Isaiah Thomas was hurt. Physically, yes. But more so emotionally—and he hadn’t even been traded yet.
During this year’s playoffs, the 5-foot-9 point guard outgrew the already-supersized affection he’d earned locally. After getting overlooked in Sacramento and discarded in Phoenix, Thomas found a home in Boston, a place he openly loved and that loved him back. He had become—as Celtics-fan-in-chief Bill Simmons once explained on his podcast—“a folk hero” in a town where “every kid under age 15” had his jersey. That mutual affection is, perhaps, what motivated Thomas to sacrifice so much of himself at a time when he was hardly whole. Thomas played with a broken heart after his sister died in a tragic car crash, and he would have kept playing if not for a nagging hip injury that became too painful to ignore.
After Cleveland dispatched Boston, but before anyone dreamed the two teams might swap point guards, some people openly wondered if the Celtics might need an upgrade in the backcourt. Thomas noticed. In a since-deleted tweet, he called out former ESPN writer Chad Ford for voicing that very opinion. “That’s how you feel huh?” Thomas wrote. “LOL This is what keeps me motivated, thank you!”
Thomas was, understandably, less willing to credit the Celtics for any motivation after trading him to the Cavs. He told Sports Illustrated he might not talk to Boston general manager Danny Ainge ever again. “What he did, knowing everything I went through, you don’t do that, bro,” Thomas said. “That’s not right. I’m not saying F-you. But every team in this situation comes out a year or two later and says, ‘We made a mistake.’ That’s what they’ll say, too.”
It clearly cut him to the core. Thomas even did a video series for The Players’ Tribune that revealed how much the trade pained him.
Ainge said he understood the anger. He called Thomas “a great kid,” said he loves him, wished him the best, too. Not surprisingly, that did not shield Ainge from the swift and critical fallout. Everyone from Ray Allen to Kenny Smith to Evan Turner to Caron Butler dragged the Celtics for being cold and cruel. Meanwhile, LeBron James eviscerated the knuckleheads who stupidly burned Isaiah’s Celtics jersey, and a host of former teammates rushed to defend Thomas against an allegation that he was disliked in locker rooms. Anything even remotely Thomas-related stayed heated for a while, and it seemed like everyone had opinions about what it all meant in the larger context.
Up until then, the recent conversation about loyalty in sports was often repetitive and one-sided. The well-worn script usually cast the athlete as some sort of dastardly me-first villain who turned against a host of fine folks, torched his old town, then rode off with an evil grin on his face and a saddlebag stuffed with money. That argument was always naive and without nuance, but it probably made a lot of otherwise angry and disappointed people feel better over the years when their favorite player picked up and moved on. LeBron and The Decision. Kevin Durant dipping out on Oklahoma City. Chris Paul leaving Los Angeles. Paul George forcing his way out of Indiana. Gordon Hayward hitting eject on Salt Lake City. You heard pretty much the same thing with all of them. How could he abandon us?
What happened with Thomas and Boston (and, to a lesser extent, Jimmy Butler and Chicago) felt like something of a turning point in the attendant spin surrounding these events. This time, it wasn’t the city that was the victim of unrequited love, it was the player. When we were all done digesting it, everyone from players to executives to fans seemingly came to terms with the truth: Basketball might be a game, but the NBA is a business. As with any capitalist concern, naked self-interest matters first and most to all parties. Of course, we knew that all along. The Celtics-Cavs trade simply served as a shocking, outsize reminder.
The next time a free agent walks away from a team—or a team packages a player with other goodies and ships him FedEx to some other NBA outpost—we’ll have to come up with a new narrative. There won’t be any use taking a match to wine-colored Cavs jerseys if LeBron decamps from Cleveland a second time, and it would be hard for, say, Anthony Davis to cry betrayal if the Pelicans eventually offload him.
Loyalty in sports really is dead. But the surprising part is that we ever believed it existed in the first place.
On the morning that the 76ers announced they would not pick up the option on Jahlil Okafor, thereby accelerating the timetable to exile him from the organization, Nerlens Noel had just finished a workout at USC’s Galen Center. The former Sixer was in town with the Mavericks, who were set to play the Clippers the next night in Los Angeles.
When I relayed the Jah news to Noel, he couldn’t believe it. He called it “crazy” a couple of times and shook his head about all the work Okafor had put in.
“He looked great preseason,” Noel said. “He went vegan, right?”
“See,” Noel continued, “he’s doing everything he needs to. It’s tough to see that. He averaged [17.5 and seven] his rookie year. I was there with him. He was killing.”
Noel insisted that Okafor deserved a spot in the NBA, and he couldn’t understand why the Sixers were ready to move on from the former third overall pick. (It should be noted that Okafor was a DNP-CD in five of his first six games with the Nets.) “I don’t agree with a lot of things they do,” Noel said.
That’s not exactly a shock. Noel was desperate to get out of Philly, where he said he couldn’t assert himself the way he wanted to. When he was finally traded, it was “definitely a sigh of relief” for the 23-year-old center. Of course, as Noel found out, once you make it to the other side, the grass isn’t necessarily greener and the hot dogs don’t always taste as good. For reasons known only to Rick Carlisle, the Mavericks buried him at the end of the bench early on, and they hadn’t bothered to dig him up before a thumb injury sidelined him indefinitely.
Maybe Carlisle and the Mavs were pissed that—after their initial investment—Noel turned down an offer that reportedly would have paid him around $17.5 million per year (which would have qualified as a big bump from the one-year, $4.19 million qualifying offer he signed instead). Or maybe Carlisle and Noel were just a bad fit all along. When I asked him if he regretted not signing the big-money deal, Noel said he was simply betting on himself. That was before he was catching DNP-CDs every night, and before he had thumb surgery in early December. Whatever happened between him and the organization, it’s hard to envision an end that’s anything but messy.
If you were so inclined, you could write off that whole situation as another example of sports being insensitive and transactional. Except the fact that the NBA is a business doesn’t mean its businessmen have to act like a bunch of unfeeling Gordon Gekkos. When 37-year-old Richard Jefferson was traded from the Cavs to the Hawks to make room for Dwayne Wade and others, he didn’t take it personally—though he did say he wished new general manager Koby Altman had been more upfront about it and just talked to him. That’s a reasonable request. After all, everyone in the league is prepared for the possibility that they could be moved at a moment’s notice. Even the rookies are aware. Last month, 19-year-old De’Aaron Fox—who was taken fifth overall by the Kings—told me he was renting a house in Sacramento rather than buying because “you never know what could happen.”
Teams will never stop doing triage on their rosters—which is why bedside manner matters. A few years ago, for example, the Sixers were on the road in Atlanta when they traded Brandon Davies to the Nets. As the schedule-making luck had it, their next game was in Brooklyn. Rather than making Davies find a commercial flight, they gave him a ride to New York. And not to get too Sixers-y on you here, but when they traded Evan Turner to Indiana, Sam Hinkie gave ET a lift to the airport. Turner said that meant a lot to him.
The point is that loyalty was always a fallacy, but that doesn’t mean every free-agent signing or trade has to be a bitter affair that ends with one side (or both) writing a “Dear Diary” entry stained with tears. The players and executives are all adults. It goes a long way when everyone acts like it.