LeBron James wanted to go home. Isaiah Thomas wanted to stay here, but he also wanted to be recognized as the Kings’ best point guard and a highly compensated starter for the foreseeable future, and that was the part that snagged the deal.
The Kings and Thomas stared into the same mirror and saw two different players, two different roles, too different salaries.
This three-year marriage officially ended Friday when Thomas signed a four-year, $27 million offer sheet with the Phoenix Suns, but it was doomed before tipoff. There was never a time – OK, perhaps a fleeting moment during the ownership transition 15 months ago – when members of the incoming front office envisioned the diminutive veteran as a top-tier floor leader, his considerable contributions and stubborn, dynamic presence notwithstanding.
But he was a player to root for, partly because at 5-foot-9, his success at the NBA level was so improbable, and also because he refused to accept he was anything less than a big-time player.
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Thomas, whose contract was matched by the Kings and swapped to the Suns for a trade exception and forward Alexi Oriakhi, was a revelation almost the moment he arrived as the 60th pick in the 2011 NBA draft, a long shot to make the roster as a possible backup to high-profile rookie Jimmer Fredette.
We know how that went down. The same way all the other battles went down. Thomas, 25, outplayed Fredette from the opening minutes of training camp. A year later, he withstood challenges from Aaron Brooks and Toney Douglas. A year after that, he swiped playing time from Greivis Vasquez, the ailing, pass-first point guard who was obtained last offseason and immediately penciled into the lineup, only to be traded months later to Toronto.
Before a late-season injury sidelined him for the final weeks and he was replaced by rookie Ray McCallum, Thomas once again was the last point guard standing. He averaged 20.3 points and 6.3 assists, furthering his stature as a valuable combo guard, and more of a scorer than playmaker.
But at what price? The Kings, who went into the offseason intent on upgrading the point guard position and unwavering in their need for more ball movers and playmakers, tried to move up in the first round and draft Louisiana-Lafayette point guard Elfrid Payton. When that failed, they pursued and signed Clippers free agent Darren Collison for three years and $16 million.
While Collison received mixed reviews as a distributor in his previous three stops (Indiana, Dallas, Clippers), he pressures the ball defensively and plays at a faster pace than the dribble-dominant Thomas. “And that was a priority we set this summer,” Kings general manager Pete D’Alessandro said Saturday from Las Vegas.
Collison’s price tag also makes more sense for a franchise seeking salary cap flexibility and hopeful of moving one or more of their current power forwards for an athletic shot blocker to play alongide DeMarcus Cousins. The $3.6 million trade exception included in the Suns deal is a tool often used to facilitate trades by closing the gap between swapped salaries.
“We have some pieces, but we still have holes,” said D’Alessandro, “and if we’re going to make impactful changes, we have to address that through trades. With the offer sheet Isaiah got (starting at $7 million) We wish Isaiah well and think he was fantastic for us. But we decided to maintain some flexibility moving forward, and with the acquisition of Darren, it became difficult to match that kind of money.”
Interestingly, Thomas joins a crowded Phoenix backcourt that already includes starters Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, a restricted free agent being pursued by several teams, but who is expected to be retained. Additionally, the Suns recently drafted point guard Tyler Ennis out of Syracuse.
At the very least, Thomas is seen as protection for both Bledsoe and Dragic, who becomes a free agent next offseason. And while his dream job remains elusive – that of a starting point guard – the popular former King joins a franchise that wants him and is compensating him accordingly. That gives him a new start, and another fighting chance.