Isaiah Thomas and the struggle to let go
Isaiah Thomas (left) has played three games for the Pelicans this season. Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

With his 10-day contract set to expire, Isaiah Thomas had one last chance to prove himself to the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday night. It wouldn’t be quite fair to say he did not capitalize on that chance, but rather that he was not given much of one, scoring only two points in four minutes. In his first two games with the Pelicans, he scored 21 points off the bench, but made only eight of his 25 field-goal attempts. He did not take the floor in the next two games, and his future with the team, and in the league, is uncertain. Executives might continue to sign Thomas and hope that he can recapture the form that made him so spectacular and memorable a few years ago. But the more time that passes from those years, and the more failed attempts to find a toehold in the league that accumulate, the odds of that happening are bound to decrease. All athletic careers are inherently finite, and watching Thomas fighting to stave off its end is both inspiring and dispiriting. 

In 2015, the Boston Celtics traded for Thomas following a middling half-season stint in Phoenix. With Boston still rebuilding after several years of contention, the Celtics gave him the greenest of lights in the hopes that he could keep them competitive in these lean years. He did much more than that. In his two full seasons with Boston, he, along with the draft picks the Celtics had acquired from Brooklyn a few years earlier, rejuvenated the franchise. The Celtics had been defined by surliness in the Big Three era, seemingly seeking titles more out of eagerness to keep another team from wearing the crown than from a desire to continue wearing it themselves. Thomas brought a delightful change, imbuing Boston with his infectious joy, making many fans root for the Celtics in spite of themselves. You could see him smiling as he ran up court as if he could not believe his good fortune, finally finding himself in a situation where he could live out his wildest dreams as the centerpiece of a legitimately good team. After three years in Sacramento, and a short stint in Phoenix, being on a team with realistic playoff aspirations must have been a relief. It was a chance to prove that he was more than just a volume scorer and could lead a team to something more than an unexpected win in January. He took it and made the most of it. 

Thomas gave Boston all he had, and perhaps more than the franchise deserved. Just a day after his sister died in a car accident in 2017, Thomas played for the Celtics as they began their opening round match-up with the Bulls. He led the team to the Conference Finals but was ruled out for the season after Game 2 with a hip injury. He would never play for the Celitcs again. After buying low on him a few years before, they then decided to sell high, trading him to the Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving. It was simultaneously prudent and cold-hearted. 

In the four seasons since, the effects of that hip injury have lingered. Thomas has hopped around the league, playing a combined 86 games for five separate teams. He was supposed to replace Kyrie Irving in Cleveland, and help the team win their second championship in three years, but after only 15 games, it became clear that it was not going to work. He was shipped to Los Angeles and has played for Denver, Washington, and now New Orleans since, and only in Washington did he ever look anything like his former self. 

It’s unlikely that the Pelicans would have called Thomas if not for what he did in Sacramento and Boston; there’s not usually an active market for guards who have shot 38 percent over the last three seasons and are massive defensive liabilities. For what it’s worth, Thomas insists things are different now.

“I’m 102%. I’m more than good,” he recently told reporters, saying he felt better than he had in years and that he never expected to feel this good again.

These are just the things a player says after returning from a long-term injury, and though they may be true, there remains a gap between being free from pain and being able to play basketball at an elite level. The former can help one’s pursuit of the latter, but it does not guarantee anything. 

There is a sense of nostalgic hope in watching a player who was once so fun, hoping for him to recapture the magic that seemed to flow so effortlessly from his hands. But too often, that delight is undercut by the persistent realization that beauty can rarely be summoned whenever one wants to do so. One can watch Thomas bring the ball up the court and try to maneuver around a teammate’s pick and, with the memories of what has happened before still present in one’s mind, imagine the shot that is sure to fall. But those shots are now falling less and less often. 

Thomas once appeared able to score points at will. Yes, Boston’s offense was catered to create opportunities for him, but in those moments when the system broke down, when the defenders worked around the picks and remained in his face, he could still create an opening. Any player able to create their own looks the way Thomas did would have been remarkable to watch, but seeing Thomas do it, who at 5’9” was almost always the most diminutive player on the court, was especially fun. Thomas, the shortest player to ever make an All-NBA team, consistently made players over a foot taller than him look flummoxed as they tried to block his path to the hoop only to discover that their height was no advantage when faced with a player as wily as Thomas.  

As someone delighted in watching Isaiah Thomas in Sacramento and Boston, it’s hard for me to let go of the hope that he can again tap into what made him so special, so invigorating. And if I’m struggling with that, I can only imagine how difficult it must be for Thomas himself. After spending a lifetime honing a craft and becoming one of the best basketball players in the world, the very body that had served him so well with its speed and dexterity has betrayed him. My hope is that Thomas’ bad luck with injuries have passed and that he can again find himself a vital cog on a winning team before retiring on his own terms. That does not appear likely, but knowing something and accepting it are two different things. The awareness that all athletic glory is inherently fleeting does make its passing any easier to bear. 

This article first appeared on RealGM and was syndicated with permission.

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