As free-agent guard Isaiah Thomas probes the marketplace, this summer affords him something that the past two did not: An unobstructed work regiment to restore the strength and explosion to his lower body, and the chance to be back in the gymnasium every day sharpening his game.
Thomas is hopeful his season with the Denver Nuggets and a full 2019 summer of work become a pathway back into an NBA rotation, a full-time resumption of a career sidetracked with hip surgery.
“Nobody knew what to expect with me coming off hip surgery last year, and two summers of rehab,” Thomas told ESPN. “Now, I can go back to being a gym rat this summer, work on my game again, and build my body back up — my muscle mass, my leg strength — all like I had going into the 2017 season.”
The Nuggets were patient with Thomas, allowing him to fully rehab until returning to the court prior to the All-Star break in February. Denver had one of the NBA’s best records, a deep roster of guards and ultimately it was difficult for Thomas to crack the rotation. Thomas played 12 regular-season games for the Nuggets, averaging eight points. There had been hope that he’d have a bigger role, but it never materialized.
For Denver, the trip to the No. 2 seed in the West and a Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals was constructed around a young, dynamic group of guards – including Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Monte Morris and Will Barton.
“Isaiah was fantastic this season,” Denver’s president of basketball operations Tim Connelly told ESPN. “His voice in the locker room was invaluable. I’m sure it was frustrating for him not playing as much as he hoped, but he never allowed that frustration to negatively impact his approach. We wouldn’t have had the success we had this year without him.”
In parts of eight NBA seasons with Sacramento, Phoenix, Boston, Cleveland, Los Angeles and Denver, Thomas has averaged nearly 15 points a game. He averaged 28.9 points per game for the Boston Celtics in 2016-17, a second-team All-NBA season that appeared to be a precursor to a massive long-term contract. A right hip injury that prematurely ended his playoffs run in 2017 and cost him eight months of rehab, and a trade to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2017, upended his hopes for a long-term deal. He signed a one-year, $2 million contract with Denver.
Thomas joined the Los Angeles Lakers as part of a trade-deadline deal with Cleveland, where he had played only 15 games in 2017-18.
“Denver allowed me to take really as much time as I needed, to get back to 100 percent health,” Thomas told ESPN. “Obviously I wanted to play and I thought I could’ve contributed in the regular season and playoffs, but I understood (coach Michael Malone’s) decision and I think I contributed in other ways as a leader, as someone who was there to answer the questions of the younger guys. I stayed ready and prepared to play.”
“When I look at it from the outside, I understood it,” Thomas said. “I missed 50 games, the team was having a hell of a season, and it wasn’t easy to just squeeze me in there when so many guys were playing so well. They didn’t want to mess up what they had going. I understood it.”
Now, Thomas plans to split his time between the Seattle-area and Los Angeles this summer and fully expects a full summer of work to result in a player who’ll be prepared to make an impact next season.
“I’m going to get back to a level that I was playing at,” Thomas told ESPN. “I’m excited to show what I can do again.”