Cavaliers

Trading Isaiah Thomas was addition by subtraction for Cavs

Tony Dejak / AP

In just over a month since making his debut with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Isaiah Thomas played (and talked) his way out of Cleveland. In a trade that sent Thomas and Channing Frye to the Los Angeles, the Lakers received two expiring contracts. Unloading their salary was a key part of the Lakers’ plan this season while they prepare to spend big either this summer or in 2019. By receiving two expiring contracts and sending Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. to the Cavs, they not only unloaded plenty of salary, but also received the Cavs’ first-round pick in 2018. Why’d Cleveland have to give that pick up along with taking in salary, you ask? Because they wanted to get rid of Thomas that bad and were willing to pay the price to do so.

Pre-hip injury, Thomas was an All-Star that averaged 28.9 points and 5.9 assists per game while knocking down 46 percent from the field and 38 percent from beyond the arc during his final season with the Boston Celtics in 2016-17. When the Cleveland Cavaliers acquired the point guard along with two other players and and the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick for star Kyrie Irving, they didn’t know when Thomas would return from his injury, but expected he would be back to his pre-injury All-Star form soon thereafter.

That wasn’t the case. Yet, Thomas carried himself as a dominant point guard and talked as if he was one of the best players on the Cavs, who had earned a leadership role. There’s a reason why the wine and gold had won just 7-12 since IT returned to the court.1 In 15 games with the Cavs, the point guard averaged 14.7 points and 4.5 assists per game while shooting 36 percent from the field and 25 percent from long distance. His 49.3 true shooting percentage ranked 59th out of 77 qualified point guards.2 The 29-year-old’s 12.41 player efficiency rating ranked 52nd. Even with those dismal numbers, Thomas’ 28.2 usage rating was 10th among all qualified point guards, but he had nothing to show for it. The list goes on and on, with every stat showing that Thomas and the Cavs just weren’t working out. Essentially, he was doing his rehab and trying to get back to how old self with the Cavs instead of in Canton, with the Cavs’ G-League affiliate. The front office asked Thomas to play with the Charge until he got his rhythm back, but he declined to do so.

His numbers fell dramatically from last season to this season, yet he was still taking almost 13 shots a game and being a ball-dominant point guard. Although he said that he wasn’t 100 percent and didn’t have the moves and quickness that he had one year ago, the point guard still tried to make plays like he had been all his life. No one should have expected that Thomas would make a full recovery by January, but even when his game was broken, he continued to speak out about his teammates’ deficiencies and that didn’t sit well and helped create a divide in the locker room.

Thomas’ offensive game plummeted, but somehow, his defense was even worse. He had a 118.6 defensive rating. The next worst rating on the team was Jae Crowder, who had a 113.1 defensive rating. Whether it was the fact that he is 5-foot-9 or that he didn’t seem to always give full effort when he was with the Cavs, Thomas’ defense made everyone else worse when he was on the court. In previous seasons, his offense was able to make up for it. Not in 2018.

In fact, Thomas had the worst defensive rating by any player who’s played at least 25 minutes per game in the last 25 years.

Over the last few weeks, players, including both LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, along with Lue have spoken out about players having “agendas” and how they need to put the team first. Immediately following those comments, many seemed to point to Thomas, saying that he’s the one with the agenda; an agenda that seems to only have the words “get a max contract this summer” in it. In order to get as much money as possible when he becomes an unrestricted free agent this offseason means filling up the stat sheet, the points column in particular. The way he played in his short time in with the Cavs seemed to prove that. His agent’s comments following the trade out of Cleveland on Thursday seemed to be further proof.

Don’t get me wrong, I was excited as anyone for Thomas’ debut as a Cavalier. So excited that my brother and I got tickets to the game just to see him donning the wine and gold on the court for the first time on January 2. No one expected things to fall apart as fast as they did following his debut though.

Whether it was the way he acted on the bench, social media, or anywhere else, Thomas was a fan favorite in Cleveland before dressing in the wine and gold and actually playing for the Cavaliers. But when he suited up for the first time on January 2, things took a sudden turn. From that day forward, his likeness in Cleveland seemed to get worse by the day. The more the Cavs lost, the more Thomas continued to struggle on both ends of the floor, and the more he threw his teammates and even head coach Tyronn Lue under the bus, the more he became disliked (and booed) in Cleveland. No matter what happened, he always placed the blame on others and didn’t take responsibility for anything that may have gone wrong.

Wednesday, the day before he was traded, seemed to be a perfect microcosm of Thomas’ time in Cleveland after suiting up for the Cavs for the first time in early January. With his birthday being Wednesday, the Cavs’ social media team does what every social media team does, which is wish their player a happy birthday on both Twitter and Instagram. Just how bad were the responses on Twitter? You can see for yourself, but they forced the Cavs to disable comments on the Instagram post.

Then came the game Wednesday night. Although he started at point guard like he usually does, when Thomas was subbed out for Cedi Osman during the fourth quarter, his entrance was met with boos throughout The Q. Cavs fans were showing their displeasure to a player they once seemed to love. It showed just how fast the relationship had separated. To make matters worse, after LeBron James knocked down a fadeaway game-winner at the buzzer in the overtime thriller, No. 23 seemed to ignore the 5-foot-9 point guard. Whether he meant to or not, it seemed as though James was trying to prove a point, celebrating with his teammates while Thomas was just trying to celebrate with the best player in the world and was met with a cold shoulder.

Thomas might have simply stepped on too many toes, said too many of the wrong things, and not added much of anything when he was actually on the court. For a team like the Cavs, they couldn’t afford to take the wait and see approach to see if Thomas would ever truly be 100 percent. And his quotes to the media might have been the final straw of his tenure. He wasn’t the team’s only problem, but he certainly wasn’t helping the matter, whether it was on the court or with the things he was saying. The wine and gold simply got better on the court and closer in the locker room because Thomas is no longer in Cleveland.

  1. 7-8 in games he played in. []
  2. According to ESPN’s John Hollinger. []