2018 NBA free agency grades: Nuggets signing Isaiah Thomas

Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images /

In Isaiah Thomas, the Denver Nuggets found their much-needed backup point guard. Thomas brings unique questions, but his considerable talent makes him a worthwhile gamble.

The Brinks truck has become a slight, a cautionary tale, a lament. When Isaiah Thomas entered it into the lexicon last summer, though, it was a statement of fact. The Brinks truck was coming for IT.

Thomas was a superstar, coming off an historic season during which he averaged 28.9 points per game on 62.5 percent true shooting—he was a tiny Stephen Curry. He led the Boston Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals. He scored 53 points in a playoff game. He was a folk hero.

This Celtics fan never wanted to see Thomas in another team’s colors and would have volunteered to back up the Brinks truck himself.

Then, August rolled around. Thomas was a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers (my dream of seeing No. 4 in the rafters, dead and quickly buried).

By January, when Thomas was finally “healthy” and donning the wine and gold, the Brinks truck was far in the rearview. His hip was an enormous concern, his performance on the court was perhaps even larger.

Whether motivated by ineffective play, an outsized ego, or circumstance (a team on a slow march toward death), Thomas was shipped to Los Angeles barely a month after his Cleveland debut.

Seventeen games with the Lakers later, Thomas’ season was over. Finally — mercifully — he was having hip surgery.

Until the late hours of July 12, the basketball world hadn’t heard much from Isaiah Thomas. That, regrettably, made sense. In 2017-18, Thomas was one of the worst players in the NBA. He played for two bad teams (yes, the regular season Cavs were a bad team), and he was recovering from a major surgery. His name had value, certainly, but his prospects in free agency were justifiably limited.

As I wrote yesterday, though, the Denver Nuggets needed a backup point guard:

Isaiah Thomas — the Little Guy (must be read in Tommy Heinsohn’s distinctive growl) — is a Denver Nugget. The Brinks truck is gone, and its place, the veteran’s minimum.

Thomas’ contract is low-risk. Financially, as low-risk as is possible. There are, however, unseen risks specific to Thomas.

Two years ago, Thomas was one of the best basketball players in the world, but there’s more to it than that. When I say Thomas was a folk hero, it’s not an exaggeration. In Boston, he was adored on a level topped only by Tom Brady. That means something, and it does something.

It made Thomas feel larger than life, and that worked when Thomas was doing things Paul Pierce and Larry Bird and Bill Russell hadn’t done. When you’re a backup point guard on a team fighting for a playoff spot, that doesn’t work.

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In Cleveland and Los Angeles, Thomas couldn’t let that past life go. He dominated the ball, took terrible shots, played no defense. He was a common man conducting himself like a god.

On-court, that generated immensely negative value. Off-court, it made Thomas a player no team could, in good conscience, invite into its locker room.

If Thomas can’t accept that his days walking among the gods are gone, he won’t last in Denver. The trade deadline will come, Denver will be right where it was last year, and the team will find 2018-19’s Devin Harris.

But Thomas is on the veteran’s minimum. If he can accept that he is no longer the King of the Fourth, if he can recapture 60-80 percent of the player who was the face of the most storied franchise in basketball, he’ll be a steal.

For Denver, the upside of this deal massive. The downside exists, but in that worst-case scenario, Thomas is cut, a low-cost, trusted veteran comes in and the Brinks truck fades entirely.

It’s far from a home run, but this is a worthwhile gamble for the Nuggets, one that raises the team’s ceiling considerably while barely lowering its floor.

Next: 2018 NBA free agency tracker: Grades for every deal so far

Grade: B+