In the way a garment loses its color when too frequently washed, the vitality of a fact fades when a certain number of marketing people—the precise quantity might be one—get their hands on it, so the whole Isaiah Thomas plays like that because he spent his life being told he couldn’t hack it angle doesn’t have the bite it once did, and he’s been good enough for long enough that we’re now sort of used to him swooping into the lane and finishing around men who have a full foot or more on him, but he still occasionally uncorks a finish so improbable that it renews our understanding of the central contradiction that makes him compelling to watch: he has no business being on an NBA court, and yet he does. More than most players, in fact. There are scores of six-foot-five dudes who can’t do what he does.
It perhaps goes without saying because it’s been said so many times, but to make it work—to make it sing—as a point guard the size of a Spanish midfielder, you need to rent out a whole many-bedroomed wing of your psyche to grudges general, specific and imagined, else you wouldn’t have the will to put in the labor necessary to crack an All-NBA team at five-foot-eight. There’s a corrosive and alluring strain of thought in our culture that anger and resentment are at the core of all significant achievement—many mean and bellowing men have been forgiven their awful dispositions because it’s believed, if not necessarily expressed, that to make great movies or to spur great social change, they also had to be interpersonal monsters—but with athletes it does seem genuinely necessary to be at least able to tap into a steel-melting inner fury in order to succeed at the highest level. You have to get mad at the bench press to move the weight and resent the guy who has the temerity to try to guard you. This is especially true if you’re the size of a traffic cone compared to DeAndre Jordan.
Does Isaiah Thomas need more motivation? Up until last season, Russ Westbrook had managed to be the most pissed-off player in the league for no particular reason. (Then Kevin Durant gave him one, and hoo boy.) Michael Jordan was infamous for being the most beloved athlete of a generation and also somehow permanently enraged by nonexistent sleights. Maybe in the way a player can be gifted with excellent hand-eye coordination or astounding quickness, some people are just better at keeping themselves mad than others. Or maybe anger becomes an unshakeable habit after a certain point. At any rate, it’s difficult to imagine Thomas, even if he were still a Celtic, deeming last year’s breakout a point proven and half-assing his rehab from the hip injury he played through during the Eastern Conference Finals.
And yet the quote he gave to Lee Jenkins last week about being traded to the Cavaliers does feel like it should be punctuated by a thunderclap: I might not ever talk to Danny [Ainge] again… What he did, knowing everything I went through, you don’t do that, bro. That’s not right. I’m not saying eff you. But...
The prospect of an even-more-scorned Isaiah Thomas would be a terrifying one but for the fact that we have no idea if he’s going to be fully healthy this season—or ever again. More than motivation, he needs fitness in order to get back to the court as soon as possible and time to jell with a new set of teammates. It took Kyrie Irving—who is, like Thomas, a scoring point guard formerly used to having full run of the offense—an entire season to get used to playing alongside LeBron James. If recovery estimates are correct, Isaiah will have less than half of one, and he’ll need about fifteen or twenty games just to get his sea legs back and start feeling like himself again, irrespective of his new role as a second option to the greatest player of his generation.
The state of Thomas’s hip and his ability to evolve on the fly will do more to determine his and the Cavaliers’ success than anything else will. Effort alone doesn’t have healing properties, and though this year’s probable playoff meeting between the Cavs and Celtics has some extra piquancy given that we now know the full extent of Thomas’s discontent with being traded after soldiering through an injury and the death of his sister for an employer stone-cold enough to flip him the following summer, the series will be a bit of a letdown if Thomas is absent or hobbled.
Which lends the diminutive guard a forlorn quality he’s never evoked before. Here’s a guy who stands in for making the most of the agency he’s been granted. He’s spent a decade-plus exceeding expectations by dint of his passion and ethic, and now, presented with the grandest challenge of his career, it’s not up to him whether he gets to meet it at full strength.
Isaiah Thomas is fired up. He always is. But that’s largely irrelevant: a player thoroughly self-made now needs luck more than anything else. If anyone deserves it… but these things don’t go the way they do according to who’s deserving or isn’t. Some stuff just happens, and you can’t get out of the way of it no matter how hard you try. Thomas knows that in more ways than one. The only thing we can be certain of is that, if he’s given the slightest opportunity, he’ll come out the other side of this—gratefully and wroth as ever.
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