Isaiah Thomas‘ return from a hip injury is a feel-good story for one of the NBA’s most likable players. But there is a business aspect to this that will loom over him and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the coming months.
Thomas is in a contract year, and he wants to be paid. League executives and agents judging the market believe Thomas’ best chance at a significant contract this summer is with the Cavs, and they believe he will proceed accordingly.
That could be the case regardless of what happens with LeBron James‘ free agency. In the event James decides to move on from Cleveland again, some believe the Cavs may still be interested in retaining Thomas as long as he proves he can return to his All-Star form.
In these vital next few months, Thomas connecting with his new fans and winning over the heart of Cavs owner Dan Gilbert may be important things he could do for his future bank account.
On a team that has gotten used to all of its players being content with their large contracts — the Cavs have the league’s highest payroll and five players earning more than $10 million — Thomas’ six-month audition to get a new deal in Cleveland is a fresh set of circumstances.
Last summer, it was well-documented, Thomas told the Celtics’ broadcast during a summer league game that the team “knows they’ve got to bring the Brink’s truck out.” He has made it clear that he sees himself as a max player and will be looking for that in July, something close to $100 million.
However, the market for point guards has tightened over the past nine months. A couple got nice deals last summer: Jrue Holiday hit the jackpot by getting the New Orleans Pelicans to award him with a maximum contract for $126 million; Jeff Teague got three years and $57 million from Minnesota.
But players such as Kyle Lowry and George Hill found the market quickly soured. Lowry got three years and $93 million from Toronto, a lovely deal, but it was tens of millions less than he was expecting months before, when he was hoping for multiple max-contract offers. Hill ended up getting $40 million guaranteed in two years with the Kings (it pays $57 million if the Kings pick up the third season).
It’s not just the value of these deals, it’s their short-term nature. The four- and five-year deals that were being handed out in 2016 are already a memory, especially for older guards like Thomas.
So even if Thomas were 100 percent healthy, he’d be facing a challenging marketplace this summer. After two years of historic jumps, the salary cap will be close to flat this summer. Most of the teams that currently have the type of cap space to offer a $20 million-plus deal Thomas was hoping for aren’t expected to be in the market for point guards.
The Bulls have a budding star in Kris Dunn, the 76ers have Ben Simmons, the Mavericks have Dennis Smith Jr., the Hawks have Dennis Schroder and the Lakers have Lonzo Ball. There are some options: Brooklyn, Phoenix and Indiana are possibilities, for example, though the Suns already traded Thomas once. It’s not inviting, even if Thomas had no injury concerns, which he does with possible degenerative hip issues.
This is why Cleveland makes the most sense. They will have his full Bird rights and can pay him. Thomas also has a couple of intangible advantages in getting the Cavs to want to keep him.
“A team, even a rebuilding team as the Cavs might be if James walks, cannot allow prime assets to leave for nothing.”
One, the Cavs will be under some pressure to retain him because he’s a prime asset from the Kyrie Irving trade. Though the Cavs made it clear behind the scenes that they saw the Nets’ pick as the primary carrot, the Nets’ stronger-than-expected play this season is threatening to push that pick deeper into the lottery. Currently, it is projected to be the ninth pick. A team, even a rebuilding team as the Cavs might be if James walks, cannot allow prime assets to leave for nothing.
Second, Gilbert loves underdogs like Thomas. He sees himself as an underdog, a self-made billionaire who went to Michigan State, not the Ivy League. In 2016, Gilbert was the driving force behind paying $2.4 million to buy a draft pick to take Kay Felder, an undersized point guard from Oakland University who attracted Gilbert because of his ability to overcome challenges. Felder didn’t make it with the Cavs, but Thomas is the embodiment of what the Cavs were dreaming of with Felder.
Gilbert, an eternal optimist who aligns himself with risk-takers and appreciates overcoming odds, must like it when he hears Thomas say things like: “My story is my story and it always ends up that where I get the last laugh.” If there’s an owner in the league who’s primed to want to bet on Thomas, it’s Gilbert.
If Thomas has a good six months and bonds with the Cavs’ fan base, as he did in Boston, he will perhaps recapture some of the leverage that he has lost. This was one of the issues the Celtics were facing. Boston’s front office knew there was going to be fan pressure to re-sign the immensely popular Thomas, even if they didn’t see him as a true franchise player. That could transfer to Gilbert.
And at the end of the day, the market may dictate that Gilbert won’t necessarily have to back up the Brink’s truck to keep him, either. Either in dollars or years. Whether that’s to remain as a high-scoring running mate next to James or as a bridge to a future without him.
By NBA standards, Thomas has been underpaid. He is earning $6.3 million this season, about $300,000 less than he did last year with the Celtics dating to a contract he signed with the Suns four years ago that was for four years and $27 million. He’s the ninth-highest paid Cav.
Irving, who was chosen first in the 2011 draft where Thomas was picked last, will have earned $76 million in salary by the end of the season. Thomas will have made $29 million, including his salaries from his first three seasons with the Kings. Several other second-round picks from Thomas’ class — Jon Leuer and E’Twaun Moore, for example — have signed richer contracts than him because of the timing of their free agencies.
There’s always intrigue around the Cavs, both inherent and self-created. As July 1 approaches, James’ free-agency drama will build, to be sure. But Thomas, especially if he continues playing well after a positive start, could have his own story within a story developing with the Cavs too.