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No Small Wonder: What’s Next for Isaiah Thomas?

After defying the odds for years, the Cavaliers’ new ‘Little Guy’ faces perhaps his biggest challenge yet

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Six years ago, Isaiah Thomas was selected last overall in the NBA draft, after unknown draft-and-stashes like Chukwudiebere Maduabum and Ater Majok. Last month, he was dealt as part of the package for Kyrie Irving, the no. 1 pick of the same draft. The dichotomy serves as a neat summation of Thomas’s rise up until this point. And yet, while so much has changed, he still finds himself in an all-too-familiar starting point with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Thomas excelled as a young player with the Sacramento Kings, the team that drafted him in 2011; then the Kings brought in Darren Collison to be the starting point guard. After being sign-and-traded to the Suns in 2014, Thomas was caught in a point-guard love triangle before being dealt to the Celtics for scraps. He ascended in Boston, becoming a two-time All-Star and earning his first spot on an All-NBA team. It still wasn’t enough to earn the sort of certainty that has eluded him throughout his seven-season run. “It might not be the career that I dreamed of having last year, or even last month,” Thomas wrote in a Players’ Tribune article released on Wednesday. “But when you think about it, that’s kind of been my career from the start. It’s never been the dream come true, and it’s never been what you expect. It’s just been me.”

With only one year left on his contract, it’s unclear how long he’ll stay in Cleveland, too. Multiple front-office and agent sources I’ve spoken with aren’t convinced that the Cavs will re-up Thomas if LeBron James leaves (which many people in league circles still expect to happen), meaning Thomas could be on the move again soon. But first, he’ll need to get back on the court.

Thomas suffered a hip injury--a right femoral-acetabular impingement with a labral tear, to be specific--that ended his 2016-17 postseason with three games left to play in the Eastern Conference finals. The same injury delayed the Cleveland trade by a few extra days and now puts his Cavs debut into something of a moving target; Cleveland won’t have a timetable for Thomas’s return until sometime during training camp, according to Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon.

While the Celtics say Thomas tore his hip labrum in March 2017, as ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh detailed, it may have actually happened in December 2016 when he was diagnosed with a “groin injury.” If we dig deeper into history, we’ll also find Thomas had other issues in the general hip area. He missed 10 games in March 2014 with a bruised right quadriceps, and another eight in March 2015 after a hard fall led to a “bruised lower back.” Haberstroh wrote about the difficulties in diagnosing a tear to the labrum, which is made of cartilage and thus has no nerves to signal when there’s an issue. Is it not possible these other injuries also were misdiagnosed? At the very least, problems to Thomas’s hip area aren’t new.

But while there are questions to raise, multiple front-office sources explained Thomas’s decision to forego surgery on the hip as such: He has apparently dealt with the injury for years and still managed to produce at a high level. “The limp he walks with is not swag,” said one source who is familiar with Thomas’s injury history. “He’s got an issue that he just plays through.”

Even if Thomas’s production dipped slightly, it’s not like he’d fade into basketball’s Little Guy Heaven alongside the likes of Nate Robinson and Earl Boykins. Thomas at 80 percent of what he was last season is still a damn good scorer.

And that’s likely one of the main reasons behind his not having surgery. Thomas has come so far already in his NBA career. Once thought of as a sixth man, the 28-year-old transformed into one of the league’s premier scorers -- all while dealing with some degree of hip pain. Why open yourself up to all the risks and possible unknowns of surgery while at the peak of your powers?

Thomas is naturally confident in his future in Cleveland, writing in The Players’ Tribune, “You are not going to want to mess with the Cavs this year.” But the upside is his production -- regardless of when he’s available to play again -- is effectively the bonus in a trade package that netted Cleveland the Nets’ first-round pick in 2018. And if reasonably healthy, Thomas can replenish a lot of the offensive production that Irving brought and keep LeBron and the Cavaliers in the titles business.

The Little Guy can slice and dice defenses, weasel his way into the paint and finish among the trees using touch off the glass:

The Cavaliers can still run their devastating 3-1 pick-and-roll, just with Thomas in place of Irving:

The 5-foot-9 Thomas naturally won’t be able to set hard screens as well as the 6-foot-3 Irving did when screening for LeBron. But the Cavs can use some of the creative actions that saw Thomas slip screens for open 3s in Boston.

Irving is arguably the league’s best end-of-game isolation scorer. But Thomas earned the King in the Fourth nickname for good reason after one of the best fourth-quarter scoring seasons (9.8 points per game) in the past 20 years. A large reason for Thomas’s efficiency is how Celtics head coach Brad Stevens used him as an off-ball guard. Thomas hit 40.2 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s in the regular season and playoffs combined last year, per SportVU. LeBron is still the “point guard” for Cleveland, which means Thomas should get plenty of chances to exploit defenses by spotting up and racing through screens.

“If you’ve watched any Celtics games last year, then you know how many times I would have to go through double and even triple teams, just to get my shot off,” Thomas wrote on the Tribune. “It ended up working fine for us — guys played great, and my shot was falling. But this year … man, it’s not even going to be a thing. You really going to throw three guys on me, when I’m sharing a court with the best basketball player on the planet? Nah, I don’t think so.”

As the roster is currently constructed, Cleveland’s hopes of making a fourth straight NBA Finals indeed hinge on Thomas’s health. Kevin Love and the addition of Jae Crowder alone likely wouldn’t be enough against a stacked Celtics team. The Wizards and Raptors still loom as threats, too. But, to paraphrase Daryl Morey: Cleveland was facing long odds against Golden State anyway; now, they’ve merely raised their risk profile.

The worst-case scenario is that Thomas never gets healthy, and they fail to reach the Finals. The best-case scenario is that Thomas stays healthy, Crowder fills a hole present on this Cavs roster for the past three seasons, and they go toe-to-toe with the NBA’s juggernaut.

Either way, it’s hard to bet against Thomas, especially with his last chance at a big payday on the horizon. He’ll return motivated, with a chip on his shoulder larger than ever. The story of Isaiah Thomas may someday resemble Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, diving off the top rope, knowing that the end is imminent. But for now, Thomas is still Rocky, beating all the odds.