After just 17 games, Isaiah Thomas’ career with the Los Angeles Lakers could come to an abrupt end this summer. As reported on Wednesday, Thomas will undergo season-ending hip surgery on Thursday, further complicating the situation surrounding his impending free agency.
Thomas missed eight months, including the first two months of the 2017-18 regular season, with the same hip injury after opting not to have surgery on his torn labrum last year. There is no timetable for Thomas’ return yet, but LaMarcus Aldridge, then with the Portland Trailblazers, underwent a similar procedure in 2012 that had an initial timetable of 2-4 months.
If the same is true for Thomas, he would be able to resume basketball activities no sooner than early July, right when free agency starts.
With injuries a huge concern, Thomas could see a significantly smaller market for his services this summer. Luckily, at least one team has already expressed interest in signing him, or should I say, re-signing him: the Lakers.
According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Lakers “hold an interest in exploring a free-agent deal” with the two-time All-Star. However, Thomas won’t be the Lakers’ primary focus in free agency. In fact, he’ll likely only be an option if the front office can’t make good on their promise to bring two max free agents to Los Angeles.
For the sake of this article, and because it’s the most probable scenario, let’s say the Lakers don’t land their guys this summer.
Instead, they re-sign Julius Randle to a four-year deal worth $17 million annually, which is about what he’s expected to get this summer, and also sign Paul George to a four-year max contract starting at $30.3 million annually.
Using the league-wide salary cap projection of roughly $101 million for 2018, the Lakers will still have around $15.9 million to fill out their bench, assuming they waive smaller, non-guaranteed contracts like those of Tyler Ennis and Travis Wear. While no one knows exactly what Thomas’ market will be post-surgery, it’s hard to imagine it will be anything more than the mid-level exception, around $5 million.
Even if the Lakers offered Thomas as much as $7 million a year, they would still have enough room to bring back at least one key role player from this season like Brook Lopez, who has been a steadying presence in the paint for Los Angeles.
Paul George, Julius Randle, Isaiah Thomas, and Brook Lopez? That’s one hell of a backup plan.
But why would the Lakers overpay a player whose market isn’t expected to be vast to begin with? Because even in a down year, Thomas is still one of the better backup point guards in the NBA.
Per stats.nba.com, there are only two players in the NBA averaging more 15 points and 4 assists per game off the bench this season: Thomas and Lou Williams, who signed a three-year contract extension with the Los Angeles Clippers in February worth $7 million annually. If Thomas can provide that type of production with a bad hip, it would be worth keeping him around to see what he can do fully healthy.
Thomas will also arguably the best available backup point guard on the market this summer.
While there are other intriguing options that better fit the Lakers’ timeline like Elfrid Payton, Marcus Smart, Shabazz Napier, Dante Exum, and Fred VanVleet, they will all be restricted free agents. You can bet the front office isn’t looking to tie up money in restricted free agency.
Contenders and teams on the cusp of contention will be interested in Thomas’ scoring and playmaking off the bench, but few teams have the money to pay him or a meaningful role to offer him. The Lakers have both.
Thomas might not be the “King of the Fourth” anymore, but he can still be a valuable NBA player in the right role. After forming a close relationship with the coaching staff and his teammates, the Lakers have an opportunity to take advantage of an unfortunate situation for Thomas.
Should Thomas continue to struggle to rediscover his old form, the Lakers can let him walk the following summer, opening cap space for when players like Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler hit the open market. Thomas’ proposed expiring contract alone won’t get them there, but it’s a start.
Free agency begins on July 1 at 12 a.m. ET. We’ll get a better read of how the summer is going to play out then, and whether or not Thomas will be part of the Lakers’ future.