It took Russell Westbrook averaging a triple-double for the year for Isaiah Thomas not to win MVP a season ago. James Harden may have been ranked higher in the ultimate discussion, but Thomas reached a special elite level with the Boston Celtics claiming the best record in the Eastern Conference and Thomas claiming the nickname "Mr. Fourth Quarter."
Then, Thomas hurt his hip.
Getting traded to Cleveland and then to the Lakers didn't seem to shake Thomas' confidence, though. His coach in LA even offered the player the opportunity to take days off practice if he needed to, but Thomas always said he felt good when Luke Walton asked. The truth was that Thomas needed the practice.
"When I was in Cleveland, we didn't practice," Thomas said after initially arriving in LA. "I was getting my rhythm back (in Cleveland) in real live games. Nobody does that."
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Sadly, Thomas never returned to 100 percent. He lasted 17 games with the Lakers before opting for surgery to fix a hip that never truly recovered. Likely, he never got close to 100 percent because Thomas couldn't pick a worst time to have surgery. On Thursday, a press release confirmed a "successful" surgery with a recovery time of four months.
By the time Thomas is back dribbling a basketball in late July and early August, he'll be an unrestricted free agent with NBA free agency all but wrapped up. Going under the knife to end a season that never saw him fully healthy, Thomas will likely be available in the market at a severe discount. Of course, it's only a discount if he can recapture the type of form he displayed in Boston and provided flashes of in LA.
If Thomas ends up elsewhere, the Lakers won't shed too many tears because his addition to the trade deadline deal only sweetened an exchange that had the Lakers' front office smiling and celebrating salary cap flexibility first and foremost. In truth, the Cavs' 2018 first round pick probably drew more joy from the front office than Thomas and Channing Frye, whose names required the ceremonial title of "expiring contracts."
The Thomas era has been an entertaining distraction that provided enough intrigue so that the 29-year-old returning to the Lakers on the right terms that fit in with the franchise's strategy of either landing a top free agent or maintaining salary cap flexibility to sign a top level free agent is not hard to imagine.
As a note, the Lakers had the same strategy of chasing free agents and creating financial flexibility for years before last season's regime change, but after striking out in free agency year after year, Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak gave up the Lakers' long term flexibility to Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov, each on four-year contracts.
Along with drawing the ire of the fans for the deals, Kupchak and Buss also drew pink slips and no longer make basketball decisions for the Lakers.
So, now, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka will take the meetings and work with agents and players to bring stars back to the Lakers. If Johnson and Pelinka don't land two big time free agents and Thomas is unsigned, the Lakers floating an offer his way would not be shocking. It would probably be expected. In truth, the Lakers' offer may even be Thomas' best offer because the Lakers liked what they saw from the veteran during his time in LA, so they have more reason to take a gamble on Thomas than any other team.
Thomas displayed positive habits, embodied professionalism and elevated the young team's competitive spirit. While a display of Thomas' elite scoring ability may have been the expectation, reality provided an intelligent play-maker that made his teammates better and challenged their competitive fire. Front court players like Julius Randle, Brook Lopez and Ivica Zubac all benefited from Thomas' skillfully finding pockets to put his big men in position to succeed.
His turnovers were a bit too high and his shot never entirely hit its groove, but on the whole, the Lakers enjoyed the Thomas experiment enough to welcome the veteran back if they can fit him into their salary cap maneuvering.
If Thomas can shake off the hip issue after the surgery, he could turn into a valuable addition at a rock bottom price. Thomas may be done for the season, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's done with the Lakers.