SACRAMENTO, Calif. – This makes three seasons of being dismissed in the rotation or replaced as the starting point guard only to survive as the last man standing, so many shifts on the depth chart that Isaiah Thomas says he honestly cannot remember all those who showed up with the expectation of winning the job only to soon disappear.
He is defiant in all the right ways, refusing to play like the No. 60 pick in 2011, and a survivor, not merely making the league at 5 feet 9 but about to get big money as a restricted free agent in July. And paranoid. We can’t forget paranoid.
Thomas keeps proving people wrong, all right, except that it’s the Kings most of all. That would be interesting enough as the real truth while fans wonder why he doesn’t get enough respect around the league — hint: his own organization isn’t sold on him as a starter – except that now it comes with the defiance on full display.
There were doubts about how a scoring point guard would fit on a team that needed to get the ball to DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay, and Thomas answered by averaging 6.7 assists against 2.9 turnovers in January and another 6.7 against 3.3 turnovers the first 10 games of February.
There was enough skepticism about whether he could be a full-time starter that the Kings installed Greivis Vasquez in the opening lineup after acquiring Vasquez in the Tyreke Evans sign-and-trade. Thomas responded by posting 21.9 points, 7.1 assists, 3.0 turnovers, 37.8 minutes and 45 percent from the field in 38 games in that role, compared to 17.8 points, 4.9 assists, 2.6 turnovers, 27.7 minutes and 45.8 percent in 18 games in his previous life as an early candidate for Sixth Man of the Year. Vasquez got dealt again, to the Raptors as part of the Gay swap, and Thomas, with free agency approaching in July, got richer.
So when he is asked if he genuinely believes that the Kings look at him as the man for the permanent job and says, “Right now I do,” it is the perfect answer. Confidence countered with reality, the proper understating that his current role is built on soft sand. The franchise will want him back and expects to match any realistic sheet, but that’s very different from committing to him as the starter of the future. They will have cap space to acquire a front-line ball handler, by trade or free agency. They will likely draft in the neighborhood of Marcus Smart of Oklahoma State (no upgrade as a distributor but a very good defender at a time Sacramento needs to make that a priority) or Dante Exum of Australia.
Thomas thinks the Kings believe in him. Thomas also thinks the Kings could make another move to replace him before next season. That is some contradiction.
“It is,” Thomas said. “But at the same time, that’s how the business is. They might believe in you, then the next day they go out and get another guard, go out and get somebody else. That’s just how it is. I always say myself just to stay paranoid.”
“Stay paranoid,” he repeated. “Stay on my toes and be ready for any battle, anything that happens. It’s three years. They brought in three different point guards, every year.”
Jimmer Fredette was supposed to start in 2011-12, before the final pick in the draft lapped the 10th pick into the ground. Aaron Brooks signed before last season, and Thomas beat him out too. And the Kings traded for Vasquez before this season with the expectation Vasquez would run the point. Nope. Traded. That’s the list Thomas said he couldn’t remember.
The problem is that the latest run as a starter hasn’t provided a final answer to the Kings about whether he can run the offense well enough when the priority is getting the ball to Cousins, Gay and, likely one day, 2013 lottery pick Ben McLemore. Plus, he is part of the problem with the perimeter defense. The other part of the problem for his chances to keep the job is also a positive: Thomas is a very good scoring punch off the bench.
“Every offseason I go into the new year thinking, ‘OK, we had a losing season, so nobody’s job is secure but DeMarcus Cousins’ and now Rudy Gay’s,” Thomas said. “And I’m 5-9. So I understand. I understand. Five-nine, there’s not another 5-9 starting guard in this league. You haven’t seen one and you can probably name on your hand, on your five fingers, a starting point guard in the history of the NBA that’s been this short. I understand it. But at the same time, I’m just willing to work and willing to showcase my skills.”
Coach Michael Malone has talked to him about the delicate balance of staying aggressive as a scorer while running the offense with Cousins as the No. 1 scoring option and Gay as No. 2. Thomas gets all that and hopes he has made a convincing case to hold the spot this time. Maybe another threat will be brought in during the summer, though. That’s why he has to stay paranoid.