Isaiah Thomas opens up on trade, injury rehab, Danny Ainge and more
In interview with Sports Illustrated, Cavs guard reflects on injury and trade from Boston
NBA.com staff reports
When the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics completed one of the biggest trades of the summer (the Kyrie Irving-for-Isaiah Thomas swap), it left some raw feelings on the part of Thomas. He was a player who tried to embody the spirit of the Celtics franchise when he suited up and poured out his heart to Boston fans in letter in The Players’ Tribune.
As Thomas continues to rehab his hip injury and prepare for his debut with the Cavaliers this season, he spoke with Sports Illustrated‘s Lee Jenkins and shared even more on what he went through in being dealt. And after basically not addressing Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge in his introductory news conference and his Players’ Tribune letter, he had some thoughts on him as well.
The Trade—Irving to the Celtics; Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, the Nets’ first-round pick next year and the Heat’s second-round pick in 2020 to the Cavs—was preposterous enough, on multiple levels.
“None of it made any sense,” Thomas says. “It still doesn’t make any sense. I’m still asking, ‘What the hell happened?’ It’s a trade you make in NBA2K. It’s not a trade you make in real life.”
“I left Cleveland, everybody was excited, everybody was on board,” Thomas explains. “Then I get off the plane in Vegas and there are all these stories about my hip. People were looking at me like I had one leg.” His 2017, which started with so much promise, was ending with so much pain. “Best year of my career,” Thomas says, “worst year of my life.”
On July 18, Thomas underwent another MRI in New York, attended by Celtics general manager Danny Ainge and team officials. Thomas wasn’t recovering as quickly as he’d hoped, but he left New York encouraged. “It was a good appointment,” he recalls. “Dr. Kelly told me I should continue to rest it.” The Celtics dispatched a physical therapist to Seattle to work with Thomas twice a day in August. He knew Irving wanted out of Cleveland. He had no warning he might be involved.
Sacramento and Phoenix, Aaron Brooks and Eric Bledsoe, provided an early education in the business of basketball. But they could not prepare Thomas for Aug. 22. He has wracked his brain for reasons the Celtics moved him, having been assured performance and personality were not among them. Ainge acknowledged that Thomas’s health played a role, as did his contract. By any normal measure, Thomas is richly compensated at $6.2 million this year, but in the NBA he is a dime-store steal who finally reaches free agency next summer. The irony, of course, is that Thomas jeopardized both health and earning potential while playing hurt for the Celtics.
“I’ve been looking at this wall for five hours,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens texted Thomas after the trade, “trying to figure out what to say to you.” When Sacramento let Thomas walk in 2014, he left town telling himself, “F— Sacramento. I’m about to kill those dudes.” When Phoenix exiled him the following winter, he pledged, “O.K., now they’re gonna get it.” But there will be no revenge tour this time. “Boston is going to be all love,” he vows, with one exception. “I might not ever talk to Danny again. That might not happen. I’ll talk to everybody else. But what he did, knowing everything I went through, you don’t do that, bro. That’s not right. I’m not saying eff you. But every team in this situation comes out a year or two later and says, ‘We made a mistake.’ That’s what they’ll say, too.”
From New York, Kelly confers with Cavaliers doctors about treatment plans and rehab schedules. Thomas wants to beat the organization’s timetable, late December or early January, and his wife recently caught him sleeping with a basketball at night.
“The nice thing about the Cavs is nobody is in a rush,” Thomas says. “Most places are trying to get you back, which isn’t always best for you. These guys know they’re going to play in June. It’s a given.”
Thomas always believed the Celtics matched up better with Golden State than they did Cleveland, but Eastern bedrocks have shifted and identities have changed. The C’s are more skilled than they used to be, the Cavs more defiant. “Boston is going to be good,” Thomas predicts. “They’ve got really good players and a great coach. But it takes more than talent. They lost a lot of heart and soul.”
“I felt like I was building my own thing in Boston and we were close,” Thomas laments. “We were so close! Dang! That’s what hurts. We went from the lottery to the conference finals. We just got Hayward. We were right there. Think of all the national TV games we were about to have.” He slaps his side. But he also recognizes that his son James, the LeBron fan, had legitimate reasons for pushing Cleveland. “I get to be with the best player in the world now,” Thomas says. “I’ll only have one guy on me. All the double and triple teams will be on 23.”
“My career is a fight,” Thomas says. “I’m not a regular superstar where whatever happens, it’s all right. Every day is a fight. I need people who understand that fight.” Basketball’s smallest heavyweight pauses to consider where his bout stands.
“Oh, we’re only in the middle rounds,” he declares. “I’m playing till I’m 40.”
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