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Isaiah Thomas Talked His Way Out of Cleveland

How did the feel-good story of last season go from MVP candidate to cast-off in a matter of months? And which IT will show up in Los Angeles?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For the past few weeks, Isaiah Thomas has been talking like someone who doesn’t watch Isaiah Thomas play basketball. The point guard returned to the court for Cleveland in January, after missing the beginning of the season while recovering from a hip injury. The Cavs were 7-8 in games he played, getting a much-needed win on Wednesday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves in overtime. As LeBron James celebrated his game-winning shot, Thomas leaped into the frame to greet him. LeBron barely seemed to notice.

After the game, Thomas reflected on his time in Cleveland, with the trade deadline looming: “[I] just want to be where I’m wanted. I like it here. It hasn’t been as planned, but I definitely want to be here.”

On Thursday, Thomas was traded to the Lakers along with Channing Frye and their first-round draft pick for Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson. It’s not an exaggeration to say the player whom some considered a legitimate MVP candidate last season literally talked his way out of Cleveland.

Thomas’s return to the court in Cleveland coincided with the deterioration of the team’s contender status. Statistically, the Cavs had more in common with the Kings than the Warriors, cementing themselves as one of the worst defensive teams in the league with Thomas posting the worst defensive rating by any player who’s played at least 25 minutes per game in the last 25 years. And through it all, Thomas was a nonstop chatterbox—a mirror for every player on the team except himself.

Wednesday was a perfect microcosm of the failed Cleveland-Thomas experiment. It began with Thomas’s birthday announcement on the Cavs’ official Twitter account. The post was met with … less-than-friendly quips from fans. On Instagram, the Cavs disabled comments on the congratulatory post. That night, with 6:55 left in the fourth quarter of the game against the Timberwolves, Thomas re-entered the contest, only to be showered with boos from the home crowd at Quicken Loans Arena. From that point through the end of overtime, Thomas was repeatedly subbed out for 22-year-old Cedi Osman on defensive possessions.

Once known as the King of the Fourth, IT was now being used sporadically in crunch time. You didn’t need to be a detective to connect the dots: After Cleveland’s previous game—a brutal 116-98 loss to the Magic—Thomas called out the team, and really his coach, for not making in-game adjustments. “When we hit adversity, we go our separate ways,” Thomas said after the team lost a game in which it had a 21-point lead to a 17-36 Orlando team. “Guys start to go one-on-one on offense, and the defense, it’s every man for himself.” Ty Lue responded to Thomas’s claims by saying they were “not true.” But on Wednesday, Lue did adjust, just at the expense of Thomas. It was the right move. Thomas finished with the worst plus-minus of any Cav in the game. After the victory, Thomas sounded ambivalent about the arrival of Osman as a rotation player. “I mean, he gives us something we don’t have,” said Thomas of Osman. “We don’t—what do they say, we’re the oldest team in the league? We don’t play with that much energy. So to have something, somebody like that, that rubs off on everybody. Even with the times we do practice, he’s the most energized guy, so he deserves it.”

In the middle of a power struggle between the Cavs franchise and LeBron over their respective futures, Thomas torpedoed the team’s chemistry, talking like an MVP candidate while playing like a sub-replacement-level player. The backlash came at hyperspeed, and Thomas probably deserved better, but he also helped it along by pushing all the wrong buttons. Even when the Cavs won, as they did on Wednesday, Thomas came out of it losing.

Isaiah Thomas is everything we want from a modern athlete. Off the court, he speaks his mind. On the court, he plays fearlessly, carrying the magnetic narrative of an underdog who proves the doubters wrong. It’s a story line that attracts, as it did all of last season. But when he doesn’t perform, the self-motivational shtick repels. This season, Thomas is shooting 36.1 percent from the field and 25.3 percent from 3 in the 15 games he’s played since returning to the lineup. His 41.8 percent effective field goal percentage is by far the lowest of his career. He is averaging his fewest assists and fewest points per game since the 2014-15 season, and his PER is 12.4.

And yet his criticisms often pointed outward. “I don’t know the last time we got on the floor for a loose ball,” Thomas said after the Cavs got blown out by the Rockets, 120-88. “I know that teams I’ve been on, defense is determined on deflections, steals, loose balls, who’s the hardest-working team on that end.” Players don’t usually call out their own teams unless they have the numbers to back it up. Thomas appointing himself the ombudsman of Cleveland is even more fascinating when you consider that that position was already filled by LeBron James. Over the past few seasons, LeBron has been Cleveland’s biggest critic. Speaking from a position of unrivaled player power, he has shaped the narrative around the franchise. Sometimes he’s direct, sometimes he’s passive-aggressive. Following the loss to Houston, LeBron said the Cavs should be taken off of national TV.

Juxtaposed with Thomas’s shots at the team’s effort, LeBron came off like the good cop, while Isaiah wore the black hat. Here’s the thing, though: Thomas wasn’t wrong. The Cavs did look out of sync, and their defensive effort was sorely lacking. But given what a notorious defensive liability Thomas is and how little he provided on offense, he was the wrong voice to make the argument.

Thomas was not Cleveland’s only problem, and maybe it’s unfair to make him the scapegoat. But what he was saying in the media certainly seemed to impact the way his Cavs teammates interacted with him on the floor.

There was Love’s sarcastic-looking rebound:

And Thomas channeling Dion Waiters ...

… Calling for the ball repeatedly and never getting it:

“I mean, if they’re worried about my shot selection, they must not have seen me play the last few years,” Thomas said after a Cavs practice just over a week ago. “Like, that’s all I can say about that. If somebody’s worried about that, what did you trade me here for? To not shoot? To not find my rhythm? To not be Isaiah Thomas? I can’t be anybody else. So, whoever’s saying that, I mean, I don’t know what I’m here for if I’m not here to score the ball and make plays.”

This bravado is essential to Thomas’s identity. For most of his career, Thomas has used being overlooked as a renewable energy source. Imagine what level of self-belief it takes to make it to the league. Now imagine what it would take for a 5-foot-9 guy who’s been told he’s not big enough his whole life. When you’re that size and the thing you offer is so specific, the margins are thin: If you fall off, you are useless. And in Cleveland, Thomas didn’t just become useless; he became a nuisance. Until this season, Thomas had always played above expectations. This year, he fell below them. Thomas simply isn’t playing anywhere near the level he played at in Boston. Of course, that’s in large part due to injury, but he kept talking and brought the scrutiny on himself.

Last season, he became everyone’s favorite story. He outplayed everyone’s expectations. In Cleveland, he was supposed to fill Kyrie Irving’s shoes—or at least provide LeBron with another scoring option. He’s done neither, and now that he’s no longer the underdog, both expectations and criticisms weighed on every minute played and every quote.

In Los Angeles, all signs point to Thomas backing up Lonzo Ball, or at least playing second fiddle to the young face of the franchise. It’s quite the drop-off from talking about Brink’s trucks in Boston. But in a way, it might be the best-case scenario for him. In nine months, Thomas’s brazen confidence has lifted him to the top of the mountain and knocked him down, cast out from Cleveland with his agent blaming LeBron on the way out. Ironically, Thomas is back in his comfort zone—back to being an underdog with no one believing in him. Maybe that’s exactly where he needs to be.