LAS VEGAS — Considering that the most money an actual Brinks truck carries is roughly $2 million, the Denver Nuggets gave Isaiah Thomas what he had been asking for the past two years when they signed him to a one-year minimum deal last month. Of course, everyone who heard or read Thomas’ declaration in 2017 that a team would have to “back up the Brinks truck” to sign him when he hit free agency understood that he was referencing the maximum, nine-figure payday that many of his All-Star contemporaries had received.
Thomas wasn’t wearing Brinks truck slides or posting photos of armored trucks on social media anticipating that he would have to take a pay cut. But a cruel, precipitous drop — in which he went from finishing fifth in MVP voting to free-agent afterthought in one year — had Thomas settling for simply being employed. Denver was the best of what remained from limited options but might really turn out to be the most ideal situation for the two-time All-Star: Thomas will have a set role as a microwave bench scorer with a coach in Mike Malone who understands and respects what Thomas has to contribute.
“I’m excited to be with someone who believes in me and trusts me,” Thomas told Yahoo Sports about Malone. “He told me, ‘I want you to come in and be Isaiah Thomas.’ That’s all I needed. I have a good relationship with him. I trust him. He trusts me. And all I ever wanted was an opportunity and I’ll take care of the rest.”
Malone was the first NBA coach to truly overlook Thomas’ draft position (the final pick in 2011) and height (listed at 5-foot-9) and let him rock out in their one season in Sacramento in 2013-14. Thomas used that breakthrough campaign to land a four-year, $27 million deal with Phoenix that he outperformed the moment he was traded less than a year later to Boston, where coach Brad Stevens unleashed the ultimate underdog hero. When Thomas tapped his left wrist, there was no doubt what time it was. And even while those scoring outbursts became more routine, they didn’t become any less remarkable.
Thomas played hurt and through personal tragedy until his 2017 postseason ended so that he could finally address a nagging hip injury. While Thomas thought he would get rewarded for his performance and dedication, Celtics president Danny Ainge used that unexpected star turn as a chance to swipe a younger point-guard upgrade from the Cavaliers in Kyrie Irving. With no equity earned in Cleveland, Thomas rushed back on his injured hip before he should’ve, failed to mesh with LeBron James and got dumped on the Los Angeles Lakers.
Though he had some moments playing for the franchise responsible for giving him his name — his father lost a bet after the Lakers got swept by the Detroit Pistons in the 1989 NBA Finals — Thomas never was right physically. He finally accepted that he needed surgery on his hip and shut down in March a season in which his value depreciated exponentially. Thomas had to accept a contract worth less than half of what he earned last season, which is startling enough. But the $2 million salary is even more staggering in comparison to the other four MVP finalists from two years ago who will all make more than $20 million this season: Russell Westbrook, $35.4 million; James Harden, $30.4 million; Kawhi Leonard, $20.1 million; and LeBron James, $35.7 million.
“I’ve been through way tougher things than just this year of basketball, real-life stuff. This year can’t define me,” Thomas told Yahoo Sports. “This has been tough, but it was only a tough year because I wasn’t healthy. My job is to get as healthy as I possibly can and then show the world what I’m capable of doing.”
A few hours before committing to the Nuggets, Thomas posted an Instagram story that revealed the successes of his final season in Boston, twice referencing that people have short memories about what he has accomplished. “They haven’t forgotten. They just try to act like they forgot,” Thomas told Yahoo Sports. “I can’t control that. It’s not about what I’ve done in the past. It’s about what I’m going to do this year. I’m going to keep grinding and keep trying to be the best possible player that I can possibly be.”
Thomas’ career has been defined by overcoming doubts and blasting off after being cast off, but his current challenge goes beyond his game. His ineffective play and diminished stature won’t make a reverse pivot until his hip his finally healed. Thomas expects to soon be cleared. “I’m very close. Once the season starts, I’ll be who I am,” Thomas told Yahoo Sports. “I just got to show the world I’m healthy. I think everybody knows what I bring to the table when I’m healthy. And I’m just going to go out and play and be who I am.”
The Nuggets have one of the league’s more intriguing young cores, with the recently maxed-out Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Will Barton. They still need a veteran presence who can provide both a scoring punch and playmaking ability. If healthy, Thomas can help with both while Denver can give him the chance to restore his standing in time for next summer, when several teams will have the cap space to summon that Brinks truck. “It’s a talented, young group of guys,” Thomas told Yahoo Sports. “One game away from the playoffs and I’m only there to help. Whatever I can do to help the team take the next step to get to the playoffs, take the next step as an organization, I’m ready to do it.”
Thomas has already proven that his worth as a player won’t be determined by the price tag attached to him. So much is riding on this season for Thomas to secure the kind of financial security that his talents once warranted, but he won’t be consumed by what could’ve been. “I’m always a positive guy. I worry about the things I can control,” Thomas told Yahoo Sports. “I just know everything always works out at the end of the day. If you continue to work hard, if you continue to be a good person, live by the right things, everything will work out.”
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