On December 20, 2017—exactly one year to the day—Isaiah Thomas emerged quietly from the depths of Cleveland Clinic Courts, approaching a few dozen children who were seated on the facility’s practice floor, listening attentively to a rendition of The Night Before Christmas. As a few curious kids began to feel that something was up, the bustle grew—arose such a clatter, if you will. Thomas eventually executed his drop-in, ultimately playing (and losing) games of knock out as well as 2K18 with those in attendance as a way to give back to the local community. He did this all before he would even suit up in a Cavaliers uniform, spending much of the first half of the season rehabilitating his injured hip.
Few moments were as highly anticipated as Thomas’ return to the hardwood, the All-NBA guard spending weeks on the sidelines as the teams biggest (in exuberance more than stature) cheerleader. Think Mateen Cleaves circa 2004, but with the dial turned up to 11.
Similarly, few moments had such a cratering douse of cold-water reality, taking fan emotions from the peak all the way to the valley. Once Thomas returned on January 2, the feel-good vibe turned into one of the most “Oh God, what did we do?” moments in recent history.
On January 12, Lue followed up a loss by saying certain players had to get rid of their “agendas.”
On February 8, less than two months after his Christmas-themed event, the Cavaliers traded Thomas to the Los Angeles Lakers during a day that featured 11 players in all switch teams. The point guard suited up in 15 games, won seven, lost eight, and averaged career lows in shooting percentage, three-point percentage, eFG%, TS%, WS/48, and VORP. Thomas’ teammates went from encouraging his return, discussing his battle back from injury, and embracing the “Slow Grind” to pinpointing him as a reason for the team’s struggles through the month of January.
While IT will forever be the poster child for a season gone awry—he was, after all, the big name attached to the Kyrie Irving deal from the summer before—he was far from alone as it pertained to the season-long issues that plagued the Cavaliers. The Irving deal was clearly the first domino1 as Koby Altman and company only found themselves attempting to react to previous missteps thereafter. Thomas’ hip, defense, and all-around demeanor was clearly not additive. His former teammate in Boston, Jae Crowder, never seemed to find a role with his new team. Cavs lifer Dwyane Wade waltzed into camp in the 11th hour, forcing the trade of Locker Room All-Star Richard Jefferson. Wade then supplanted JR Smith in the starting lineup—thus starting Smith’s season-long downward spiral—only to make his way to the reserve unit where he and a host of other “new” Cavaliers reportedly piled on Kevin Love for his now widely discussed anxiety. And then there was Derrick Rose who was to fill in for Thomas early in the season only to ponder retirement just weeks into the season.2
Following the blockbuster deadline deal, I had the chance to chat with LeBron James who, at that point, experienced his second smashing of the reset button as a member of the Cavaliers. Ten years earlier, James was inside the Cavs’ locker room when the team dealt Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden, and Shannon Brown for Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak, Ben Wallace, and Joe Smith. This time around, it was his new teammates grouped with Channing Frye and Iman Shumpert in various deals, bringing Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson, George Hill, and Rodney Hood. At the time, Ty Lue said practices, despite being in the middle of February, had a “training camp vibe” to them.
“It’s a challenge, man. It’s very challenging. Especially for me, being someone who likes chemistry and having things in order.
“Vets have seen more. They’ve experienced more. Ben Wallace had won a championship before he came over. Wally [Szczerbiak] had been an All-Star and played in big games in Minnesota with Kevin Garnett. Joe Smith was the No. 1 pick in the draft and played in some big games as well. Now, we’re learning on the fly. Jordan [Clarkson] and Larry [Nance] have never played in a playoff game. George [Hill] has been in some big games, and Rodney [Hood] had his first taste last year, but yeah… we’ll see what happens.
“Trades happen. You’re trying to make adjustments, and when you have an opportunity to win…the organization thought it 10 years ago, and they thought it again this year. I’m the lone survivor that’s seen them both. I just have to try to make things happen.”
Here’s Nance on the very same topic:
“We’re still trying to learn certain looks and certain calls,” said Nance to Bleacher Report. “There are times where I’ll switch out and still call ‘red’—that’s a Lakers call. It’s little things like that. You have to get acclimated to the nuances and tendencies.
“It’s like training camp, but for four of us. We’re trying to catch up and everyone else is waiting for us to catch up. I think we’re doing a pretty good job of it, but we’re learning on the fly.
Not to be the narrator on James’ “We’ll see what happens” line, but spoiler alert: It didn’t end well. Nance was eventually replaced by Tristan Thompson through the playoffs. Hood buckled under the pressure and expectations of playing alongside James. Clarkson shot 30.1 percent from the floor during the postseason. And Hill missed the potential game-winning free throw in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the one that led to JR Smith dribbling out the clock, James punching a white board, and the Cavaliers eventually getting swept at the hands of the Golden State Warriors.
When the February 8 deal went down, it was largely painted as addition by subtraction. The Cavaliers’ locker room was toxic, and Ty Lue had entirely too many mouths—and egos—to feed. Looking back, any of the players dealt (outside of the always lovely Frye) could have been in Lue’s crosshairs. Thomas, Wade and Rose were on one-year ‘prove it’ deals. Crowder was clearly unhappy with the influence James had on the team’s roster and game plan. And Iman Shumpert went from starting in the NBA Finals to being DNP-CD thanks to the litany of moves made subsequent to the team’s championship in 2016.
As Christmas music echoed throughout Cleveland Clinic Courts on that December day in 2017, Thomas spoke about taking things day-by-day, inching closer to his return as he became more and more comfortable. He spoke highly of the fans, the team, and his teammates, pleased with the reception he has received, and the patience everyone had provided. I asked Thomas about how comforting it was that the team was playing so well without him—the thinking, of course, that there’s less pressure for him to return earlier than would be considered ideal, thus allowing him to merely slot right in and play at his All-NBA level once ready.
It’s fair to say that line of thinking could not have been further from reality. Losing to a grade schooler in knock out should have been our first sign.