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Why it didn’t work out for Isaiah Thomas in Cleveland


LeBron James and Isaiah Thomas weren’t teammates for long, but their history has been dramatic.

Last May 26 in Boston’s TD Garden, in the moments after the Cleveland Cavaliers finished off the Eastern Conference Finals with a 33-point win, LeBron James came down to the end of the Celtics’ bench and found Isaiah Thomas.

James wrapped his arms around Thomas and spoke into his ear, holding the embrace even as Thomas began to pull away. James, like millions of NBA fans, was moved by Thomas last spring as he played some of the best basketball of his life despite the devastating death of his sister. It was a personal and telling moment of respect and admiration.

Eight months later, James made a breathtaking buzzer-beater to win an overtime game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Thomas, now his teammate, was one of the first people to reach James to celebrate. James ignored him, practically turning his back as he embraced others.


Check out LeBron James’ dramatic game-winning turnaround jumper in overtime from all the angles.

Thomas had played a hopeful game that night, showing a pass-first approach and having the fewest shot attempts and the second-most assists in his brief Cavs career. He was thrashing around, trying to learn to play on the fly with James while rehabbing from the worst injury of his career.

But James knew something Thomas didn’t — that the Cavs intended to trade Thomas the next day — and his cold response made it clear. And the feelings were never as warm as they had been when Thomas was a defeated playoff combatant. It was a symbolic moment that bookended a bizarre and unpleasant few months for the two men.

“It hasn’t been as planned, but I definitely want to be here,” Thomas said that night. “We definitely have a real chance to win an NBA championship, and I want to be a part of that.”

The next day, at just past noon Eastern, Thomas was dealt, along with Channing Frye and a 2018 first-round pick, to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr.

Now, a month later, the Cavs and Thomas will be back together again with the Lakers hosting the Cavaliers on Sunday. And as time has passed, an autopsy of Thomas’ disastrous days in Cleveland shows a marriage that never had a chance of survival.

“I think there’s probably a lot of ‘what ifs’ with him,” Cavs guard Kyle Korver said to ESPN when asked about Thomas in L.A. this weekend. “If he had been healthy, if he had been able to have a training camp and start from the beginning of the season, there’s no question he’s a dynamic guard. When he’s healthy, he’s a problem. He’s someone who can take a big chunk of the scoring load.

“But the way that it all played out, with him coming back so late in the season and trying to find his rhythm, it just didn’t work. The fit wasn’t there. That’s not a knock on anybody. I think if you go across the NBA, for everyone outside of a few superstar players, the fit really matters. And for whatever number of reasons, things just didn’t work out, and I think there were a lot of factors that played into that.”

There were three factors weighing on Thomas’ tenure in Cleveland above all else: his health, his contract situation and the Cavs’ championship-or-bust credo. Any one of those three challenges would be a load to handle alone. Their combined impact suffocated Thomas and created an insurmountable atmosphere, which is saying something for a man who has made a career out of beating the odds.

And there was a fourth factor that poisoned the pool for Thomas in Cleveland before he even dipped his toes into the water: James was against the trade that sent Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics to bring Thomas there in the first place.

As he showed last year, James had respect for Thomas and his battle back from a hip injury. But James was skeptical from the start. The injury itself was worrisome. James’ agent also represented Jonny Flynn, a small guard who had his promising career derailed by hip injuries.

“When you think about hip injuries, you think of Jonny Flynn,” the Cavs’ Tristan Thompson, who shares an agent with James, told ESPN. “And I was very close to Jonny Flynn. … So, it’s a tough thing. You got to be patient. And the tough part about being on the Cavs, there is no time. … You got to be ready to go right away.”

Then there was the transaction. It’s well known that James preferred the Cavs not trade Irving, but there was more. Sources close to James, a master of applying leverage, said he was less than impressed by how the Cavs handled reworking the Irving deal once the severity of Thomas’ injury became clear.

Had the Cavs backed out, which they considered doing for several days, the Celtics would have been in a tough position. They had already celebrated Irving’s arrival and would have alienated Thomas and Jae Crowder. Adding to the Cavs’ leverage was the nature of Thomas’ hip injury becoming public, thereby further diminishing his trade value and putting Boston in an even tighter spot if the deal fell through.

When the dust settled, the fact that Cleveland got only a second-round pick after pausing the deal — and not an additional first-rounder or young player such as Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown or Terry Rozier — didn’t just disappoint James as a basketball player. It disappointed him as a businessman.

All this before Thomas took a single dribble.

Thomas’ rise from the last pick of the 2011 NBA draft to a two-time All-Star is well chronicled. The 5-foot-9 Thomas won the hearts and minds of sports fans around the country when he scored 53 points on a bum hip during the 2017 postseason just weeks after his sister, Chyna, died in a car accident. When Thomas’ playoff ride ended and it became apparent he could go no more in Game 2 of last spring’s conference finals, he was inconsolable in the trainer’s room at TD Garden, sources said, alternating between tears and screams as he pleaded his case to get back on the court.

Thomas brought that same fire to his rehabilitation process in Cleveland, which was both inspiring and infuriating for those involved. Thomas is hardheaded by nature, a distinction as well as a curse, and had occasional mood swings as he dealt with the frustration of the rehab. When he would post social media updates along the way, he frequently attached the phrase “#ThatSLOWgrind,” which might have been a message to himself as much as a catchphrase.

The same stubborn side to which he owed his success worked against him at times, sources said, when he would question workouts or want to push harder rather than follow the program. After Thomas finally played his first game with the Cavs on Jan. 2 and entered the postgame locker room at Quicken Loans Arena, the team presented the game ball to Cavs physical therapist George Sibel — and not to Thomas — in a tongue-in-cheek gesture of appreciation for managing Thomas through his rehab. A significant part of Sibel’s time with Thomas became handling the guard’s sometimes-prickly personality as much as strengthening the injured hip. Thomas scored 17 points in just 19 minutes that night in what was a much-needed victory over the Portland Trail Blazers, showing some of the instant and relentless scoring ability that made him a star in Boston. He followed that up with 19 points in 21 minutes in a win in Orlando in his second game, extending the excitement.

Behind the scenes, though, the Cavs were still concerned. Team sources indicated patience at the time, telling reporters they were not out of the woods when it came to Thomas’ recovery. The Cavs’ training staff always approached it with a big-picture mentality, prioritizing his long-term health while protecting his value as an asset for the organization. Thomas agitated for an earlier return, hoping to play by the Christmas game at Golden State, but ended up admitting he was still at only 75 or 80 percent when he did come back, despite those early successes.

There also was the issue of practice time. The Cavs, the oldest team in the NBA at the time, rarely had the type of contact scrimmages that Thomas needed. At one point, the team bused its entire G-League squad from Canton, an hour away, to the Cavs’ practice facility so Thomas could scrimmage with them.

Thomas wasn’t delusional, either. As he prepared to return, he made it clear he wasn’t himself.

“My hip is better, but I have no rhythm. I have no feel for the game right now,” Thomas said at the time. “I’ve been out for so long, it feels like I lost my powers.”

The Cavs were aware of the challenge when they made the trade. Not that Irving was without warts — this was a guy who between playoff rounds last spring became so distant from teammates he wouldn’t engage in conversation at practice, according to sources, leaving team officials perplexed as to what could be bothering him.

The book on Thomas was that at times he grated on teammates and coaches. There was a reason the Cavs were Thomas’ fourth team in seven years. Not that this is unusual in the NBA. But Thomas consistently has been an overachiever and consistently outplayed his contracts, two typically desired attributes in a league in which talent trumps all.

Yet teams kept moving on from him.

In the months leading up to Thomas’ Cavs debut, James appeared to go out of his way to establish a connection with him. When the team was on the road in Dallas in November, the pair, along with James’ confidant Randy Mims, spent an off night drinking wine and listening to music together, with James capturing the scene on his Instagram account. James, Thomas and their wives spent New Year’s Eve together with some other teammates.

James said he was preparing for Thomas’ return by playing with the point guard in the video game NBA 2K. “I mix and match a lot of lineup changes to see how we can be really good,” James said.

They weren’t very good, however. On the court, James and Thomas had no chemistry. After the Cavs’ 2-0 start in Thomas’ first two games, they went just 5-8 in his final 13 games in a Cleveland uniform.

The Cavs’ roster had several problems — redundant players, no true rim protector, the team’s age — but Thomas came to symbolize a season gone awry. Try as the Cavs might to downplay the significance of Thomas’ torn labrum, the results showed otherwise. The Cavs underperformed with Thomas in the lineup, and he struggled without the explosiveness and agility he had before the injury.

The Cavs knew they had a challenge with the injury recovery and with Thomas’ desire to be a centerpiece of the team as he chased a huge contract in the summer. But they didn’t foresee how poorly he’d fit with the rest of the roster.

“If you want to talk about Isaiah, let’s talk about Isaiah as an All-Star,” Cavs general manager Koby Altman said at Thomas’ introductory news conference last summer. “Let’s talk about Isaiah, the guy who averaged 29 points a game last year. Let’s talk about him as a leader and what he’s going to bring to this franchise, in terms of his performance on the court when we get him back.”

The Cavs never got him back.

In 15 games, he never once scored 29 points or more, let alone average that. He scored fewer than 10 points in a game as many times as he scored more than 20 (twice each). In total, he shot 36.1 percent from the field and 25.3 percent from 3-point range as a Cavalier. His negative-0.014 defensive win shares ranked 494th out of 502 players to have played in the league this season, according to NBA Advanced Stats.

At one point in late January, Thomas had a defensive rating of 117.5 with the Cavs. Not only was it the worst defensive rating by any player in the league playing at least 25 minutes per game, but it was also the worst by any player in the past 25 years, according to StatMuse.

Even with the small sample size, it was alarming. Thomas historically had been a weak defensive player, but without his explosive offense, it became harder to play him. At times, as Thomas labored on the hip, it became hard to watch.

As it was unfolding, Thomas started taking shots at both teammates and coaches. He and Dwyane Wade were at the center of questioning Kevin Love when Love left a blowout loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder with an illness, as well as a fiery team meeting that led to the revelation that Love had been dealing with panic attacks.

After another humbling defeat to the Houston Rockets, Thomas questioned the team’s effort and toughness, saying: “We don’t have [trust] at all on defense. It is an effort thing. Teams are outhustling us. That can fall into the toughness category.”

Several days later he targeted the coaching staff, saying the Cavs were slow to make adjustments and implied his team was getting outcoached.

“We got to do better. We got to adjust throughout the game,” Thomas said after a loss to the Magic when Cavaliers coach Ty Lue had to leave because of an illness. “They made adjustments and it worked, and we just kept getting hit with the same thing and we made no adjustments. And that’s been one of our biggest problems all year, is adjusting.”

Lue answered simply: “Well, that’s not true.”

And the struggles became more acute as Irving and the Celtics excelled. The grumbling got louder as the Cavs’ losses piled up. James privately began to complain about how other all-time greats in the tail end of their primes played for franchises that added Hall of Fame-level talent to support their championship aspirations.

The Chicago Bulls got Dennis Rodman for Michael Jordan. The Los Angeles Lakers got Pau Gasol for Kobe Bryant. The San Antonio Spurs got Kawhi Leonard for Tim Duncan.

The All-Star whom the Cavs got for James wasn’t impressing him. Or other players on the team.

As one team source put it, when asked about Thomas in the week leading up to the trade deadline: “I’m all for an underdog story, but you usually expect some humility to be a part of that story.”

Kobe Bryant made a special edition of his Kobe AD sneaker for Thomas called the “Mighty I.T.” The sneakers had a miniature swoosh on the side to represent his diminutive stature. Nike hyped the release on social media. Thomas was supposed to wear them in his second game back, in Orlando. He had a pair sitting in his locker before the Magic game and tried them on. They were the wrong size, so he wore a different pair of sneakers. In other words, they didn’t fit.

Which sums up Thomas’ remarkably short time in Cleveland.

Before Thomas even got around to posting a thank-you to Cavs fans on social media the night of the trade, the team had announced on its website that newly acquired point guard George Hill would be wearing No. 3 — the same number Thomas wore.

“I think everyone just understood,” Korver said of the Cavs’ decision to trade Thomas. “I think everyone here hopes the best for him as he goes forward in his career, but we’re here trying to win a championship. And the reason there hasn’t been a lot of young guys here the last bunch of years playing is because this window of time for the Cleveland Cavaliers is not about developing guys. It’s not about helping someone continue to grow and evolve. It’s like, we got to put our best team out there and we got to try to win a championship. So, because of that, the window that we played with him was really small. Some may say that’s unfair. That’s just the reality of where we’re at as team and as an organization. That’s the NBA.”

When the Cavs play the Lakers on Sunday, Thomas likely will be greeted with smiles and hugs. He never became a villain in the locker room. He just wasn’t the right person at the right time that the team needed.

The post-trade-deadline Cavs haven’t appeared to be world-beaters — their loss to the Clippers on Friday only reinforced that — but there is belief within the team that they have the requisite pieces to make a deep postseason run. The focus has shifted to how they can all work together, not how one player will work himself back into form.

“I mean, not everything works out,” Cavs forward Jeff Green said. “That’s just life. You can’t control certain things. He did the best he could. He missed almost three months of the season, coming into a situation where the media put a lot of pressure on him to be the Isaiah of old right away, and that’s tough. Especially playing on this team with all the spotlight that we have, it just didn’t fit.”

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