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Will We Ever See Our Little Guy Again?

Isaiah Thomas is getting another fresh start in Los Angeles. But it remains to be seen whether he can ever be the player from last season, or whether the Lakers will give him the opportunities to do so.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Isaiah Thomas looked tired — physically and emotionally. These past few days couldn’t have been easy on him, to say nothing of the past few months. Beyond that, he had just finished his first full practice — not just with the Lakers, but all season.

“When I was in Cleveland, we didn’t practice,” Thomas said Monday at the Lakers’ training facility in El Segundo. “So, like, I was getting my rhythm back in real live games. Nobody does that. That’s the tough part about it. I made no excuses. I’m here. I’m here to work. I’m here to continue to get my hip better. Continue to get as close to 100 percent as I can and build on it.”

Asked whether he was maybe 75 or 80 percent healthy, Thomas allowed that he was “probably around there.” He said he’s still trying to get his legs back. Right now, they feel a bit heavy, and that’s causing some fatigue. “I’m not used to getting tired,” he said.

It has been a year of unwanted adjustments for Thomas. This time last season, he was an All-Star and a back-end MVP candidate, someone who thrived with the Celtics and was adored — not just in Boston, but across the NBA. Since then, not much has gone his way. He suffered (or maybe exacerbated) the hip injury from which he’s still recovering. He was traded by the Celtics, a team he loved and that he thought loved him back, to the Cavs, a team he did not seem to love and that clearly did not love him back. The Cavs sent him to Los Angeles after only 15 games and had to pay the Lakers a first-round pick to do so. Through each professional humiliation, he carried a much heavier weight with him.

“My sister passed away,” Thomas said, referencing the car accident that killed 22-year-old Chyna Thomas in April, just before the first round of the NBA playoffs. “That’s the biggest one. The basketball thing, it is what it is.”

It wasn’t just that people rooted for Thomas after that. They ached for him. He threw himself head-first into that opportunity with the Celtics and that city, and he became a kind of folk hero along the way. And so when he suffered that terrible tragedy, when he allowed us to see him suffer, and when he returned to the court through it all, the greater NBA community couldn’t help but hug him tight.

“Basketball, that’s the last thing I really worried about,” Thomas said about his last year. “I work hard each and every day. I work too hard for things not to work out.”

Thomas admitted that “the Cleveland situation didn’t work out,” but ultimately, “I’m here. I’m here and I’m happy. I’ve got my joy back.”

Thomas met his new team in Dallas over the weekend. In his first game as a Laker, he had 22 points (on a season-high 58.3 percent shooting) and six assists in 31 minutes off the bench. Afterward, Thomas said, “I feel like I got my powers back with this team.” Except, as ESPN’s Tim MacMahon pointed out, Thomas had more fouls than points in the fourth quarter, the Mavericks sat all their veterans down the stretch, and, most importantly, the Lakers lost.

When he was asked to clarify the “powers” comment on Monday, Thomas said that he meant he found a rhythm. He contended that it was the first time since returning from his injury that “I was able to have the ball in my hands and make a play.” It came off as another not-so-subtle, passive-aggressive dig at his pit stop in Cleveland, and he did not end there.

“You see the bench,” he said about his new Lakers teammates, “every time I was shooting, they were standing up, cheering. That was the feeling that I had in Boston, where we were playing for each other and had happiness and joy for each other. And that’s big, man.”

Thomas said that for the first time in a long time, “I felt like myself.”

The obvious and unspoken implication is that he did not feel like himself in Cleveland. From an outsider’s perspective, that sounds about right. It got to the point, even after just over a month in uniform, where it was fair to wonder whether we had seen the end of the lovable, talented Thomas who finally became a star with the Celtics. It’s still fair to wonder whether he’ll ever become that guy again, professionally or personally. Because for all the goodwill he built in Boston, for all the times he mesmerized us with big plays and crucial fourth-quarter scoring, what happened in Cleveland made us doubt everything that came before and everything that might still happen.

Thomas said he doesn’t know why it didn’t work out in Cleveland, except that “there were a lot of new faces in that organization and it just didn’t click for whatever reason.” He insists he didn’t come back too soon and doesn’t feel like he rushed his rehab, but the numbers tell a different story. Last season in Boston, he averaged 28.9 points, 5.9 assists, 2.7 rebounds, and 0.9 steals with a 26.5 PER and a 62.5 true shooting percentage. With the Cavs, those numbers dipped considerably (albeit in a small sample size): 14.7 points, 4.5 assists, 2.1 rebounds, 0.6 steals, 12.4 PER, and 49.3 true shooting percentage. His usage rate also declined from 34 to 29, but that doesn’t totally account for how much worse he played with the Cavs. By any metric, he did not look like Isaiah Thomas.

He did not sound like Isaiah Thomas, either. Everyone I spoke with in and around the Celtics organization, before and after his trade to the Lakers, gushed about him as a person. But the affable, garrulous Celtics character we once knew came off as something approaching the negative image of himself in Cleveland, as though he had made the turn from babyface to heel without telling anyone of his intentions. He was the perfect team guy one moment; then he chastised teammates for not getting on the floor after loose balls and not working hard on defense — despite getting exposed himself at that end of the floor. He trumpeted his old coach; then criticized Ty Lue in postgame interviews and didn’t bother to soft-pedal the language. He was all about his former teammates; then, during a team meeting, reportedly questioned whether Kevin Love, someone he’s known since AAU ball, was actually sick when he begged out of a bad loss to Oklahoma City late last month.

Given all that, it’s hardly surprising that so much was made about the environment in Cleveland and how Thomas might have contributed to the toxicity. Channing Frye, who was traded to Los Angeles along with Thomas, said that narrative was “blown up” because it included LeBron and the Cavs, but there was no denying that Thomas and Cleveland were a terrible fit for each other.

“Sometimes, you have chemistry off the court, but the continuity on the court just wasn’t there,” Frye said. “Whether it’s guys not feeling comfortable or being able to just fit in the system that’s required, it’s not like you’re not a good player. It’s just — it didn’t work out.”

The question now is whether it can work in Los Angeles for Thomas — short or long term — and how that might affect his future. He played well offensively in that first game against the Mavs, but his defense was still noticeably bad. There was a moment when rookie Dennis Smith Jr. blew past him like he was standing still, and when he got switched onto Dirk Nowitzki, the size differential lent itself to easy jokes. Lakers coach Luke Walton said the team has tried a lot of different defenses throughout the season, and they’ll “keep trying different ones to see what works,” but that end of the floor is always going to be a challenge for Thomas. The potentially more difficult component here is how the Lakers incorporate their new point guard on offense.

The Lakers have good young talent that they’re still trying to develop, and at 23–32 overall and six and a half games back of a playoff spot despite a recent 7–3 run, you’d assume that’d be the priority. While Lonzo Ball has been on the mend, Brandon Ingram has recently been pressed into more ballhandling/point-forward duties, and he’s acquitted himself nicely on that front. As Walton said, Ingram’s role was always going to change once Ball returns. But now they have Thomas in the mix, too. You wonder how adding Thomas — who enjoys, as he put it, having the ball in his hands so he can make a play — might further alter the plan.

Asked whether Ball and Thomas can play together, or whether they’ll have to be staggered, Walton said he’d try both. Not surprising. It’s been only one game. But from a defensive perspective, it’s hard to imagine both of them on the court at the same time. There were plenty of occasions this season when Walton hid Ball on a lesser offensive opponent. Now he’ll have to do the same with Thomas. Meanwhile, offensively, you could maybe imagine Ball playing the facilitator while Thomas looks to score, but how might that shake out in terms of time spent on the ball — not to mention Ingram and Kyle Kuzma? Do the Lakers want to help Thomas feel like himself again on the floor? And if they work to that end, what’s the chance it stunts the growth of their young in-house talent?

Those are just some of the critical questions facing the Lakers over their final 27 games of the season, and whatever answers they come up with greatly affect Thomas. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. It wasn’t long ago that he predicted the Celtics would have to “bring the Brink’s truck out” to re-sign him. He even rocked custom Brink’s truck slides at one point. But between the drama in Cleveland, his diminished health and performance, and the new financial reality that has slowed the NBA spending spree, that fantasy is long over. Predictions on his value right now have ranged wildly from something approaching Lou Williams’s recent contract extension, to a one-year deal with a player option, to a one-year big-money deal like the one The Ringer’s own J.J. Redick signed with the Sixers, to a midlevel exception. The truth is, no one knows what Thomas will command on the market, because no one can be sure how healthy, happy, and able he’ll be once he becomes a free agent. Despite everything he’s gone through in the past year, what happens between now and this offseason — that is, whether he can find himself again, and for good — might be the most critical stretch of Thomas’s career.

“I’m almost a guy,” Thomas said, thinking about his role in Los Angeles, “I don’t fit in, I stand out. I’ve always had that attitude.”

That was always the best part about Isaiah Thomas — right up until it wasn’t.