LAS VEGAS -- For Isaiah Thomas and the Wizards, there is plenty of familiarity that precedes the one-year free-agent deal he signed to join them. Thomas and John Wall go way back, before Wall "blew up," as Thomas describes it.
There is also some irony in Thomas playing for the Wizards, the last team he was himself against. He lit them up in the second round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs, back when he was with the Boston Celtics, but in the two year's since has battled a nagging hip injury as he tries to reclaim his All-NBA form.
Those Thomas-led Celtics were more than just a playoff opponent for the Wizards. The two teams sparred in a brief, but spirited rivalry, a feud that included both teams wearing all black to symbolize funeral games.
“It was never personal. It’s weird to say that I am a Washington Wizard," Thomas said. "I was competing with them two or three years in the Eastern Conference and we’re battling, it felt like we hated each other."
Much has transpired for Thomas since. The torn labrum in his right hip required surgery. He has bounced around between the Cavaliers, Lakers and Nuggets. Last season in Denver, he played only 12 games and shot 34.3 percent.
Thomas played through the injury when it first occurred during that 2017 playoff run with the Celtics. He put his body on the line and lost a lot of money for doing so. While he was once an MVP candidate and about to be paid like one, the drop in production has led to him signing minimum contracts the last two summers.
Thomas, though, says he's the healthiest he has felt since 2017. There is a marked change in how he feels from the last two offseasons. He believes he has a real chance now to restore himself as a legitimate starting point guard.
“I took a bullet. That's in terms of max contracts, all that. People not playing to get their max deals. I took a bullet for sure," Thomas said of playing through the hip problem.
"I was going through other stuff at that time, so basketball was the only thing that was helping me through that time off the court. But I feel like yeah, especially with the Kawhi Leonard thing, he sat out for a reason. He seen my situation, for sure he seen it. The list goes on. Load management I think is smart for players."
Thomas, now 30, thought the opportunity for redemption would come in Denver last season. But, as he tells it, the team was better than anyone expected. They were set at guard with Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Monte Morris. Thomas used that time to get his body right, but never saw meaningful minutes.
He believes there is an opening for him in Washington. With Wall out for at least 50-plus games next season due to a ruptured Achilles, Thomas could secure a starting job. He has to beat out veteran Ish Smith, but if he's healthy, that is certainly possible.
"It's not great news, but with John being out most of the year, it gives me an opportunity to come in and play right away," Thomas said. "When I met with the Wizards last week, it was like they really wanted me and it was like a genuine want, and that’s all I want."
Thomas has known Wall since he was in high school, right before he became the top recruit in the country. They met at a basketball camp long before they were in the NBA. By now, they have been friends for more than a decade.
Thomas wants the best for Wall, but won't mind taking advantage of the opportunity presented by him being out.
"I want to win and I think that was one of the most important things in the Wizards meeting was like' I’m coming here to win,'" Thomas said. "I don’t know any other way and they felt the same way."
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