Los Angeles Lakers guard Isaiah Thomas will be among the better-known names in free agency this summer. A former two-time All-Star and a Kia MVP contender last season, Thomas says he views himself as more than the reserve he has been for the Lakers since they acquired him in a trade deadline-day deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Thomas was a starter in the Lakers' last game, a 117-106 loss to the Western Conference-leading Golden State Warriors last night. Of the other 13 games he's played with the Lakers, though, Thomas has served as a reserve. To date, his season averages as a backup (16.5 points per game, 2.1 rebounds per game, 5.2 assists per game on 40 percent shooting) are better than what he's logged as a starter (14.1 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 4.8 apg on 35.7 percent shooting).
In an interview with Sam Amick of USA Today, Thomas says he accepted the backup role for the good of team chemistry with the Lakers. However, he says that backup duty is not a role he is looking for at his next stop:
“I'm not no sixth man,” he declared in an interview with USA TODAY Sports this week. “And I won't be a sixth man (in the future). I just want everybody to know that, like clear as can be. I'm a two-time All-Star and a starter who has done things that a lot of people in this league haven't done (when) given that opportunity.
“But I got traded into a situation I can't control. There's nothing bad against (Lakers coach) Luke Walton. There's nothing bad against the Los Angeles Lakers. I'm taking advantage of the opportunity they've given me, and then (we’ll) end the season off strong. And that's all I can do. I'm not coming in here saying, 'Oh, I want this, or this is going to happen.' No, that's not me. I'm just going to come in here and be a professional, and when my name is called I'm going to be more than ready for any opportunity I'm given.”
Per Amick, Lakers coach Luke Walton and associate head coach Brian Shaw met with Thomas at a Dallas steakhouse the day after the trade. At the time, the Lakers were playing well, having won 12 of their last 16 games heading into the showdown with the Mavericks. It was at that point that Walton told Thomas he would be in a reserve role, Amick reports:
“Could he start?” Walton said of Thomas. “One hundred percent. Does he deserve to start? Yeah, with what he's done in his career. Absolutely. (But) we're in a unique situation here. We have a young team. Guys are playing well, and with the trade, JC (Clarkson) and Larry (Nance Jr.) were kind of the soul of that second unit, so we needed a leader in that group, and I kind of just challenged (Thomas), that even though he fully wants to start, I said, 'Look, you've been out a long time, (and) to me there's only, however much, two months left in the season at the time - find the joy. Go find the (joy).
“What you love doing is playing basketball, and whether or not I'm starting you or not, that decision (is) out of your hands. So just go out and have fun. We have a great group of young players. We want to play fast, lead them, and to his credit, yeah he aired everything that he wanted to me, and I said, 'I appreciate it. For now, at least, we're still going to continue to start the group we are.'”
Then a funny thing happened on the way to the final course: They respectfully disagreed, and decided to make the best of an imperfect situation.
“I told Luke when we sat down and talked (that), 'Yeah, obviously I want to be a starter, (and) obviously I feel like I deserve and earned the right to be a starter on any team in the NBA,” Thomas said. “But I'm not going to cause problems just because you say, 'Well right now I'm not starting.' It is what it is. I can't control it. They already had a team before I came here, so I'm just here to help and finish the season off strong and try to get to the next level. That's, if anything, try to get to the playoffs if we can.”
Thomas said he wants a long-term deal in free agency, telling NBA.com's Shaun Powell: "I’m looking to sign a long-term deal this summer but anything can happen. I can’t control it and can’t worry too much about it. I was only in Sacramento for three years, Boston for almost three years and the other stops were temporary. I’m looking hopefully to sign long term and call someplace home.”
In 29 games this season, Thomas is averaging 15.7 ppg, 2.1 rpg and five assists per game.