New Phoenix Suns point guard Isaiah Thomas, part of a triumvirate of what is potentially the league's best back court, is in a place of transition this season.
He sees himself as one of the best players in the NBA, and in terms of statistical measures he played that way last year for the Sacramento Kings. Thomas was one of just six NBA players to put up 20 points and 6 assists per game. He is a starting-quality point guard whose 28-54 Kings team struggled as a whole but outplayed their competition when Thomas took the floor.
Yet while one of those players, Kyrie Irving, got a $90 million extension this summer and three others are already "max" players, Thomas was shown the exit door. The Kings replaced him with a career journeyman, Darren Collison, who is barely bigger than the 5'9" Thomas but has been lauded for his passing and defensive skills.
And now DeMarcus Cousins is taking pot shots at Thomas' back.
With friends like Cousins, who needs enemies?
Cousins also said yesterday he loves new teammate Ryan Hollins' intensity. If you recall, Hollins was the guy who flagrantly fouled Goran Dragic at the end of a Clipper blowout a couple of years ago.
So it's possible that Cousins, who wants to cut down his flagrant fouls this year, isn't on the same level as Ryan McDonough in terms of player evaluation.
But still, it's not just Cousins who wanted Thomas gone from Sacramento. Thomas said this summer the Kings never called him once the season ended. And when they signed Darren Collison to replace him, he already knew it was over.
Then the Phoenix Suns came into the picture. They rolled out the red carpet and electronic billboards and Thomas was hooked. He did not visit any other teams, and signed a 4 year, $27 million contract over the weekend.
"They brought me in for who I was," Thomas said at the press conference in July. "They like me for being 5'9". They like me for being a score first point guard. And that's what I wanted. It's perfect for me with the style of play, the organization the way it is. I just want to be part of something like that."
After struggling to make the NBA at all (he was the last pick of the 2010 draft) and then failing to earn a commitment from the team that drafted him, Thomas now comes to Phoenix high on hope but weighted down by uncertainty. Again.
That's because he's once again coming into an NBA season as a sixth man. The Suns re-signed Eric Bledsoe to a $70 million contract last week, and plan to re-sign Goran Dragic to (likely) even more money next summer.
That's a lot more than $27 million.
Thomas signed with the Suns with full knowledge that they wanted to keep both Dragic and Bledsoe long term, and that he was not promised a starting spot. He knew all this. But with all the obstacles Thomas has faced in the NBA, you can't blame him for being a bit apprehensive about how it will work as training camp begins.
"You can be worried," he said at Media Day. "Just because you never know what's going to happen. You never see three talented guards like us on the same team. But you know that's the coach's problem. He has to play us. I am excited. I love competition. That's what it's all about - making us better and getting to the playoffs."
After four years of never being handed the reins of the Kings, he decided at the onset of free agency to commit his next four years to a team who won't promise to start him either.
Is he still sure he made the right decision?
"You could say that," he replied, after a pregnant pause. "You never know until the games really start. You don't know if you made the right decision till halfway through the season. It could all be fun and games in the off season, but you got to put it all out on the floor. Once the season starts, I'll get a feel for if I made the right decision or not. Hopefully I did. I feel like I have. I put it in god's hands."
All the reasons Thomas signed with the Suns are still there today. He wanted to be wanted, and he wanted to play for a playoff contender.
The Suns love Thomas for who he is - which is a really good player wrapped up in a slightly undersized package.
"Isaiah is a guy who has been extremely efficient," Suns GM Ryan McDonough told Bright Side at Media Day. "He's a guy we were always scared of when we were playing against Sacramento. We preferred it when he was on the bench rather than on the court. He'd come in and he'd just change the game. At 5'9" he doesn't look the part, but he's just so efficient. He's a self made player. Nothing was ever given to Isaiah, he's earned this every step of the way. There are only a handful of guys in this league who averaged 20 points and six assists a game and to do that as efficiently as he did is impressive."
While many are skeptical about Thomas being a legitimate starting point guard for a playoff team, the Suns just want to bring in as many talented players as they can. And they see Thomas as one of the best players on a team that will fight for the playoffs this season.
Coach Hornacek knows there's a bit of concern among the guys, but he worked that out last year and should work just fine again this year.
"We talked about it," Hornacek told Bright Side in July when the Suns signed Thomas. "We talked about how it was going to affect peoples' minutes, how we would play it. But again we still go into training camp with the guys that are here and are going to play. We feel it just gives us another weapon if something happens with Eric or Goran with injury, and not lose a beat."
Thomas will be the Suns lightning rod off the bench, a potential Sixth Man of the Year candidate. And if anyone goes down to injury again this year, Thomas can step right in to fill their shoes. Remember, the Suns only got 43 games of the Slash Brothers last year.
Thomas knows he's in a better situation than he ever was in Sacramento. The front office loves him here. The coach wants him. And the teammates have a better approach to the game.
"We did have a talented group of guys in Sacramento," Thomas said at Media Day. "It just didn't click. But playing against these guys (the Suns) four times a year, seeing that there's really no arguments on the floor. I always say these guys play for each other, not against each other. The team that plays for each other, they will run through a wall for you."
Or, a Swaggy P anyway.
Isaiah Thomas might not start many games this year. And he might not finish many either.
But make no mistake, if Thomas buys into the family atmosphere and commits to his role off the bench, he will be one of the reasons the Suns can make the playoffs this year.