Koby Altman is a smart guy. Based on early returns, he’s shaping up to be a pretty good NBA executive, too. The package the Cleveland Cavaliers general manager got for disgruntled All-Star Kyrie Irving – an All-NBA point guard, albeit a battered one, in Isaiah Thomas, a defensive-minded wing in Jae Crowder, an intriguing big-man prospect in Ante Zizic and a potential top-five pick – was solid, all things considered. So because Altman is a smart guy and because he is a pretty good exec, he had to know that shutting down any and all questions related to Thomas’ troubled hip at Thursday’s news conference would not be well received.
“To be fair to Isaiah, we’re not going to address any specifics of the hip injury,” Altman said.
“The goal is to bring him back at some point this year and be healthy and get back to IT status,” Altman said. “We’re not going to address the specifics of the injury and we’re not going to comment on the timetable.”
OK. So Isaiah, Jae, Ante … have you checked out the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?
In fairness, the assembled media pushed back. Thomas was asked about what he can do right now. Treatment and work in the weight room, he said. Head coach Tyronn Lue confirmed, somewhat inadvertently, that Thomas would not be ready to start the season next month. Altman says the plan for Thomas was non-surgical (“You all hear that,” Thomas added).
When Thomas, dressed in a wine-colored sport coat with a white shirt buttoned up to the top, was pressed for details about when he originally hurt his hip, Altman interjected again.
“I don’t want this to be the Isaiah Thomas hip press conference,” Altman said. “So, I’m just going to – with all due respect – shut down the hip questions. If we’re going to talk about Isaiah, let’s talk about Isaiah the All-Star.”
OK. So, when can we expect to see Isaiah the All-Star, Koby?
Tradition dictates that teams hold news conferences to introduce new players, but this one went off the rails quickly. Thomas already artfully articulated his feelings about being traded from Boston in a well-crafted Players Tribune piece. His pain from being traded could be felt through the screen. Few players embraced Boston’s rich history as quickly as Thomas did, and his transformation from sixth man to MVP candidate in 2½ seasons was remarkable. He loved Boston, and he hated to leave.
We knew that. What we don’t know is how significant the hip injury is, or what kind of timetable there is for his return. Altman lavished Thomas with praise in his opening remarks, gushing over everything from his attitude to his work ethic. He called Thomas the heart and soul of the Celtics last season, and he’s right. “The little guy,” as Boston broadcaster Tommy Heinsohn dubbed him, was the driving force behind a rapid rebuild.
So when will he be ready? After a 45-minute news conference, Thomas’ future has never been murkier. Do the Cavs not want to put pressure on Thomas by revealing a timetable? Or do they not even have one?
Thomas’ health casts a shadow over Cleveland’s season. And it should. His perceived insignificance in this deal was always baffling. How many times did we hear it? The Cavs want the pick. Brooklyn’s pick was protection in case LeBron James bolts (again) next summer. Thomas? Yeah, we’ll take him, too. Legions of Marvin Bagley fans – and seriously, how many had even heard of Bagley before he reclassified and committed to Duke last month? – are already envisioning the NBA’s next great star blossoming in Northeast Ohio.
But Thomas is the key to this season – and maybe James’ future. There’s a drop-off from Irving to Thomas, but how big is it? Thomas averaged 28.9 points per game last season. Irving averaged 25.2 – on roughly the same amount of attempts. Irving made big shots in Cleveland. Thomas finished fractions of a point behind Russell Westbrook as the NBA’s top fourth-quarter scorer.
What if James likes playing with Thomas? Why wouldn’t he? James loves singularly focused players, and Thomas, who played through a bum hip and the tragic passing of his sister last postseason, is just that. He’s 28 and coming off his finest season. If Thomas is healthy, think playing with him won’t be a carrot to lure James back?
Don’t bet against Thomas, either. Many have – few win. He was the 60th pick in the 2011 draft who developed into one of the NBA’s best players. The Cavs have no reason to rush him back. Seeding is meaningless to Cleveland. Even if Thomas is out until January, the Cavs will have months to work a highly motivated elite scorer into the mix.
Said Thomas: “It’s a scary thing if everything is able to click with the guys we have coming in and guys we have on this team.”
Indeed. The Cavs did little to address the lingering questions about Thomas, but it will be months before we have any real answers. Irving helped the Cavs to three straight Finals, but there is no reason that a healthy Thomas, with Crowder, can’t push Cleveland into a fourth. As the Cavaliers ponder James’ future, it’s worth noting that a healthy Thomas could be a key to it.
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