BOSTON (AP) — Isaiah Thomas’ basketball journey is littered with decision-makers who have underestimated the diminutive guard.
He was selected last in the 2011 NBA draft coming out of Washington, and when he arrived in Boston he looked only to be a role player for the storied franchise. Thomas has had to prove his worth with every stop.
Now, following the biggest slight of his NBA career, he’ll have to do it again.
All eyes will be watching how he rebounds after Tuesday’s blockbuster trade . The Celtics sent the two-time All-Star packing from a franchise and city that he’d embraced with every ounce of his 5-foot-9 frame. He’s now bound for Cleveland in exchange for a bigger star — and what the Celtics believe is a better point guard for them — in Kyrie Irving.
For all the praise Boston president of basketball operations Danny Ainge showered on Thomas in explaining what he’s meant to the Celtics, the organization took Irving — a four-time All-Star, Olympic and NBA champion — over the scrappy underdog who’s just beginning to build his resume.
It’s the ultimate reminder of how fickle the business of the NBA can be.
“I’ll leave it to your own imaginations to realize how difficult that conversation might have been for me and Isaiah,” Ainge said of informing Thomas of the trade.
Difficult perhaps, but it underscores the fact that an NBA executive with a moniker like “Trader Danny” clearly prioritizes the pursuit of championships over personal bonds.
“You do pay a heavy price for a player of that age and that caliber,” Ainge said of acquiring Irving.
Many have paid a hefty price for undervaluing Thomas, and Ainge may not be done paying yet.
Thomas always plays with a chip on his shoulder and he was not only traded for a player who plays the same position, in the same conference, but he was dealt to the team Ainge and the Celtics are trying to beat. Now he will be playing alongside arguably the best player in the world in LeBron James, and both will be motivated to deny Boston a shot at the title — once again.
It was just three months ago that Thomas was trudging into the most melancholy offseason of his six-year career. The 28-year-old was battered after leading Boston to the top seed in the Eastern Conference, only to have a hip injury leave him sidelined for the majority of the conference finals in an unsuccessful bid to unseat James and the Cavaliers.
But that journey also was overshadowed by the sudden death of his younger sister on the eve of the playoffs and losing a tooth during Boston’s second-round series with Washington. It was the Celtics and Ainge that stood behind their star at every turn. Ainge twice arranged private flights for Thomas to mourn with his family, and even accompanied him to Chyna Thomas’ funeral.
Boston’s fans were equally supportive, wrapping support around a player that had not only performed on the court, but was an active presence in the community.
It was those types of overtures and expressions that made Thomas optimistic about a future with a storied franchise and in a city that has always rallied behind its stars. Yes, Thomas knew it was possible he might not stay in Boston, but he expected to be here.
“Boston’s has changed my career and changed my life,” Thomas said in May. “I would love to be here long-term and win championships here. But as you guys know, it’s a business and anything can happen. I know that. So I understand, but I would love to be here. This has been everything to me. This city, this organization...It’s been good.”
And just like that, everything has changed.
In today’s NBA, stars of Thomas’ caliber usually switch teams in the prime of their careers on their own volition. But he found himself at the center of a deal involving a bigger, more valued star.
It reminds longtime NBA executive Pat Williams of when as general manager of the Atlanta Hawks he dealt All-Star “Pistol” Pete Maravich to the New Orleans Jazz.
“Pete was shocked but, it turned out to be a good deal for him,” Williams said. “He had his best years in New Orleans.”
Maravich continued to be a fan-favorite in Atlanta, and Thomas will never be a villain in Boston. But the Celtics may not be happy when Thomas comes back to town.
Thomas is heading to a team that has recently broken the hearts of Celtics fans and that will be favored to do it again .
Add to the mix that in Thomas, James gets probably the only player on the planet that will be as motivated as him to stave off a rebuilt Celtics roster led by his former sidekick.
The Celtics-Cavaliers matchups and all the subplots will make for must-see viewing.
It also makes for welcome intrigue to what had become a predictable Eastern Conference.
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