The one that got away.
There have been plenty of faces that have come and gone over the last decade of futility in Sacramento. But rarely has there been a player that has gone on to become something more than just a standard role player in the NBA.
Isaiah Thomas is the exception.
Selected with the 60th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, Thomas went from zero to hero in the strike shortened 2011-12 season with Sacramento. And that was just the tip of the iceberg.
In three seasons with the Kings, the generously listed 5-foot-9 Thomas became known as “The Pizza Guy” in Sacramento due to his commercials for a local pizza restaurant and his ability to deliver in the clutch. With a million-dollar smile and the presence of a man a foot taller, Thomas became the Kings’ most marketable player.
By his third season, he was much more than just a novelty item. Despite his size limitations, Thomas posted 20.3 points and 6.3 assists per game in his final season with the Kings, forming a nice trio with DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay under head coach Michael Malone.
During the summer of 2014, the Kings, under general manager Pete D’Alessandro, decided to go in a different direction. Sacramento’s regime valued Thomas around the $5 million per season range, although they may not have even gone that high to retain the high-scoring point guard.
When the Phoenix Suns came calling with a 3-year, $21 million deal offer for Thomas, D’Alessandro dealt the fan favorite for Alex Oriakhi (a second round pick that has never played a game of NBA action) and a trade exception.
The Kings went a different direction and basically received nothing for one of their best assets.
Rumors swirled afterwards about Thomas’ departure of discourse was between he and Cousins, but neither has ever substantiated the claims. In fact, both have denied that there was a rift.
“That’s all this league is, what people think they know - 99 percent of the time, they don’t know,” Cousins said. “That’s my guy. I’m extremely happy for him. I’m happy for all of the success he’s gotten so far.”
To take it a step further, Thomas has even lobbied to have the Kings star center join him with the Celtics.
“If he came to Boston, that would be good, really good,” Thomas told the Sporting News over the summer. “The thing is, I’ve got his respect. I’ve always had that."
“When I was with him, I didn’t back down,” Thomas added in his conversation with the Sporting News. “I’m a point guard and that was my job. No matter if we did or didn’t get along off the court, on that court we were going to get along, and I was going to hold him accountable. That’s just how it is. It’s how I’ve always been. And he respects me for doing that.”
Instead of paying slightly more for Thomas in 2014, Sacramento signed Darren Collison to a 3-year, $15 million deal that summer. The Suns already had two point guards in Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe and after 46 games, they dealt Thomas to the Celtics in a 3-team deal for Marcus Thornton and a future first round pick.
Through multiple conversations with management at the time, it was clear that Sacramento’s front office didn’t value Thomas as a starting point guard and they also didn’t believe that he would willingly accept a role as a six-man.
Their valuation of Thomas was wrong.
Fresh off his first All-Star game appearance and back-to-back playoff runs with the Boston Celtics, Thomas has taken his game to even greater heights this season under coach Brad Stevens.
Thomas came into Friday night’s showdown with his former team averaging 26.1 points and 6.3 assists. He ranks ninth in the league in scoring and has the Celtics in the mix for a third straight playoff run.
Sacramento made his life difficult, but the pint-sized point guard still managed to post 20 points and seven assists in the win over the Kings.
Thomas, 27, is a free agent at the end of the year and looking to cash in off his stellar numbers. Not only does he bring an ability to hit the big shot, but he’s a leader that has proven that he can take a team to the playoffs.
The move to let Thomas slip through the Kings’ fingers goes down as one of the all-time gaffs in team history. Watching him thrive in Boston is a painful reminder to fans in Sacramento and the fact that the Kings got nothing in return makes it that much worse.
The one that got away.