DA's Morning Tip

Contract future for Isaiah Thomas likely not what it once was

Last season's hip injury, Cleveland fallout may have hurt guard's chances at big payday

Reader Brian Simontacchi made his feelings plain:

Isaiah Thomas is the most underrated player in the league. For guards who have averaged 25 points per game or more, he had the third-highest true shooting percentage of all time in 2016-17. For a guy who is 5 feet 9, that’s unbelievable.

His hip injury gives us reason to think that he isn’t the same player he once was, but why? Is there another player who had a similar injury that gives us a precedent for this? In a point guard driven league, he may not have many opportunities beyond the Orlando Magic and Sacramento Kings (again). Maybe he can come off the bench in Boston next year.

Has any other star been this unfairly maligned?

So what exactly did go on there with IT in Cleveland? And what will his future be, whether with the Los Angeles Lakers or someone else, next season?

It’s easy, now, to blame Thomas for much of what went wrong during what turned out to be just 15 games played for the Cavs before he was traded to the Lakers last week. But anyone who approaches this fairly has to have some sympathy for his position. He rushed to get back from the hip injury that ended his incredible run with the Celtics last June — against the Cavaliers. But he wasn’t healthy enough to be able to participate in training camp after being traded to Cleveland in August.

Once he finally was cleared to play in January, he had to use his first games as his preseason. He was getting his wind back while his teammates were in the throes of a terrible patch — one that Thomas’ skill set was not equipped to fix. (As far as hip injuries go, it’s hard to compare one to another, of course. And the record is mixed on full recovery/return to former quality of play. Some, like Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge and Otto Porter Jr., have come back and done well, though Porter continues to battle hip problems with the Wizards. But others like Jonny Flynn and Martell Webster couldn’t overcome their hip injuries and had to retire. Gerald Henderson missed this season after suffering a hip injury last season, but is hopeful he’ll return next season after extensive rehab.)

So it’s hard to hold Thomas responsible for what happened on the court when he came back.

It’s hard playing with LeBron James; even harder to try and learn how to do so on the fly. Almost every great offensive player’s instinct is to attack with the ball, unless you’re primarily a catch-and-shoot player. That’s the exact opposite of what’s worked best on the best James teams — him having the ball, deciding on where to pass it, then threading a dime to someone behind the 3-point line with their feet set.

The one place where Thomas erred was talking so much while the Cavs were in their tailspin. He’d built no currency in that locker room yet to speak with any authority about the Cavs’ culture, how players reacted during adversity, etc. He hadn’t been there the last three years, when they had their ups and downs, fired a coach, made trades, yet still made three straight Finals and won one. Going after Cavs coach Ty Lue publicly on end-game playcalling did nothing to endear Thomas with teammates, and especially James, who’s been one of Lue’s strongest defenders and proponents.

Yet Thomas is still as lethal an offensive talent as any in the game when healthy. And he’ll get the ball and plenty of shots with the Lakers. He came off the bench in his first game there Saturday and scored 22 points in 31 minutes, including 4 of 8 on 3-pointers, despite not knowing the plays or many of his new teammates.

“Saturday night, he looked like a $12-15 million guy,” one team executive texted Sunday.

Whether Thomas remains with the Lakers after this season is another question.

The Lakers made the deal with Cleveland to clear enough cap space to go after two max free agents in July. Thomas, seemingly, will not be one of them. Long gone are the days when Thomas said the Celtics would have to “back up the Brinks truck” to pay him when he became a free agent, as well as dreams of a $200 million deal.

The Lakers have Lonzo Ball, their 2017 first-rounder in whom they’ve invested so much, at the point. Since Ball has been out with a sprained knee, Brandon Ingram has started in his place and done pretty well. It would make no sense for L.A. to put money into Thomas, even if it was inclined to do so, if it cost the Lakers a shot at James or Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star swingman Paul George.

So, the next 30 games or so are almost certainly an audition for Thomas. But what is the landscape for him next summer?

With only 6-8 teams having real cap room this summer, there just aren’t going to be many able to put a huge deal on the table. A lot of front office types think it’s most likely that Thomas signs a short deal rather than a long-term contract.

It could wind up as a ‘’1+1” deal like the ones James and Kevin Durant have signed in recent years — a one-year deal with an option for a second year controlled by the player. Or, it could just be a one-year deal for big money similar to what J.J. Redick did ($23 million) with the Philadelphia 76ers last summer.

Some executives believe that Thomas may have to settle for the mid-level exception, given the number of teams that are capped out and don’t have a better mechanism to get quality players.

A lot of teams don’t want small, ball-dominant point guards who are poor defenders. I think his market may be the mid-level in the new NBA economy, especially when the hip injury is factored in.”

Anonymous NBA executive, on Isaiah Thomas

“No max,” one front office guy said. “I predict he gets something in the neighborhood of 1 + 1 for $10 mil per year.”

Said another: “Depends how he finishes the year. Due to the tight market, would not surprise me to see him at $12-15M or could be as low as a mid-level deal if one of the space teams does not value him.”

The non-Laker teams who should have the biggest cap room include the Atlanta Hawks, Dallas Mavericks, Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers. The Hawks have Dennis Schroeder; Dallas has rookie Dennis Smith, Jr.; the Bulls have Kris Dunn. The Pacers have an option for next season for veteran Darren Collison at $10 million. It would likely cost more to bring in a replacement player capable of starting at the point. And that’s a problem for Thomas, too: position scarcity.

“I think he is screwed,” said a former team executive who remains in regular contact with teams. “He will be looking at deals like Lou Williams (who signed a three-year extension with the Clippers last week at around $24 million). Most teams have point guards and everyone knows he can be a little difficult. The real problem he is a scoring point in the mode of Allen Iverson. His best bet may be with the Lakers if they don’t get two guys. They may pay him max money for one year.”

The Suns gave Thomas a four-year, $27 million deal in 2014, as part of a sign-and-trade deal that brought him from Sacramento. The Suns then got a 2016 first-round pick from Boston when they traded Thomas to the Celtics in 2015, after Thomas had only played a little more than half of one season with Phoenix. Even then, it wasn’t easy for the Suns to get a first for Thomas. It would be impossible now; it was Cleveland that sent a 2018 first with Thomas to the Lakers.

“A lot of teams don’t want small, ball-dominant point guards who are poor defenders,” another executive said. “I think his market may be the mid-level in the new NBA economy, especially when the hip injury is factored in.”

But if Thomas puts up numbers in L.A. and shows he’s over the hip injury, he could pump his value back up some. Teams with cap room may want him, or at the least, may not get the guy or guys they do want and double back to him. A team like Orlando, for example, certainly is poised to be a player in free agency. And, the Magic just traded its starting point guard the last three years, Elfrid Payton, to Phoenix at the deadline.

Thomas’ market will also be determined by whether he’s willing to come off the bench, as he appears to have settled on with the Lakers, or seeks a starting job. Lots of teams could use his energy and scoring in reserve, but likely wouldn’t break the bank to get him.

But … Thomas was a serious Kia MVP candidate in 2016-17, playing for a team that made the conference finals. He led the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring and was an All-Star. That is the resume of a max player. And yet …

“No idea,” said another executive, asked about Thomas’ financial floor and ceiling this summer. “This market will be an interesting one and it’s one I don’t think everyone has a handle on yet.”

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Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here andfollow him on Twitter.

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