MIAMI — Isaiah Thomas still feels like there’s time.
He’s four months away from free agency, the wheeling-and-dealing period where — the way things were looking a year ago — he would be signing a contract worth well over $100 million ensuring himself a level of wealth that would be well beyond what the player picked last in the 2011 NBA draft should have reasonably expected.
Nothing is certain now.
He’s gone from a star in Boston to being cast aside in Cleveland and now finds himself as a backup with the Los Angeles Lakers, still trying to get healthy after hip surgery. If that wasn’t enough, there’s the added strain that what he does over these next few high-stakes weeks will go a long way in determining what he’ll earn and where he’ll play over the next few years.
“All you need is one team to love you,” Thomas said Thursday (Friday, Manila time). “It’s like the draft all over again. You just need one team.”
He averaged just under 29 points per game last season. He hasn’t scored more than 24 in any game this season, couldn’t get on the floor until January while recovering from the hip surgery and lasted only 15 games with the Cavaliers before getting traded to the Lakers in early February. Thomas was the main piece that Cleveland got from Boston in the deal that sent Kyrie Irving to the Celtics, and his on-court Cavs tenure lasted roughly one month.
The Lakers want Thomas to mentor their young players, and they’re giving him rest and recovery time when he needs — mindful that he wants to go into this summer as healthy as possible.
“I think he’s been judged pretty harshly with the fact that he missed that much time,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “He’s playing good for us. I think with the more time he has just playing basketball, the better he’ll get as far as getting back to doing the things he was doing in Boston last season.”
Walton speaks highly of Thomas, which suggests that the Lakers could be that one team Thomas is looking for.
In 21 games entering Thursday (Friday, Manila time), Thomas is averaging 14.3 points in 26 minutes. He’s shooting 37 percent, almost 10 percent down from where he was a year ago.
“If they give me a bigger opportunity, I’m capable of bringing more to the table,” Thomas said. “Until then I’m doing what I can. I’m getting as healthy as I possibly can. Every day I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just grinding it out and just trying to be ready for any opportunities that come my way.”
Thomas went through pain of the emotional and physical kind with the Celtics a year ago, after his sister died in a car crash just before the start of Boston’s postseason run. About three weeks later, on the day Chyna Thomas would have turned 23, her brother — a day removed from oral surgery — scored 53 points to lead the Celtics past Washington.
Not long after that, the Celtics shut the 5'9" guard down because of the right hip problem.
“Him being a competitor and a warrior, he made his injury even worse instead of putting his stock up there and saying ’I’m done, let me get ready for the next season so I can get a max deal,’” said Miami guard Dwyane Wade, a Thomas teammate in Cleveland this season. “He kept trying to fight and fight and fight for the city that he was playing for. So it’s a tough situation.
“One thing I know about him, you don’t become a household name at 5-foot-whatever-he-is without having grit, without having toughness and without knowing you can overcome anything.”
That’s the belief Thomas still has these days.
He doesn’t think he can merely return to the level he was at last year. He thinks he can get even better. The challenge will be making someone else believe that this summer.
“It’s ‘what have you done for me lately.’ That’s the league we’re in and I understand that,” Thomas said. “But if I’m given the same opportunity I was given in Boston, I would do the same thing. And that’s just what it is. My resume speaks for itself. What I can do on the basketball floor speaks for itself. I can’t do nothing but control what I can control, and that’s taking advantage of any opportunity I’m given and playing my heart out.”