Ah man, remember Isaiah Thomas? He was on a by-God NBA team, playing by-God rotation minutes, as recently as Game 40 of this very regular season. Granted, that was a lifetime ago, way back on February 2, two days after Italy confirmed its first two (2) cases of COVID-19. By the time the NBA halted its season in response to an outbreak on the Utah Jazz, Thomas had been out of work for more than a month after being dealt as salary ballast in a three-team shuffling of flotsam involving the Washington Wizards, Denver Nuggets, and Los Angeles Clippers, who ultimately waived him. It’s fine if you assumed Thomas’s NBA career was over. It probably is. Thomas still wants to give it another shot, and toward that end he’s had another hip procedure. This time doctors resurfaced his problematic right hip, which seems very grody. The good news is, Thomas feels great!
“It’s like night and day for me. There’s no more pain. I’ve got my full range of motion. For three years, I was trying to play the best players in the world on one leg. I needed help from my kids to put my socks on in the morning. Now, I can lift weights. I can squat low. I can work out twice a day. I’m able to cut and move and stop, able to cut and go. I feel like I’m 31 years old again. And now, I have scientific evidence to show that.”ESPN
That all sounds very pleasant. NBA fans who watched Thomas miss out on a long-anticipated payday due to a cosmically cruel and unfair hip injury suffered at the apex of his prime will be glad at any news that renews the possibility that he might be able to cobble together a few more NBA contracts before his hoops career is over. But if there’s one thing NBA general managers are not looking for, at all, from a 31-year-old guard who is 5-foot-9 and hasn’t played more than a minute or two of non-crud professional basketball in more than three years, it is scientific evidence that he feels like a 31-year-old. “I feel like I’m 31 years old” is not something anyone has ever said who did not want you to respond with pity. An 81-year-old who claimed to feel like a 31-year-old would be telling you, implicitly, that there is room for improvement.
Besides, “with the hip issue behind him, Isaiah Thomas is a new man” is such a common refrain from the last few years of Thomas’s life that you start to wonder whether it will someday turn up on his gravestone. Thomas was a physical wreck when Danny Ainge and the Celtics shipped him off to Cleveland in the Kyrie Irving trade. He needed nearly half the 2017-18 regular season to get back on the court, and when he did, he was alarmingly bad. But on January 1, 2018, hours before he made his season debut, Thomas was upbeat about the condition of his hip:
“My hip is better, but I have no feel, no rhythm for the game. I’ve been out for so long, it feels like I lost my powers. When we’re out there scrimmaging, I can move around and do what I want, I just don’t have my powers yet. It might take some time, but I’m excited about the opportunity to get out there and compete.’’Boston.com
That season ended prematurely for Thomas when he underwent arthroscopic surgery on the hip, in March of 2018. He signed a veteran-minimum one-year deal with the Denver Nuggets that offseason and started rehabbing and training for a return to the court that would not come until mid-February, more than halfway through the campaign. Of course, by then, the hip was like new:
“I don’t feel what I felt last year. That has left my body. I got a goal that I want to reach. I want to be one of the best players that ever played the game. There’s no quit in me. This is just a part of my story, and I’m going to just continue to grind, continue to keep going, and continue to listen to my body and hopefully I can help this team take the next step.”USA Today
Far from progressing toward Best Player That Ever Played the Game status, Thomas quickly played his way out of the rotation, and was gone from Denver at the end of the season, after playing zero minutes in the playoffs. The Wizards signed him to another veteran minimum deal over the summer to fill the minutes opened by an injury to John Wall, and once again Thomas was a new man, with a completely pain-free hip:
“I’m feeling great. I’m back to feeling like my old self. I’ve been healthy for a while. This is the first summer in two years where I can really work on my body and work on my game. If you let that sink in, that sounds crazy.”Washington Post
Listen. The man was on the very fringes of the NBA, needing jobs and then needing real opportunities to earn his next contract. If he fudged his comfort level, uhh, several times, that’s fine and forgivable and perfectly understandable, given the circumstances. I sincerely hope that this time, when Thomas says he is finally pain-free, that he is finally pain-free. This whole saga has been so endlessly depressing, especially when you remember that the thing that Thomas lost was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to lock in a long-term max- or near-max-level contract that would carry him through the remainder of his physical prime and compensate him for years of All Star-level performance where he was paid like a reserve.
When Thomas last played regular minutes, he was almost certainly the worst rotation player in the NBA. He’s looking for another opportunity, and he used the NBA’s COVID-19 break to do for his hip what responsible homeowners do for winter-scarred driveways. He says he feels great, and he’s got the scientific evidence to prove it, which is good, because you would otherwise not want to take his word for it.