Isaiah Thomas was polite, though bored with the line of questioning.
Ahead of Wednesday night’s game against the Boston Celtics, the first time he’ll return to TD Garden Arena as a starter, Thomas was probed for his feelings. By the third question about playing the Celtics, the team with which he saw his greatest success and most painful divorce, Thomas looked down to clean his finger nails.
He downplayed the narrative of a revenge game; rejecting any notion that he’s a prisoner to his former life when he swiftly ascended to become a Celtics hero and MVP candidate only to be coldly traded before the start of the 2017-18 season. Though Thomas, who signed a one-year, veteran minimum deal with the Washington Wizards this summer, reluctantly but honestly reflected on the past, he needed little prompting to gaze into a future that only he can envision.
Asked about his ceiling as a 30-year-old following 2018 hip surgery and the long rehabilitation that finally brought him to Washington after bouncing between Cleveland, Los Angeles and Denver over the prior two seasons, Thomas finally looked up.
“I’m going to be an all-star again, for sure,” Thomas said. “I know that for a fact.”
Thomas, who has made the midseason showcase twice, was last an all-star in 2017. He has appeared in only 44 games over the last two completed seasons. In Washington, he’s, at best, the second option behind Bradley Beal.
Still, there are people who believe Thomas’ declaration. Several of them live in Boston.
“I’d never bet against Isaiah,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said.
Stevens can still remember the two phone calls he received on Feb. 19, 2015. Celtics President Danny Ainge initially rang 10 minutes before the 3 p.m. trade deadline to assure him the team was standing pat. Then at 2:59 p.m., Ainge dialed up Stevens again with news that would accelerate the progress of the surging Celtics.
“When we added Isaiah, it just really went to a different level for the years he was there,” Stevens said in a recent phone interview. “He was infectious. His work ethic was contagious. He was a competitor.”
Teammates took on the 5-foot-9 guard’s underdog personality and played as though they, too, were born with a supersized chip on their shoulder. The Celtics made the playoffs that season, then advanced to the Eastern Conference finals in 2017 with Thomas at the helm, though limited by the hip injury. He averaged 28.9 points per game that season and finished in the top five in MVP balloting.
For anyone in green, it was hard to watch Thomas and not admire his work ethic. On road trips, before the team charter plane would begin its descent into a new city, Thomas would walk down the aisle to find assistant coach Jerome Allen or team video coordinator Matt Reynolds. He wanted to make sure one of them had reserved a gym so he could get up some late-night shots.
“Every. Single. Trip,” recalled Allen. “What I watched [in] him over the course of two seasons, it was nothing less than amazing but more so about how he prepared.”
Those Celtics coaches remain friendly with Thomas. Stevens will text his former player when he posts a cute picture of his 1-year-old daughter, Journey, on social media and tries to catch Wizards games on League Pass to see Thomas play. And although Allen collects game-worn shoes from NBA players to give away to young fans, there’s a pair of green Kobes, with the names of Thomas’ sons stitched inside, still in his closet.
“That’s something I’ll probably keep until they put me in the dirt,” Allen said. “He’s my favorite player of all time.”
Stevens and Allen are both still believers. But it raises the question: if the Celtics’ organization truly felt Thomas, who has dealt with hip pain since a heroic playoff run in his final season in Boston, could return to all-star form, would it have still traded him to Cleveland for Kyrie Irving in August 2017?
“Nobody really thought that would ever have happened,” Stevens said, explaining the unusual circumstances of Irving’s trade demand from the Cleveland Cavaliers that set the blockbuster deal into motion. “So yeah, that was really hard.”
Yes, Thomas was stung by the sudden trade, a feeling that only intensified during the start of the 2017-18 season when rehabilitation removed him from his sanctuary on the court. And yes, Ainge and Thomas have communicated via text since the trade. Thomas said Ainge sent a Father’s Day message, but that he personally has not gone out of his way to talk to Ainge.
Now, though, Thomas said he harbors no hard feelings.
“Everybody else talks about Boston, I don’t. That’s in the past. I’m in the present right now, looking forward to the future,” Thomas said. “I think at the time I was upset because it came out of nowhere. I got hurt playing for them, so that was tough and then for them to do that. I understand it’s a business but I don’t feel like you’re supposed to go about it that way.
“Obviously, I want to kill them. I want to score 50. I want to beat them. I want to do all that,” Thomas said about Wednesday’s game. “Obviously, I feel like they made a mistake but I’ve been moved on.”
Other NBA players have returned to all-star form after an extended amount of time. Notably, Michael Jordan did in 2002 with the Wizards after a three-year break in his second retirement and four players in league history (Johnny Green: 1965, 1971; Rick Barry: 1967, 1973; Bernard King: 1985, 1991; Manu Ginóbili: 2005, 2011) had five-year gaps between all-star appearances.
Thomas knows it will take time to become the next player on that list. He still has to find his rhythm on the court and with his new Wizards teammates. There will be bad games, mixed in with a few flashes of his Boston brilliance, but his past no longer defines his motivation. Thomas has big plans for life after Boston.
“I know I can be an all-star again. I know I can be all-NBA again,” Thomas said. “I’m not saying, I’m going to go out and average 30 points. I don’t know if I can do that but I know I can play at a high level and playing at a high level is being one of the best guards in the game today and I know I can do that.”