Seven seasons in the NBA later, Isaiah Thomas’ motivation hasn’t changed. If anything, it burns more hotly than ever.
“Ever since I came to the NBA, all I wanted was the opportunity,” Thomas told Nuggets.com. “I’ll take care of the rest. I’ve always said that to myself.”
And one other thing.
“I just wanted to be wanted,” he said. “Being wanted is half the battle. When somebody wants you as bad as you want that opportunity, it sort-of always works out.”
Thomas is feeling a renewed sense of being wanted these days, signing as the newest member of the Denver Nuggets on Monday. In the last calendar year, going from Cleveland to the L.A. Lakers after two-plus wildly successful years in Boston, that feeling had been in short supply.
But the Nuggets, who unequivocally wanted him, began filling Thomas’ cup quickly after free agency began. President of basketball operations, Tim Connelly, first broached the subject of acquiring Thomas to coach Michael Malone – and was swiftly met with a ‘yesss please.’ Then the work began. Malone called Thomas. Nuggets execs spoke to Thomas’ representatives. The feeling was mutual. They met for dinner in Las Vegas during summer league. The foundation of a deal was laid.
And then, an agreement.
“Me having a real close relationship with coach Malone was probably the biggest key,” Thomas said. “And knowing that I wanted to go somewhere where they were going to allow me to be who I am, allow me to play to my strengths and at the same time be around a good group of guys that got the potential to be special.”
Malone and Thomas share as close a bond as any player-coach, who hadn’t been around each other for very long could possibly have. Malone coached Thomas in Sacramento during the 2013-14 season. And, as Thomas notes, “that was one of my biggest years. That was kind of like my breakout year. I averaged 20 points, six assists, and he was a guy that trusted me.”
In Denver, Thomas will be entrusted with filling the scoring guard spot on the second unit for the Nuggets, with Will Barton moving to the starting lineup.
Thomas is the type of player that could ring up 30 points in a game at any time. He’s got playoff games of 53 points, 42 points and three others over 30 points. He led Boston on a magic carpet ride run to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2017.
And Thomas is steadfast in saying he is healthy and capable of playing at a high level on a nightly basis, that the right hip injury that forced him to miss the first 36 games of last season is behind him.
Asked what he has to prove, Thomas didn’t hesitate.
“First off, show the world I’m healthy,” he said. “That’s probably the biggest thing. What I’ve done in this league is self-explanatory. I don’t have to prove to anybody who I am anymore. I don’t have to prove to anybody what I bring to the table. I think they know. I’m a winner. I’ll do whatever it takes to win. I’m going to bring excitement to the table. I’m going to bring leadership. I’m going to bring somebody that you can count on each and every night; someone that’s very consistent.”
His new teammates know it.
That’s why they reached out to him as soon as news began filtering out that Thomas to Denver was going to be a reality. Barton, Paul Millsap and Malik Beasley all reached out to welcome him to the Nuggets.
“The thing that I wanted was the opportunity to play, the opportunity to show who I am again, show the world what I bring to the table,” Thomas said. “And, at the same time, just being able to have that opportunity. I didn’t care about the money. I didn’t care about none of that. I cared about being able to showcase my skills and be in a good environment. I don’t know too many players on this team, but from the outside, looking in it seems like they love playing with each other and they love being around each other and they had a good atmosphere and I wanted to be a part of that.
“I think it fits my style perfectly. It’s a fast-paced offense, spread the floor; you’ve got one of the best big men in the NBA that can pass and make plays for others. And it’s all about space and opportunity. I’ve played in Mike Malone systems so I know what he wants from his players and I know what he expects. It was just a perfect fit from all angles and I’m just excited to be here and excited to help. That’s what I’m here to do.”
Christopher Dempsey: email@example.com and @chrisadempsey on Twitter