LOS ANGELES -- Isaiah Thomas leans into the high-top restaurant table, opens his hand and delivers a sort of stop sign. "I don't want to sound negative," he says, but keeps talking. Because 5 feet, 9 inches doesn't stumble onto stardom with caution. He stayed on the floor too long with the Celtics and returned too soon with the Cleveland Cavaliers. His body and bankbook paid a steep price.
So, here at Ocean Prime, he's talking about the topic that's been inescapable with his story: money, the kind paid to NBA stars.
"You can always play the what-if game, but man, I've been F'd over so many times. But, of course, I think about it. I'm human," Thomas says, shrugging and staring out the window onto Wilshire Boulevard. "I'm human."
Isaiah Thomas had believed this would be the summer of his max contract extension with the Boston Celtics. Instead, he had one guaranteed contract offer in the early days of July free agency, which he accepted: a one-year, $2 million veteran's minimum deal with the Denver Nuggets.
"People are scared of my hip now," Thomas says. "I just had to be real with myself. I had to understand that it's not going to be about the money this summer. I've got to show people that I can play -- and play at a high level again. And I will."
Eighteen months ago, Thomas was a cult hero with the Celtics. He delivered a franchise-record 53-point playoff performance in TD Garden on the 23rd birthday of his tragically departed sister. His scoring dominated fourth quarters like no one else in the NBA. His journeyman story crept close to completion, replaced with an improbable rise to stardom. Isaiah Thomas believed he had earned his way to a $150 million contract, maybe more, and he pushed an injured hip into the 2017 NBA playoffs until the damage and pain forced him out of the season, and out of Boston for Kyrie Irving.
"If I didn't play in the playoffs, I'd be OK," Thomas says. "I'd be getting paid. I'd be who I am -- who I was. But you couldn't tell me in that moment in time -- with everything I was going through -- that, OK, I should just sit out. I don't think Boston went about it the right way as well.
"But at the same time, it was hard for me to sit out. I just lost my sister, one of the closest people in my life. Basketball was the only thing that was going to help me out. I played until I literally couldn't play anymore. And that was not a good business decision if I was looking in the long term, but I was looking in the 'right now.' That's just what it was.
"They probably would've traded me anyway. But I would've been in position to show my worth, and last year I was never in position to show my worth."
For those who think this summer has been a disaster, Thomas considers it merely a disappointment. In the end, he had one true offer -- the Denver Nuggets -- a fact that he flatly calls "disrespectful."
"People are scared of my hip now. I just had to be real with myself."Denver Nuggets guard Isaiah Thomas
Thomas missed seven months last season, returning in early January. "That was too soon, a mistake," he says. "I should've waited until after the All-Star break." And after getting traded again -- the Lakers, this time -- Thomas ended his season in late February with an arthroscopic surgical procedure. The doctor cleaned out the loose bodies in the hip, alleviating discomfort in the long run. He's near the end of a four-month recovery and rehab program and will be fully operational for training camp in late September.
From 29 points a game with the Celtics to the backup point guard job with the Nuggets on a minimum, the hip changed everything for Thomas. He completed a four-year, $27.5 million contract this year, a deal that he signed with the Phoenix Suns in 2014. Between then and now, Thomas became a two-time All-Star, a second-team All-NBA player and, somehow now, left behind.
"I understand it, but I don't accept it," Thomas says. "So many other people get injured and get chance after chance again. They get the big break. They get the big money -- no matter if they're injured. There's a lot of people out there who've gotten serious injuries and gotten paid still. In my circumstance, it was bad timing. You've never seen a little guy like me get paid big dollars. Never seen it in the NBA.
"People know that I've earned and deserved the max contract, and that's the only reason why I didn't get paid what I deserved. Because I got injured. I get that. The biggest thing for me was to get to the best opportunity for me this summer and show that I'm healthy."
Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly needed a backup point guard and a bench scoring presence with Will Barton moving into a starter's role. He raised the idea of signing Thomas with Michael Malone. Connelly's coach needed no selling on Thomas. Malone not only coached Thomas with the Sacramento Kings in 2013-14, but he also gave him his first starting job in the NBA. Although the organization was apprehensive about Thomas as a starter, Malone eventually executed the idea.
Connelly made the obligatory background calls -- to the Celtics, the Lakers, the Cavaliers, to ex-teammates of Thomas -- and nothing he heard overrode his own coach's endorsement. Yes, Thomas can have a booming voice and influence, but how else does the 60th pick in the NBA draft, a mite, make it? That's a lot of the reason Connelly thinks Thomas will fit fine in Denver.
Eventually, Malone made a call to Thomas, and it started this way, the coach says: "I want you know that Jamal Murray is our starting point guard now, and in the future, and if you're looking to go somewhere to fight for starting minutes, that's not going to happen here."
Thomas wanted a chance to play and restore his market value, and that's easier to do contributing to a good team, as opposed to racking up empty stats on a loser. So Thomas flew to Las Vegas Summer League two weeks ago and met Connelly, general manager Arturas Karnisovas, assistant GM Calvin Booth and Malone in a suite at the Cosmopolitan. Thomas and Malone didn't need the meeting, but Thomas and Connelly did.
"I wanted to talk to him eye to eye," Thomas said. "I wanted him to feel my passion for playing."
Thomas felt burned by Boston and Cleveland. He instructed Connelly that he didn't know him, and thus, he didn't trust him. Connelly told Thomas he understood and, well, reminded Thomas, too: "I don't trust you, either."
From there, the conversation was terrific: Connelly needs a bench scorer with Barton moving into the starting lineup, and a one-year, minimum deal frees the Nuggets of financial risk on the hip. There's little to lose. For those wondering about Thomas' big persona -- about how he'll impact a locker room of young, talented and earnest players -- Malone wants Thomas to bring more than his playoff credentials to the Nuggets.
"We have a quiet locker room," Malone says. "It won't be bad for us to have his voice and personality in there. I want Isaiah to be Isaiah."
Before finalizing the agreement with Denver, Thomas had reached out to Boston GM Danny Ainge. They talked for 15 to 20 minutes, Thomas says, and he told Ainge: "If the opportunity is there, I would just like to let you know that I'd love to come back."
Ainge says his mind was open to the idea, but the Celtics needed to work through Marcus Smart's restricted-free-agency discussions before they could consider making an offer to Thomas. Ainge was willing to continue the conversation, but Thomas accepted the Nuggets' offer before Boston had reached its new deal with Smart.
"S---, I'd have gone back," Thomas says. "I don't hold grudges."
But Thomas is thrilled to play for Malone again and loves watching the Nuggets play ball. He can tell how much they enjoy one another, and he wants to be a part of pushing them out of ninth place and into the Western Conference playoffs. They're close, and he knows it. "They need me, and I need them," Thomas says. "My hip is not normal. I understand that. But that doesn't mean that I can't play at a high level. That's what I have to fight and show people again. And I'm willing to do that. I am willing.
"Listen, this isn't some story about me blaming everyone else. It isn't that. I'm fine with where I'm at. I'm all about being positive and controlling what I can control."
But he pauses, and, yes, the "what if?" goes away, because Isaiah Thomas wouldn't have made the NBA, never mind an All-Star level, without a willingness to take on every slight -- real and imagined -- and treat them all like a threat to his existence.
Thomas is rolling now. Once it starts coming, it comes. "But man, this is just a battle that I have to fight that nobody else has to fight. Nobody. Nobody can say that they fight the same battle as me, especially with what I've done. The only thing that they've got now is, 'Oh, he's hurt his hip.' That's all they got on me now. Before it was, 'Oh well, it's Brad Stevens. It's the system.' Come on, check my career stats. They don't lie.
"I'm not worried about starting or coming off the bench now. I'm worried about playing well and showing the world who I am again. Once the people see that I can play -- and play at a high level still -- they won't be able to deny me next summer. They won't be able to deny me what I bring on the court and off the court for an organization.
"Nothing that I did in the past can be used to get [a new contract]. Everybody else can, but me? I can't. That's been my story. It's never been, 'Oh, let's pay him off what he's done.' That's just what it is. That's the reality. I can't control that. But I can control taking advantage of an opportunity and showing that I can still play at a high level."
Isaiah Thomas is 29 years old, fighting his body and reality and perception and an NBA daring to dismiss him as damaged. In the end, this wasn't the free-agency summer he imagined for himself, but he did find a job in Denver, an opportunity to restore some standing. And he promises no more what-ifs over a cold drink on a summer's day.
"Only what's next."