On Sunday night, the Cleveland Cavaliers will have their first opportunity to face the team’s former point guard, Isaiah Thomas, when they take on the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center. Thomas played only 15 games for the Cavs before being dealt to the Lakers after having been acquired from the Boston Celtics just last August. It now appears that the earlier deal was one that LeBron James apparently felt never should have been made in the first place.
Dave McMenamin and Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com wrote that James knew last May that Thomas’ hip injury would be slow to heal and could potentially be career-ending:
“James had respect for Thomas and his battle back from a hip injury. But James was skeptical from the start. The injury itself was worrisome. James’ agent also represented Jonny Flynn, a small guard who had his promising career derailed by hip injuries.”
The lengthy rehabilitation from that sort of injury kept Thomas off the court until January. For other teams, such patience is accepted, but the Cavaliers’ focus on again reaching the NBA Finals didn’t afford them the same level of tolerance.
In addition, the fact that the Cavaliers traded away Kyrie Irving in the Thomas deal was something that James didn’t think was necessary. That was primarily due to the fact that Irving still had two years remaining on his contract and couldn’t force a trade.
“It’s well known that James preferred the Cavs not trade Irving, but there was more,” McMenamin and Windhorst wrote. “Sources close to James, a master of applying leverage, said he was less than impressed by how the Cavs handled reworking the Irving deal once the severity of Thomas’ injury became clear.
“Had the Cavs backed out, which they considered doing for several days, the Celtics would have been in a tough position. They had already celebrated Irving’s arrival and would have alienated Thomas and Jae Crowder. Adding to the Cavs’ leverage was the nature of Thomas’ hip injury becoming public, thereby further diminishing his trade value and putting Boston in an even tighter spot if the deal fell through.
“When the dust settled, the fact that Cleveland got only a second-round pick after pausing the deal — and not an additional first-rounder or young player such as Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown or Terry Rozier — didn’t just disappoint James as a basketball player. It disappointed him as a businessman.”
Despite the attempt to establish chemistry, the James-Thomas connection never clicked. During the five weeks that Thomas was on the court for the Cavaliers, the team endured a miserable stretch that included blowout losses and sluggish play. Those struggles caused Thomas to offer criticisms that resulted in some friction in the Cleveland locker room.
That was reflected in Thomas’ final game as a Cavalier on Feb. 7, when James connected for a buzzer-beating basket. Despite Thomas’ effort to congratulate him on the game-winner, James ignored him. The following day, Thomas and veteran Channing Frye were traded to Los Angeles just hours before the NBA trade deadline arrived.
One month later, the Cavaliers are still trying to integrate the four new players they acquired on that last day, while also dealing with multiple injuries. Thomas is no doubt looking to show the Cavaliers that they made a mistake in trading him, but James and his teammates are simply looking to come away with a victory in the game.