This first appeared in the July 16 edition of The Washington Post’s NBA newsletter, the Monday Morning Post Up. You can subscribe by clicking here.
Less than a year ago, Isaiah Thomas proudly declared he would receive a max contract this summer. It wasn’t the first time he’d made that declaration.
“Very confident,” Thomas said when asked by the Boston Herald whether he’d get a max deal. “I deserve it. I put the work in, and you can put me down against any guard in the NBA. . . . My numbers are up there with the best players in the world, and my team is winning. So, I mean, you have to reward that. At the end of the day I’m not too worried about it. I only talk about it when people bring it up, so everybody’s always like, ‘He’s always talking.’ I’m not talking about it unless somebody brings it up. I’m just going to keep working, though. My time is [going to] come. I have a lot of faith in God, and I just have to keep working to get better.”
Those comments were made last August, in the wake of Thomas carrying the Boston Celtics to the Eastern Conference finals while dealing with a hip injury and the tragic death of his sister in a car accident that occurred just before the playoffs.
Less than a month later, Thomas was traded by the Celtics to the Cleveland Cavaliers, beginning a circuitous journey over the next year in which he was traded twice, played far below his previous standard, underwent hip surgery and, most recently, agreed to a one-year deal for the veteran’s minimum Friday with the Denver Nuggets.
The total value of that contract? $2 million. The total value of the five-year max contract Thomas was hoping to receive? Just over $177 million.
The difference in those deals — a little more than $175 million — is the price Thomas paid for the loyalty he showed the Celtics by playing through most of the 2017 postseason with that hip injury. And the way his situation has played out should, once and for all, end the debate about whether loyalty exists in the NBA. Or, frankly, whether it even should.
None of this is to say the Celtics did anything wrong. Thomas chose to play. The Cavaliers chose to make Kyrie Irving — a better, younger player at the same position — available in a trade and took Thomas back in the deal. But it’s only the latest situation in which a team enjoyed a fruitful arrangement with a player that satisfied everyone . . . only to discard that player at the first opportunity for an upgrade.
The idea that players should remain loyal to their teams has always been built on faulty logic. There are rare instances — Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks, for example — in which a team and player remain joined at the hip forever. Far more often, though, everyone involved is reminded that this is a business. Tim Duncan once flirted with joining the Orlando Magic. Kobe Bryant once demanded a trade and considered leaving the Lakers as a free agent. Dwyane Wade left the Miami Heat. Legends such as Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon ended their careers away from the teams with which they made their names.
Time and again throughout the history of the NBA — and most pro sports for that matter — the ideal ending is replaced by the practical one that is best for business on one or both sides. As much as people like to pretend sports are something other than a business enterprise, they are exactly that. While the things we remember most — the great plays, the goals, the baskets, the victories and defeats — are special, it’s what we care not to think as much about — namely, the money, plus the always-advancing specter of Father Time — that tend to be more difficult.
Telling a legend he isn’t worth what he wants, or that he isn’t wanted on a team at all, is never fun. Neither is a situation like what happened with Thomas, where he went from being one of the most entertaining and charismatic players in the NBA a year ago to one forced to take the minimum. And, if his surgery doesn’t take, he might never again get the opportunity to make back the money he expected to earn this summer.
All of this comes back to the cost of doing business in the NBA. The Heat was better off not paying Wade the contract he received from the Chicago Bulls two summers ago, just like the Celtics are better off having traded Thomas for Irving last summer. For as much as Celtics fans loved Thomas — and likely feel bad about the state he’s in — they wouldn’t trade Irving back for him. Neither would the Celtics.
Nor should they. Remember, the Celtics put themselves in their current position by convincing the Brooklyn Nets to give them the rights to four first-round picks five years ago, picks that turned into Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and part of the package that brought Irving to the Celtics.
How did the Celtics do that? By trading away two icons — Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett — as they faded into the twilight of their careers. And why did the Celtics do that? Because Danny Ainge, Boston’s president of basketball operations, saw what happened 20 years earlier when the Celtics allowed Kevin McHale and Larry Bird to grow old and retire with the franchise, rather than utilize them to replenish the team’s talent pool.
Ainge saw what the cost of loyalty did to Boston’s bottom line, both on and off the court. He decided it’s not a price worth paying.
He was right, and unquestionably so. But his actions are why the notion of loyalty in the NBA should be retired.
Players only have a certain amount of time to profit on their prodigious talents before their careers come to an end. Teams, understandably, have to take a longer view. This leads to a natural push and pull between both sides. That, in turn, leads to situations such as this one, in which Thomas saw more than $175 million disappear in the course of a year.
That’s the price of loyalty in the NBA — a price so high that it doesn’t exist.
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