Thomas was coming off a stunning 2016-‘17 regular season, when he was fifth in the league MVP race, and his emotionally-charged play in the postseason captured Boston’s heartbeat. Thomas helped lead the Celtics to the conference finals while playing through unimaginable heartache after his sister, Chyna, died in a single-car accident only a day before the postseason started. Thomas missed the final three games against Cleveland in the playoffs with a hip injury and was then moved to the Cavs in the blockbuster Kyrie Irving trade later that summer.
“It’s just the reality in pro sports, but yeah, in the NBA it’s very true,” Horford told The Denver Post. “It was something that still to this day it surprises me. When you look at it from a business standpoint, you understand everything. That’s it. That’s the reality we live in. It was in a point in the offseason where we thought we had our team set, and everything transpired.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who still keeps in touch with Thomas, had a difficult time separating the business of basketball with the loyalty he felt toward him.
“That was a really hard time because there was never a thought that we would possibly have traded him, and then Kyrie became available,” Stevens said. “It was a super unique situation. That was a tough one in all the households in Boston, certainly the Stevens’ household as well. That’s because he did so much in Boston, because he was so well-liked and how much he poured his heart into the game of basketball. This guy works as hard and is as dedicated as anybody I’ve ever been around. That’s why we all are smarter than to bet against him because when he gets back out on that court, he’s gonna make a heck of a difference.”
Horford saw first-hand how Thomas could penetrate a defense, make shots from almost any angle and during that postseason run in particular, he was in awe of Thomas’s ability to compartmentalize his life.
“It didn’t matter the circumstance, whether he was hurt, problems with his family, just any type of thing,” Horford said. “When it came time to play, his focus, his game was just at a different level.”
Following a few tumultuous months in Cleveland last season, Thomas was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers where he played 17 games before undergoing season-ending hip surgery. Stevens said that part of the reason Thomas ended up in Denver was because of his affinity for Nuggets coach Michael Malone, who coached Thomas in Sacramento. As of now, Thomas is a vocal presence around the Nuggets, but his timeline to return from hip surgery remains unclear.
“When he was playing in Boston, he would always talk about Mike Malone, and he was a huge fan of Mike,” Stevens said. “Whenever we would play the team here in Denver, Isaiah took the time to spend time with Mike.
“IT is one of a kind. And for all of us that have been with him and spent time with him, we are hopeful that this time when he comes back, he feels great and is ready to roll. There’s no question that his impact on an organization and a team is hard to match. He meant so much to me, the way that he kind of captivated Boston and the years that he had there, it’s amazing. He’s an amazing guy.”