It has always been strange, given how good he was at his peak, that former Celtics star and NBA MVP finalist Isaiah Thomas was not given a significant chance to return to the league after he was traded from Boston in 2017, as part of the Kyrie Irving deal.
Thomas was an All-Star who finished fifth in MVP voting in 2016-17, averaging 28.9 points and 5.9 assists, shooting 46.3% from the field and 37.9% from the 3-point line. But he tried to play through a nagging hip injury (as well as the death of his sister) in that postseason and was not the same player thereafter.
Thomas has since declared himself 100% healthy, yet is still unable to get a consistent role in the NBA and remains unsigned today. A fellow former NBA star, J.R. Smith, says he thinks he knows why: Thomas is part of a “genre” of players, like Smith and former Celtic Joe Johnson, who have been blackballed by the league.
“I feel like there is a whole genre that happened to,” Smith said in an interview with Complex. “Joe Johnson, obviously, still got game, can still play. Jamal Crawford, still got game, still can play. Nick Young, still got game, still could play. Isaiah Thomas, still got game, still can play.”
Smith on Blackballing: ‘That’s a Fact’
Before that, Smith was asked directly if he thought he had been blackballed from the NBA. Smith played only 10 games in 2018-19 for Cleveland, and later played six games for the Lakers in 2020, plus 10 games during the NBA’s postseason held in the Orlando bubble.
“Yeah, 100%,” he said. “I mean, anybody can sit here and tell you that that’s a, that’s a fact.”
He went on to explain: “You got those 30 teams,” he said. “You got the Top 3 people on those 30 teams and exclude them. Give me the (No.) 4 through 15th men, just the four through 15. Name one of them that’s better than me. But I’m sitting here like, bro, like, I’ve worked out with these dudes. I’ve watched their GM come up to me and ask me, ‘J.R., why you not playing?’ You know why I’m not playing.”
While Smith thinks he was blackballed, the fact is, he was in a tough place after having signed a contract extension with the Cavaliers in 2016. LeBron James left Cleveland two years later, with two years still on Smith’s deal. The Cavs wanted to rebuild but the 33-year-old Smith did not fit into those plans. No team wanted to trade for Smith, who was making $14.7 million and was just a slightly-above-average shooter with few other on-court skills.
Isaiah Thomas Deserved More of a Chance
Thomas, though, does have more of a case for having been shunned by the league unfairly. Part of the issue with Thomas is that the hip injury he suffered (femoral-acetabular impingement with a torn labrum) was serious and went back to before his heroic performance in the 2017 playoffs.
Thomas had a decent showing in 40 games for the Wizards in 2019-20 (12.2 points, 40.8% shooting, 41.3% 3-point shooting), but was traded to the Clippers at the deadline and was waived. Since then, he has struggled to find a job, getting short-term gigs with the Pelicans, Lakers, Mavericks and, most recently, with the Hornets. He played 17 games for Charlotte last year and averaged 8.3 points in 12.9 minutes.
At 33, Thomas remains a free agent this summer.