It's been a long journey that has brought Isaiah Thomas here. Not just here to Boston, but to the NBA. His path has been littered with obstacles along the way, yet he's managed to prove his doubters wrong to carve out a significant role for himself. Once considered an afterthought by many teams around the league, Thomas has found a home in Boston and has give the Celtics a spark that changed the direction of the franchise.
Adam Himmelsbach's fascinating piece in The Boston Globe outlined the struggles that Thomas faced on his way to becoming an NBA point guard. There were many that told the 5-foot-9-inch Thomas that he was too small to play at the game's highest level. He was bullied as a kid by those that couldn't handle losing to someone so much smaller than them. Then there was the stressful NBA Draft night that left his future uncertain until the final moments. Through it all, Thomas never quit. He kept fighting, kept proving everyone wrong, on his way to getting where he is today, but he's not done yet. Thomas is just getting started.
The Sacramento Kings selected Thomas with the 60th overall pick in the 2011 draft, making him the final selection of the second round. He wasn't even guaranteed a roster spot heading into training camp, but he earned it with his tremendous work ethic. Before long, Thomas had worked his way into the starting lineup, as his career began to take off.
"When I was on the floor," Thomas told The Boston Globe, "I wanted to make people be like 'Man, why isn't this guy playing more?' "
Last year Thomas averaged a career-high 20.3 points and 6.3 assists in his final year with the Kings. Three years after wondering if he would even be drafted, Thomas hit the open market ready to cash in as a free agent.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge was the first to give Thomas a call when the free agency period opened at 12:01 AM on July 1. Ainge was genuinely interested in adding Thomas, even if the cap-strapped Celtics weren't able to make a competitive offer at the time.
Thomas would end up signing with the Phoenix Suns on a 4-year, $28 million deal that continues to look like a bargain. Which makes it all the more puzzling why the Kings would let such a productive player leave over an affordable contract. Sacramento easily could have matched, or even surpassed, the offer without exceeding the luxury tax. That's without even factoring in the expected drastic rise of the salary cap beginning in 2016.
Instead, the Kings let Thomas go and replaced him with Darren Collison on a 3-year, $16 million deal. Collision is a fine player, but he had primarily been a backup point guard and had never proved to be as productive as Thomas. He was enjoying a breakout season with the Kings this year until being lost to a season-ending injury, but even with that improvement he couldn't match the level that Thomas is at.
Collision produced a career-high 17.53 PER in 45 games this season, which is solid, but falls below what Thomas has produced in each season of his career. Thomas posted a 20.54 PER last season and improved slightly to 20.63 this year, while holding an advantage over Collison in per minute points and assists, true shooting percentage and turnover ratio.
Sure, Collison was cheaper, but not enough so to make him a better value to a team that could have afforded to keep Thomas. The Kings have been a poorly run franchise for years, so perhaps letting Thomas get away was merely the latest example in a long line of mistakes they had made.
Phoenix sold Thomas on the idea of running a three point guard attack with Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic. The concept was an interesting one in theory, but the experiment failed to work out.
"I was taking a step back," said Thomas. "We all wanted the ball and are all talented, but somebody ended up upset every night. It's something that everyone thought would work, but it just didn't."
Dragic put the Suns in a difficult position by threatening to bolt in free agency after the season if he wasn't traded. With a gun to their heads, Phoenix reluctantly pulled the trigger on a deal that sent him to Miami for a bundle of assets that forced the Suns to sacrifice their chances at a playoff spot this year for the good of their future.
Shipping Dragic out of town would seem to have resolved the Suns backcourt issues, but they weren't done dealing yet. In a baffling series of moves, Phoenix sent Thomas to Boston for Marcus Thornton and a 2016 first-round pick that the Celtics were owed from the Cleveland Cavaliers. Ainge, who had coveted Thomas for some time, jumped at the opportunity to steal him away for an expiring contract and an asset from their endless pile of draft picks.
Boston will owe Thomas less than $7 million per year over the next three seasons on a deal that depreciates in value each year, making him one of the best non-rookie deal bargains in the league. So how is it that two franchises allowed him to get away in less than a year?
There were whispers around the league that Thomas had attitude issues that caused friction in the locker room, but we haven't heard of that being a problem here in Boston. Perhaps that was a symptom of being a part of a losing culture on a dysfunctional Kings team. It was believed that Thomas was unhappy with his role coming off the bench in Phoenix, but he hasn't been starting in Boston either, and he seems fine with it.
When Thomas first came to the Celtics, Ainge told him that if he embraced his role, he would become a legend in Boston.
"If that's the truth, I'm down for that," Thomas told Ainge, according to The Boston Globe. "I want that type of pressure."
Thomas is thriving in Boston under the guidance of the brilliant system implemented by coach Brad Stevens, turning himself into a strong contender for the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year award. He may not be starting games, but he sure knows how to finish them, ranking 6th in the league with 6.2 points in the 4th quarter this season.
Most teams repeatedly passed him by in the draft. Two other franchises gave up on him too soon. Their loss has become Boston's gain. Thomas has found a home here with the Celtics and has helped accelerate their rebuilding process by leading them to an unexpected playoff berth.
It's been a long road for Thomas, but he finally ended up where he belongs.