’s total career earnings and his net doesn’t exceed what the NBA’s five highest-paid players — Curry, James, Paul Millsap, Gordon Hayward and Blake Griffin — are each making this season alone. He’s been to more all-star games than Hayward but surely will not reach that elite contract class.
He is one of three current players on the Lakers’ roster who has been an all-star, yet he remains the team’s seventh-highest paid player, behind even Lonzo Ball, whose status as a No. 2 overall pick granted him a larger rookie contract. The two other former all-stars cashed in in a way Thomas will not: Brook Lopez (a 2013 all-star) makes almost $23 million this season; Luol Deng (a two-time all star, 2012-13) earns more than $17 million. Both are working off multiyear deals.
Some team will pay Thomas millions of dollars this summer — he’s earned the right to at least stick around the league, and he’s not far enough removed from his productive stage to prevent a franchise from convincing itself a rebound might be around the corner. An eight-figure deal annually, as Thomas hoped, is no longer expected, and no one is talking about the max anymore.
A brief poll last month of some NBA front-office executives on Thomas’s value this summer revealed that a long-term, rich contract is likely out of the question. Their responses settled around the mid-level exception (roughly $8.5 million) with one saying, “something under $10 million” and another adding, “someone will give him a one-year deal.” His best hope could be that the Lakers strike out in free agency this summer, and offer Thomas something similar to the one-year, $17 million deal they handed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in 2017. That would be done with an eye on preserving their cap space for the summer of 2019. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Wednesday that the Lakers are indeed exploring giving Thomas a new deal.
The NBA is a business and timing can be everything. When Thomas was at his best, few would argue that he deserved a big payday. He just wasn’t eligible for one yet. Now he is, though as a damaged, undersized player whose best days are behind him.
In the harsh reality of professional basketball, Thomas simply came up a year or so short.
Tim Bontemps contributed to this report.
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