You, like many NBA fans, are wondering: What happened to Isaiah Thomas? He was a huge star and then seemed to disappear overnight.
Well, as a long-time Boston Celtics fan, I know the whole story.
You are not wrong remembering him as a star with the C’s. Watching IT play with the Celtics was awesome! He was a two-time all-star who finished 5th in MVP his last year in Boston.
But a hip injury and a trade to the Cleveland Cavaliers completely derailed his career seemingly overnight.
After leaving Boston, Thomas had 8 different short stints with different NBA franchises before finding himself out of the league. The longest such stint was only 40 games.
In one of the most shocking, and sad, turnarounds in NBA history, Isaiah Thomas went from MVP contender to journeyman in one season. Read on if you are interested in finding out what happened to Isaiah Thomas?
The Rise of Isaiah ThomasEmbed from Getty Images
Isaiah Thomas was a high school basketball star in Washington state where he grew up. He did one year at a prep school in Connecticut to get his grades up before signing back home with the University of Washington Huskies.
It was no surprise that Thomas was able to star in high school at 5’9” but there were some doubts about how that would transfer to big-time college ball.
Those doubts were quickly erased as IT became a star at UW as well. He was twice named to All Pac-10 teams and was an honorable mention All American his junior season.
After his third campaign for the Huskies, IT declared for the NBA draft. Scouts, again, had their doubts about how his game would translate to the NBA. ]
Because of those doubts, he lasted until the last pick of the 2011 NBA Draft, going 60th overall in the second round to the Sacramento Kings.
Thomas, as he had been doing all his life, proved doubters wrong again in Sacramento. He became a fan favorite and scoring machine in Sacramento just as he had in Washington.
Thomas averaged 11 points per game in his rookie season, then 13 per game in his second and finally, 20 points per game in his breakout third season in Sacramento.
But despite averaging 20 points and 6 assists per game for the Kings in his third year, the team let him walk in a sign and trade with the Phoenix Suns over the summer.
The problem for IT was that teams could not figure out how to use him. He was a liability on defense no matter how you sliced it. And he was not a traditional point guard at all.
He was a shoot-first, mostly one-way player. But he could do that one thing at a very high level: IT was a walking bucket.
Phoenix gave him less of a chance than Sacramento. After one half season, they shipped him off to the Boston Celtics. It was in Boston where it all came together for IT.
Isaiah Thomas All Star: The Boston YearsEmbed from Getty Images
Isaiah Thomas needed a coach with vision to maximize his game. He found it in Brad Stevens with the Boston Celtics.
Stevens was a creative coach who put players in the right position to succeed. As someone who watched a ton of Stevens-coached Celtics games, I know how it worked.
If you did something well, he had you do that. If you did something poorly, he did not ask you to do that. Isaiah could score in the NBA, almost at will.
The Celtics at the time did not have much in the way of NBA scoring. When IT got there they had Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and a rookie Marcus Smart.
They could guard you, but none of them was an offensive Wizard. IT made the whole thing work. They built the offense around him.
Isaiah would come bombing down the court at full speed, run around a pick and either bomb a three or dive to the hoop for an incredible contested finish.
With the addition of Al Horford, another perfectly complementary player to IT, special things started to happen. Thomas averaged 22 points his first full year in Boston then an incredible 29 in his almost-unbelievable 2016-207 season.
That season marked his second straight All Star appearance. It was also the year he finished fifth in the MVP voting!
Here are the players who finished above Thomas in the MVP voting: Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James. That is some decent company!
Not only that, here are the two names below IT in the 2017 MVP balloting: Steph Curry and Giannis Antetokounmpo. He had a better year than them!
IT was truly at his peak in his last season with the C’s. And it was not just empty stats. The team made the Eastern Conference Finals where they fell to LeBron’s Cavs after Thomas missed the last two games with a hip injury.
And boy that hip injury changed everything for Isaiah Thomas. In the summer after the 2017 playoffs, the C’s traded him to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving.
Danny Ainge, the C’s president at the time, said the hip injury had little to do with it. The team wanted to take a shot at a legitimate superstar in Irving who was unhappy with his situation in Cleveland.
The team’s leadership believed a small, but more conventional, player in Irving was a better fit with the young talent they were collecting like Smart, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. They thought Irving gave them a better shot at a title.
Boy, they were wrong on that one! The Kyrie Irving years in Boston are my least happy as a fan. He was a terrible teammate and an awful leader.
The Isaiah Thomas teams probably had no real shot against LeBron and the other elite teams. But man they were fun! They put it all on the line every night and gave you everything they had.
IT was a big part of that. I’ll never forget when he played in the playoffs shortly after the death of his sister Chyna in 2017. Isaiah Thomas was the anti-Kyrie: a fun, tough player who gave it his all every night and was easy to root for as a fan.
It stinks that he never got anyone to back up the Brinks truck. And it seemed a bit like the C’s were heartless for shipping him out to Cleveland, but the truth is IT’s chance at the giant payday was already lost by the time of the trade.
Isaiah Thomas: Journeyman
When the trade to Cleveland happened, Isaiah Thomas still had one more year before becoming a free agent.
And when the trade happened, the physical revealed that IT had way more damage in his hip than anyone knew. He was never going to get that giant payday of his dreams.
The physical from the Cavs caused enough concern that they forced the C’s to sweeten the trade with an extra second round pick.
It wasn’t much, but Cleveland did not have too much leverage with an angry Kyrie and the real star of the deal for them may have been Brooklyn’s unprotected first round pick.
It was later reported that IT had been playing for years with all sorts of problems in that hip: arthritis and a loss of cartilage.
It was no surprise if you watched him play like I did: IT threw himself at the hoop with a reckless abandon I have rarely seen. He had no fear. Unfortunately, his body paid the price.
He would never be the same player after the 2016-2017 season. Thomas appeared in 15 games for the Cavs in 2017-2018 before being traded to the Lakers where he played 17.
The summer that was supposed to be his big moment turned into a one-year deal with Denver, for whom he played only 12 games.
The next stop was Washington for 40 games and he was well into the journeyman phase of his career. There would be 4 more NBA stops mixed with some G League deals.
IT’s last NBA stop was Charlotte in 2022. He has not played in the league since.
Summary: What Happened to Isaiah Thomas?
Isaiah Thomas’ NBA journey is mindblowing. He went from the last pick in the 2011 NBA Draft to briefly becoming a superstar for the Boston Celtics to quickly becoming a journeyman who could no longer stick with an NBA team.
At his height, Thomas finished fifth in the 2017 MVP balloting and led the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals.
But a hip injury he suffered in those finals brought him down quickly. The next year he was traded twice and two seasons later he was a journeyman who could not find a permanent spot with an NBA team.
Featured Image Photo Credit: Road Trippin’ Podcast 10/14/2017 Erik Drost Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
I have been a Boston sports fan for more than forty years. I write about games, players and seasons from the past.