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Isaiah Thomas Will Have to Build Himself Back Up in the Mile High City

There were no Brink’s trucks for IT3’s free agency, but there is at least a slice of comfort in a familiar coach and a familiar style of play waiting for him in Denver

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Denver brought out the Brink’s truck this summer, just not for Isaiah Thomas. On Thursday, Thomas agreed to a one-year deal with the Nuggets for $2 million. It was one of two deals the front office completed in the span of an hour that night: Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur, a 2019 protected first-round pick, and a future second-round pick were sent to the Nets for Isaiah Whitehead, bringing Denver under the luxury-tax threshold, saving the team nearly $43 million. The Nuggets stacked up the payroll this offseason after re-signing Nikola Jokic and Will Barton earlier this month, in a risky push to contend now. After making their big moves, the Nuggets shifted their priorities to avoiding the luxury tax; Thomas, meanwhile, presents a low risk at the veteran’s minimum, and potentially a high reward for both parties. But there’s a reason the star guard came at such a discount. At this point, nearing the bottom of a spiral that began with a hip injury at the end of the 2016-17 season, it was the best direct deposit he could ask for.

Joining the Nuggets reunites Thomas with Mike Malone, who coached IT in Sacramento during the 2013-14 season, his last with the Kings. Phoenix traded for Thomas before the 2014-15 season to fulfill its poorly-conceived vision of a three-point-guard lineup, only to flip him to Boston within a year. His journeyman days appeared to be over under Brad Stevens. With Boston, Thomas broke franchise records; he broke expectations—Suns GM Ryan McDonough later said “I think in retrospect trading Isaiah Thomas when we did was a mistake”—and broke into the MVP race; but, with three games left in the Celtics’ 2017 postseason run, it was his body that broke. After a “minimally invasive” arthroscopic surgery on his right hip in March proved to only be a Band-Aid for the postseason, Thomas spent the next seven months rehabbing the torn labrum.

The NBA’s folk hero again became the centerpiece of one-sided deals, from Cleveland to Los Angeles in the same season. In the days leading up to Thomas signing with Denver, he put self-made inspirational quotes on his Instagram story.

“Legendary shit!” he wrote. “Don’t get it twisted.” Thomas, a 5-foot-9 point guard who exploded to the rim like a lit flare, already had all the odds stacked against him when he was healthy. That wasn’t the IT teams were looking at this summer. When he returned to play last season with the Cavs, he was a step slow, overcompensating with poor shot selection, ball dominance, and fewer assists per game than he averaged in his entire Boston tenure. He had always been a liability on defense, but during his peak, the Celtics had managed to play hide and seek with him and the opposing team on defense. Now, the offensive dynamism he possessed, what made him so vital on the court—and worth going five-on-four on D for—has eroded. What’s a flare without speed?

The Nuggets present the same opportunity to Thomas that the Warriors do DeMarcus Cousins (minus the impending ring): Show you’re healthy, rehab your value, and after the season, hit the market again. Under Malone, who remained friends with Thomas despite the latter’s sticky exit, the 29-year-old will come off the bench as a veteran playmaker and scorer. A backcourt is already established in Denver, with Jamal Murray running point and Gary Harris by his side, not to mention the front office doubling down on Barton, who had the best season of his career last year, establishing himself as a leader of the team and a capable starter after spending much of his NBA life as a reserve.

But the bulk of the playmaking in Denver will come out of its $238 million frontcourt in Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic, who functions as the team’s lead facilitator. An offense run through Jokic is a far better situation for Thomas than what he was dealing with in Cleveland. Stripped of the ability to create for himself at an elite level, playing next to LeBron James only highlighted what IT couldn’t do. In Boston, Thomas played well off the ball, able to get open off of screens and handoffs; Denver ran the fourth-most handoffs last season, while Cleveland ran the third-least. There’s opportunity for Thomas to thrive again, even if only as a reserve. It could be enough to avoid another veteran’s-minimum deal by the end of the season or, worst-case scenario, a job overseas.

At this price, there isn’t risk in the Nuggets adding him. At this stage, there wasn’t much choice for Thomas.