“Stay paranoid.” It’s one of the strangest taglines ever uttered by an NBA player. Perhaps Isaiah Thomas has reason to feel that way.
The pint-sized point guard signed a one-year, league minimum deal with the Denver Nuggets on Thursday. It’s a shocking fall from grace for a player who led the Boston Celtics to an Eastern Conference-best 53-29 record two seasons ago.
Coming off a season in which he finished third in the NBA in scoring at 28.9 points per game and fifth in MVP voting, the two-time All-Star struggled with hip issues last year, limiting him to just 32 games between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers.
Instead of “backing up the Brinks truck,” Thomas once again is starting at the bottom at just 29 years of age. He’ll join his former coach with the Sacramento Kings, Michael Malone, who always has raved about the 5-foot-9 guard.
It’s a familiar place for the former University of Washington star. Taken with the 60th overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, IT took half of his rookie season to steal the show and earn the starting point guard position in Sacramento.
Thomas flourished under Malone, posting 20.3 points and 6.3 assists per game in his final season in a Kings uniform. When healthy, the trio of Thomas, Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins looked like building blocks for the struggling Kings franchise.
But in the summer of 2014, management decided early on that they weren’t going to retain the fan favorite. The Kings’ brass, led by Chris Mullin and Pete D’Alessandro, were convinced that Thomas was a reserve and not a starter at the NBA level.
The Kings talked about matching offers for Thomas up to the $5 million-per-season range. When he received a 3-year, $21 million offer from the Suns, D’Alessandro dealt Thomas for Alex Oriakhi and a trade exception.
Neither Mullin nor D’Alessandro lasted long after that decision. The duo chose to sign Darren Collison instead and pushed the notion that Thomas never would have been happy with a reserve role with the Kings.
Thomas struggled in a crowded backcourt in Phoenix and was shipped to Boston midway through his first season. With the Celtics, he quickly found a niche and became a star.
Landing in Denver gives Thomas the opportunity to rebuild his value on what should be a very good Nuggets team. It also gives him a chance to play for a coach who long has been one of his biggest supporters.
Thomas likely will come off the Nuggets' bench behind budding star Jamal Murray. He’s a dynamic scorer and adds another playmaker for a team ranked sixth in the league at 110 points per game last season.
After missing the big payday, Thomas will jump back into the free agent pool next summer when there will be plenty of teams with salary-cap space. Or maybe he’ll find a home with his former coach and decide to stick around in Denver.
In a strange twist, Thomas isn’t the only former King to find the free agent market tough this summer. Cousins, who like Thomas, looked primed for a huge contract, took a one-year, $5.3 million contract with the Golden State Warriors. Gay, the oldest of the three, re-signed with the San Antonio Spurs for one year at $10 million.
Who could have possibly imagined that Gay would make more than both Thomas and Cousins combined heading into the the 2018-19 season?
After Thomas averaged 18.9 points and 5.1 assists per game through his first seven seasons, there was no market for him. Injuries played a role in his reduced value, but it’s hard to imagine him not having a bounce-back year in Denver.
Don’t count out Thomas. He’s a fiery competitor, and he’ll play for a coach who understands how to maximize his potential. The chip on his shoulder just got bigger, and his “stay paranoid” mantra just became a little more real.