Isaiah Thomas' 2017-18 season has been one long bummer, so it's fitting that it officially (and prematurely) ended on a down note.
The Los Angeles Lakers announced Wednesday that Thomas will undergo surgery on his right hip Thursday, sending him into free agency with more questions than ever about his place in the league and value on the market.
The only certainty: There will be no Brink's truck.
It's hard to overstate how hosed Thomas will be this summer because of his hip injury, the timing of his free agency and the changing demands around the league.
"A lot of teams don't want small, ball-dominant point guards who are poor defenders," an NBA executive told David Aldridge of NBA.com before news of Thomas' surgery broke. Toss in the fact that only seven teams project to have more than $10 million in cap space this summer, according to ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst and Bobby Marks, and it's clear IT4 should not be expecting a fat payday.
Most of the teams with cash are bad, young or both, which makes it tricky to find a match if Thomas wants to play a major role and rehabilitate his value. That's assuming he's healthy enough to warrant one following surgery.
Thomas was in the MVP conversation a year ago at this time. Even if a max deal was unrealistic then, you can't help but feel for the guy now.
And you also have to wonder who will take a chance on him at any price.
The Dallas Mavericks are one of the few teams with enough cap space to pay Thomas more than the mid-level exception. Whether they'd be willing to spend it on a player with so many question marks is anyone's guess.
J.J. Barea keeps finding ways to be effective in head coach Rick Carlisle's system, so there's a precedent for an offense-only, undersized guard succeeding in Dallas. While Thomas will never have Barea's pick-and-pop chemistry with Dirk Nowitzki, he's a far more dangerous scorer and might even age better. (Thomas is four years younger than Barea.)
Thomas' style effectively turns everyone else on the floor into secondary threats who watch him dribble and shoot on kickouts when he drives. Since the Mavs don't have much in the way of individual shot creation, Thomas could fill a void.
And don't forget, the Mavs generally try to make the playoffs. Adding a veteran who doesn't fit into a long-term plan is likely more palatable to them than it might be for other teams.
Dallas wouldn't want to take touches away from potential star point guard Dennis Smith Jr., but Thomas could do some damage as a strong second-unit leader.
How hard is it to fill Elfrid Payton's shoes?
The Orlando Magic dumped Payton on the Phoenix Suns at the deadline, clearly unconvinced that the 2014 lottery pick was the answer to their point guard issues. That makes the Magic one of the few teams around the league that lacks either an established name or a developing prospect at the position.
Without anyone around to fight him for minutes, Thomas would get an honest crack at proving he can still play at an All-Star-caliber level. And while the Magic have been awful in the win-loss department over the past several seasons, they aren't necessarily rebuilding.
They have young lottery picks such as Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon, sure, but they also employ several high-priced vets. Nikola Vucevic, Terrence Ross, Jonathan Simmons, Evan Fournier and Bismack Biyombo aren't exactly long-term projects.
Orlando, which ranks 25th in offensive efficiency this season, isn't in a position to turn down a potential scoring spark like Thomas. If the two parties could agree on the mid-level exception, the fit makes sense.
According to ESPN's Defensive Real Plus-Minus, Thomas graded out as one of the five worst defenders in the league this season. (He was the second-worst leaguewide last year, too). And among players attempting at least 10 shots per game, Thomas' effective field-goal percentage ranks dead last this season.
It isn't a stretch to argue he was one of the NBA's worst two-way players in 2017-18. However, he'd still be an upgrade over Michael Carter-Williams, who sucked up most of the Charlotte Hornets' backup point guard minutes this season.
MCW didn't play every second that Kemba Walker sat this season, but as the primary backup, some of the Hornets' collapse in non-Walker minutes falls on him. Charlotte is 13.1 points per 100 possessions worse when Walker is catching a breather. That's the difference between a net rating that would rank in the league's top 10 and one that'd be second-to-last overall.
MCW is theoretically an impactful defender with good length and mobility, so he'd have the edge on Thomas there. But Carter-Williams is one of the NBA's least threatening offensive players. Even if Thomas' numbers only improved slightly over what he did this year, he'd command far more respect from opponents and soundly outproduce Carter-Williams.
It also helps that the Hornets are hopelessly addicted to winning in the present. They have spent wildly on a veteran-laden roster and will look virtually the same next year. Thomas, perhaps coming aboard on the mid-level, would fit right in.
The name alone would make Thomas a favorite with the Detroit Pistons.
Beyond that, the Pistons need a better fallback option than Ish Smith if Reggie Jackson misses time again next year.
When Jackson went down with an ankle injury in December, Detroit was 19-14. By the time he returned in late March, the Pistons' 12-25 record in his absence had all but destroyed their playoff hopes. There were more factors involved in Detroit's collapse than Jackson's absence, but for the second year in a row, the Pistons couldn't hack it without their starting point guard fully healthy.
Thomas and Blake Griffin would be an odd pairing, as both need the ball. But Thomas is a good enough shooter to command attention, and so much of what made him great two years ago in Boston was his relentless off-ball activity. Defenses tied themselves in knots whenever he sprinted around a series of screens, knowing that if he caught the ball on the move against opponents scrambling to recover—or even worse, a mismatch—it was all over.
Like Charlotte and Dallas, the Pistons are largely a win-now enterprise. They should take a shot on Thomas, especially because he can't be much worse than the backups they have had recently.
Los Angeles Lakers
If Thomas were to wind up on the Lakers next year, it would be because they missed out on at least one of their max-salary targets—probably LeBron James, who would presumably harbor reservations about joining back up with Thomas after the way things went with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
But there's still a decent fit here, as a healthy Thomas could score off the bench and operate in a system he's familiar with.
That bench aspect is key, though. As Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated explains:
"While Thomas blanched at the Lakers’ plans to utilize him as a sixth man following his mid-season trade, he would do well to recalibrate his expectations and public message during his rehabilitation time. His enormous self-belief carried him to stardom once, and a second act as a high-volume scorer is certainly still possible pending a full recovery. But Thomas may find that the best way to rebuild his value is by fully buying into a narrower role and settling for a short-term deal this summer."
The Lakers have been semi-respectable this season. If they add a star or two, they could be better than that next year. And since a decent Lakers team draws a lot of attention, Thomas would have the chance to impress in front of a broad audience.
L.A. should know better than any other team how Thomas' rehab is progressing, provided he takes the organization up on its offer to let him work out at its training facility this offseason (via ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski). As a result, it'll have a major information advantage over other potential suitors.
If the Lakers miss on their top targets, an above-market one-year deal like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope got this past offseason—but for about half the salary—makes sense.