After Isaiah Thomas was traded by the Boston Celtics last summer, starting a major career downturn for the high-scoring guard, he said that he “might not ever” speak again with General Manager Danny Ainge. However, Thomas recently did just that — letting Ainge know he’d “love to come back” to the Celtics.
Thomas revealed that conversation in an interview with ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that was published Monday. The two-time all-star said that before he signed a one-year, $2 million contract to play for the Denver Nuggets this season, he reached out to Ainge and had a discussion that lasted 15 to 20 minutes.
“If the opportunity is there, I would just like to let you know that I’d love to come back,” Thomas said he told the general manager.
According to Thomas, Ainge was receptive to the idea but indicated that his team needed to first see how Marcus Smart’s restricted free agency unfolded. By the time the reserve guard returned to Boston last week on a four-year, $52 million contract, Thomas had gone with the bird in hand, settling for the veteran’s minimum in Denver.
Adding a layer of poignancy to that sequence was the fact that, during the 2016-17 season, Thomas had good reason to feel he was on his way to a maximum contract with the Celtics, one that could have paid him upward of $175 million. On his third NBA team after being the 60th and final pick of the 2011 draft, the diminutive player blossomed in Boston, averaging 28.9 points that season while showing an uncanny knack for fourth-quarter production.
However, a hip injury he suffered late in the season became aggravated during the playoffs — a period in which he also played through the death of his sister in a car crash — and he was eventually deactivated before the Celtics’ postseason run ended. A few months later, Ainge acquired Kyrie Irving, a younger guard at least as offensively gifted, from the Cavaliers in exchange for a package including Thomas, who was attempting to rehabilitate his hip injury without surgery.
Thomas didn’t make his Cleveland debut until January, at which point he struggled to mesh with LeBron James and Co., and he was traded again just a month later, this time to the Lakers. That stint came to a quick end, as well, when Thomas finally went under the knife with the hope of putting his hip woes fully behind him.
He told Wojnarowski that he made “a mistake” by coming back “too soon,” but lamented that “other people get injured and get chance after chance again,” adding, “They get the big break. They get the big money — no matter if they’re injured.”
“If I didn’t play in the playoffs, I’d be OK. I’d be getting paid,” Thomas said. “People know that I’ve earned and deserved the max contract, and that’s the only reason why I didn’t get paid what I deserved. Because I got injured.”
With that kind of perspective, it wouldn’t have been surprising if Thomas had wanted no part of Ainge and the Celtics. He certainly sounded badly wounded by the organization in a September essay he wrote for the Players’ Tribune, saying, “That [crap] hurt. It hurt a lot. And I won’t lie — it still hurts.”
Thomas acknowledged in the essay that Ainge was “a businessman” who “made a business move,” but he told Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins in October, “I might not ever talk to Danny again. That might not happen.
“I’ll talk to everybody else. But what he did, knowing everything I went through, you don’t do that, bro. That’s not right.”
His hip is reportedly set to be “fully operational for training camp in late September,” per ESPN, but time doesn’t necessarily heal all wounds. “You can always play the what-if game, but man, I’ve been F’d over so many times,” Thomas said to Wojnarowski about losing out on a gigantic payday. “But, of course, I think about it. I’m human.”
However, as for the possibility of returning to Boston, despite feeling treated there in a less-than-humane manner, Thomas sounded a pragmatic note.
“[Crap], I’d have gone back,” he said. “I don’t hold grudges.”
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