The 2018 NBA free agency period is going to be a very interesting one. At the top of the heap, four-time league MVP LeBron James still reigns supreme and with his future uncertain in Cleveland, there could be drama come July. Realistically, there are only a few teams that will be worthy of James’ interest in free agency this summer. While all franchises would theoretically like to make a run at the future Hall of Famer, it’s just not the reality of the situation.
All-Star forward Paul George is another player poised to attract a flood of interest in the open market. It has long been rumored the veteran would love to play in Los Angeles, for the Lakers specifically. But after a rocky start to the season, the Oklahoma City Thunder have found success and are starting to ascend the Western Conference ladder. George has a dominant teammate beside him in former MVP Russell Westbrook, still is an All-Star caliber performer and would be an integral part of a readymade title contender. Why would George leave the comfy confines of Oklahoma City?
Well for starters, the Lakers just created space for two max level players at the trade deadline by shipping guard Jordan Clarkson and forward Larry Nance to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for former All-Star Isaiah Thomas. More on Thomas in a bit. Los Angeles now has the cash to make a serious run at George, and you can expect the forward to take a long hard look at the organization if the long running theories are true.
Other top level potential free agents include DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and Carmelo Anthony. But after these top-level guys, the pickings get a little slimmer as it relates to players that could command a max level slot on a team’s payroll. You also have to factor in the current state of the NBA financial market. There will be a salary crunch this summer after two consecutive years of big spending while becoming acclimated with the rising salary cap. From a payroll perspective, more teams are now pressed against the salary cap with limited availability to bring in max level guys. To put it simply, many teams around the league will have less money to burn in free agency.
This leads us back to the curious case of Thomas, a former League MVP candidate whose market value has deteriorated rapidly since the end of last season. What will ultimately be the market for Thomas this summer in free agency is a question that produces varying answers around league circles.
Thomas is in the last year of his current deal and is earning $6 million this season. Factoring in Thomas’ overall talent, the salary is easily one of the league’s best bargains. Especially considering Thomas is just one season removed from averaging 29 points per game and leading the Boston Celtics to 53 wins and an Eastern Conference Finals berth – as the unquestioned leading man.
But Thomas is coming off a hip injury and had a tumultuous time during his short stint in Cleveland. On the heels of a fairytale season in 2017, Thomas joined the Cavaliers and seemingly pictured himself as a bona fide superstar on the same level as some of the league’s best players. It’s more than fair to say some of Thomas’ quotes while with the Cavaliers were head scratchers. But the same chip on the shoulder mentality is the one characteristic that has allowed Thomas to go from the last player selected in his draft class to an All Star to a league MVP candidate.
Fox Sports 1 basketball analyst Chris Broussard recently opined that Thomas should become more accepting of a bench role with the Lakers and probably for the rest of his career in the league. The thought here is Thomas is not a frontline superstar a franchise can build their organization around. This is a similar sentiment as one expressed by many around the league, and it’s a fair one.
However, to be fair, some of the game’s most promising young players have never led their teams to anything close to 53 wins. For instance, guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Karl Anthony Towns have not been able to pull off the same accomplishment despite being players with much greater upside than Thomas.
The 53-win Celtics team Thomas led in Boston during the 2017 season solidified his place in the league. The success also boosted his ego and confidence, which could also scare away teams from the very idea of having to pay the smallish guard a max level deal this summer. It’s one of the reasons the Celtics traded Thomas to Cleveland, and one of the reasons the Cavaliers shipped him to the Lakers.
According to numerous reports, Thomas views himself as a max level guy and the market for him receiving a deal approaching $30 million per year is slim at the moment.
But back to Broussard’s initial comment on Thomas accepting a bench role.
Plenty of players in league history have made a good living torching opposing defenses off the bench. Vinnie “Microwave” Johnson, Lou Williams and Jamal Crawford are some names that immediately jump to the top of the list when it comes to potent and immediate scoring off the bench. All three of those guys had the potential to start for the majority of their careers, but each of them found their respective niche and accepted their role as gunners off the bench for the second unit.
This is a role that Thomas would likely thrive. The problem is, sixth men don’t command max deals in free agency. Also, what has driven Thomas to be great up until this point is the chip he carries firmly on his shoulder for the perceived slights, real or imagined, over the years.
Thomas is now on his fifth team in seven seasons in the league. He’s a dynamic and skilled player, but hasn’t been able to convince a team to lock him long term for mega money. Thomas has also not accepted that a bench scoring role on a title contender might be the best for his career long term.
The Lakers are an extremely young team and need consistent scoring off the bench. Thomas would fit in great there in that capacity if the role is accepted long term; but not as a starter, because the franchise is banking on the development of guard Lonzo ball to be their ball-dominant player and face of the team.
With over two months remaining in the regular season, Thomas has a chance to change his narrative. Thomas has a chance to play good soldier. Thomas has a chance to recoup some of that max level money he lost due to the hip injury in last year’s playoffs and early-season struggles in 2018. But the same fire and internal passion that drove Thomas to develop into a 20 point per game scorer in the league and one-time MVP candidate is also the same passion that will likely hinder him truly accepting the role of a bench assassin in the future.
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