As the NBA world reacts to the shocking blockbuster trade that sent Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder to Cleveland, one of the most bizarre wrinkles of the story was a report from Fox Sports’ Chris Broussard. The controversial reporter claimed he received word through league executives that there were locker-room issues with Isaiah Thomas. Broussard cited multiple anonymous executives claiming, “A lot of the players in Boston really weren’t that fond of Isaiah,” citing his “huge ego” as the crux of the issue.
This report flew in the face of the general consensus among those around the team: that Thomas was a respected leader whose proudly declared Napoleonic complex was admired as a virtue by those who donned the green with him. Among the former teammates and coaches to voice their condemnation of this report was Evan Turner, who turned his career around in the two years he spent closing out games with Thomas.
“I met IT in high school, we always been tight,” Turner told CelticsBlog after the trade. “The kid has literally acted the same with me since I was 16. I just don't see how that even comes out. I’ve never known him to be an [expletive] or disliked by anyone. He's not arrogant or anything. Dude works his [expletive] off.”
ET admitted that he was reticent about reaching out to Thomas after he left for Portland while Thomas achieved NBA superstardom. “Sometimes I feel weird reaching out when some of my close friends reach stardom, cause everybody be nut huggin’ them and I don’t want to seem like a leech,” he told Thomas before the trade. Turner was pleased to see Thomas respond quickly, saying Thomas was a real one. So Turner’s biggest surprise over this “scandal” was the fact that he had only witnessed universally positive interactions between Thomas and those he worked with.
“It's funny that that was ever mentioned. I never heard anyone in any part of life say anything bad about him! Especially as a teammate. He was always there working his [expletive] off before and after practice. That little dude worked! Can't say anything bad about him.”
The foundation of the rumor was that Thomas’ proverbial chip on his shoulder rubbed other people the wrong way. While it’s plausible that some players over the last couple years may have felt friction if they weren’t keeping up with his expectations for work ethic or responsibility, these issues would appear to be the glaring exception to the rule.
“I mean, the little dude has a chip on his shoulder and he [expletive] works. Like an understatement. True competitor. I never heard him be disrespectful towards someone. If you're the leader in the locker room, then sometimes being the bad guy is going to happen, but I truly never seen it.”
Thomas is known for his mantras, but his most equitable, according to one source, was, “If we all play well, we all get paid.”
Turner credited the locker-room culture under coach Brad Stevens allowing for accountability to function as a check and balance, while mitigating any resentment.
“I think when you're around the right people with the right attitude, then you're challenged in a positive way to try and step up," Turner said, "He was a great teammate and he worked hard and I think everyone in that locker room tried to hold each other accountable as a teammate and worker.”
But Thomas demanded that accountability to be shared across the locker room. He had an open invitation to the team for his late-night shooting sessions, which were a crucial part of his ascending from a good scorer to having one of the most efficient crunch-time scoring seasons in NBA history last year. He was known for trying to show his teammates the way to success, but only bringing them along as far as they were willing to go.
“IT is the type of person to more so be hurt if someone wasn't giving their all because that little dude battles," Turner said. "I can't even put into words bruh, you just gotta see it. And to see him rise is unreal. Nothing ill should ever be said about that guy. He's maximizing everything he's been blessed with on and off the court!”
His former strength coach, Bryan Doo, saw in IT much of the same work ethic and desire to be the best player to help the team that defined Kevin Garnett’s Celtics career. Their tenacity, work ethic, and unlimited expectations saw them achieve greatness, always pushing their teammates to keep up with them.
“I would correlate some of KG’s teammates didn’t like him, but was he wrong or were they dumb?” Doo told CelticsBlog. “Isaiah would want you to get it, try to get you there once, twice, but then, ‘It's on you.’ KG would kill you after one time you didn't try and get it.”
When scheduled player workouts overlapped, Thomas and Crowder would constantly extend their own workouts to push everyone else. They would get on guys who were first out of the facility according to multiple team sources. But they always put their money where their mouth is, regularly getting in extra shooting sessions and workouts.
“I don't have anything bad to say about those guys cause they were blue collar,” Turner said. “Everything they had, they truly grinded for. Jae was outspoken, but you knew it wasn't for no reason. He never spoke just to speak.”
If Thomas and Crowder leave any legacy behind in Boston, it was that they earned every moment they had with the team. They ascended to their prominent roles with the Celtics by trying to outwork everyone and stayed at the top by continuing to practice what got them there.
"[Jae] was encouraging, he never belittled anyone, in my opinion," said Turner. "You knew it was for the greater good. He tried to take young guys under his wing and show them how to work. Those dudes were great because they were a true team. Everyone knew their role. Brad did a great job building that environment."
While there is some outside noise to the contrary, the legacy they leave behind in Boston is founded on respect and admiration. Now they join a new team with a culture dominaed by LeBron James. If their former colleagues are any indication, that Cleveland locker room just got a lot stronger.