For those who have spent time consuming Summer League Phoenix Suns’ basketball, you’re a John McClane. You’re a die hard. Ain’t no broken glass or 43rd floor going to stop your fandom.
Summer League is highly entertaining, especially for those who are plugged into the AAU, high school, college, and international basket circuits. You’ve watched these non-household name players come up and have an empathetic approach to their journey. That path doesn’t always result in playing in the NBA, but the Summer League is an opportunity to see them have a chance.
Although it’s hotter than ramen soup against the roof of your mouth outside, Las Vegas brings out members of the basketball community as they enjoy watching the games and experiencing all Vegas has to offer. If you’re watching the games, you’re seeing familiar faces in the crowd and conducting interviews with ESPN and NBATV.
We’ve seen newly acquired Bradley Beal with his Suns hat on. Cameron Payne. Frank Vogel. James Jones. And then there is Suns’ owner Mat Ishbia, who has sitting beside him former Detroit Bad Boy, Isiah Thomas.
Thomas is a Hall of Famer. He is a 12-time All-Star, 5-time All-NBA selection, 1990 NBA Finals MVP, and two-time NBA champion. He is part of the NBA’s 75th Anniversary team and, behind Magic Johnson, quite possibility the greatest point guard this league has ever seen. At least in the eyes of Michael Jordan.
He’s a former broadcaster, owner (Toronto Raptors 1994-98), head coach (Indiana Pacers 2000-03 and New York Knicks 2006-08), president of basketball operations (New York Knicks 2003-06), and WNBA team president (New York Liberty, 2015-19). He clearly has experience in multiple capacities with the NBA.
And he has Mat Ishbia’s ear.
On the surface, that’s not a bad thing. Thomas is highly qualified given his basketball resume and is someone who knows the game from multiple sides and angles. Well, Thomas has a bit pf a past, and it’s a past that opens scars that are still healing within the Phoenix organization.
The Robert Sarver era will be remembered for many things. The Seven Seconds or Less Suns. The longest playoff drought in franchise history. And the allegations that ultimately forced the owner to sell the team. Following an investigation by ESPN, the misogyny and racism found within the confines of the organization led to a one year suspension and $10 million fine.
In 2006, Isiah Thomas was accused of sexual harassment by New York Knicks executive Anucha Browne Sanders, as well as retaliation by the organization for dismissing her when she brought to light the harassment. The case went to court, and ultimately she was awarded $11.6 million for punitive damages.
Isiah Thomas denied the charges. “As I have said before, I am completely innocent,” Thomas said. “This decision doesn’t change that.”
In the court of law, due process was served. The court of public opinion is something much different and less forgiving. For those who worked in the Suns’ organizational environment that fostered dysfunctionality and empowered divisiveness, the thought having someone linked to harassment of any kind in a position of power once again is repulsive. Hearing Thomas’ name linked with Ishbia creates a visceral reaction and emotional PTSD.
Due to Ishbia and his state of Michigan ties, where Zeke played professional basketball, it’s easy to understand why Thomas is a confidant. Isiah is on the board of directors of Ishbia’s company, United Wholesale Mortgage. He’s known him for years and has been a business partner as they both have ties in real estate.
When Thomas’ names enters the conversation, we listen. Ishbia’s ties to Thomas where brought into question when he took ownership of the team and addressed them in his introductory press conference in February.
New Suns owner Mat Ishbia said at introductory news conference that there’s no role for Isiah “at this time” … referring to Isiah Thomas. But Ishbia, asked twice to clarify, did not close door on Hall of Famer eventually joining staff: “There’s a role for anyone in the future.” https://t.co/mi6xEIXOr1— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) February 8, 2023
Despite Ishbia’s words, the link between Ishbia and Zeke remains apparent. And public. Remember the Jokic-pushing-Ishbia incident in the playoffs? Standing right next to him was Isiah Thomas.
Chris Paul was traded to the Washington Wizards as a part of the Bradley Beal deal on June 18. Soon after, in an interview with The New York Times’ Sopan Deb, CP3 stated that, “when it comes through and my son texts me, I realize that, you know, Mat and Isiah, I guess, just wanted to go in a different direction.”
Was Paul’s statement made with merit or assumption? Did Thomas position himself, internally, as someone who was part of the decision making? Or did the Point God throw his name in there as a chance to stir the pot? Paul surely is aware of the backlash that would occur if Zeke’s name was mentioned, seeing as he is a polarizing figure an knowing the recent history of the Suns.
In a recent interview with The Arizona Republic’s Duane Rankin, Mat Ishbia denied Thomas’ involvement. “That had nothing to do with the trade of Chris Paul,” Ishbia stated. “Chris Paul was a great part of our organization for years and years and we were lucky to have him and I wish him nothing but the best going forward.”
“When decisions are made in the organization,” he added, “James Jones, myself, Josh Bartelstein, Frank Vogel, our executive team make decisions. Outside people don’t have any role in our decision-making process. They never have, they never will. I’ve asked for advice from a lot of people, specifically Tom Izzo, Isiah Thomas, Mateen Cleaves, Charlie Bell. I talk to a lot of people, but honestly, on this situation, not one of those people were consulted on this decision.”
Asking for advice equates to indirect involvement with the organization, and it’s something we will have to become accustomed to. Ishbia respects Thomas, and while he might not be asking him point-blank how he should navigate aspects of managing the organization, his presence continues to worry the fan base. It most likely isn’t going to stop.
I will ask this, from a devil’s advocate point-of-view: Should his presence continue to be something we monitor with worry?
Thomas paid his debt to society and to the defendant, yet we continue to do everything we can to keep him at arm’s length from the organization. But, with my crusty devil’s advocate hat on, I ask at what point do we accept the court’s decision and move on? Did he do something wrong? Per Thomas, no, per the court, yes. Did he pay for it in the court of law? Yes.
Thomas isn’t running day-to-day operations as Sarver was. He isn’t dictating the culture of the organization. His impact will never mirror that of Robert Sarver as you walk the halls of the Suns’ offices. Those who endured the horrific psychological damage during the previous regime will not be forced to relive it.
Given the extensive resume annotated above, and given Thomas’ connections within the NBA, shouldn’t the Suns want to have someone with his experience and knowledge associated with the organization and it’s rookie owner? Shouldn’t we? He is learning the ropes of navigating the league, so why wouldn’t he lean into someone with that much experience? Wouldn’t you?
I’m not advocating for Thomas’ involvement. I wearing this devil’s advocate hat to help understand all angles of this topic.
Personally, remember what Thomas did as an executive with the Knicks when he wasn’t being accused of sexual harassment. He traded a first-round pick (that became LaMarcus Aldridge) and a pick swap (that became Joakim Noah) for Eddy Curry. He signed Jerome James to a five-year, $30 million contract despite James never averaging more than 5.4 points and 4.2 rebounds per game in five previous seasons.
Let’s just say he wasn’t the best executive, in any capacity, shall we?
Mat Ishbia has created unparalleled excitement around the organization. He brought us Kevin Durant. He brought us Bradley Beal. He brought us local Suns’ basketball with the AZ Family deal.
I’m not saying we should embrace Isiah Thomas with open arms. I’m saying get used to it. Ishbia will do what he wants to, public opinion be damned.