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Isaiah Thomas' arduous journey from MVP candidate to limbo sets up an even tougher challenge

BOSTON – It’s late March 2018, but the news of Isaiah Thomas’ season-ending hip surgery has me thinking of late March 2017. When Thomas was an MVP candidate, not a twice-traded fallen star. When Thomas was a starter for East-leading Boston, not Lonzo Ball’s backup for lottery-bound L.A. When Thomas seemed destined for a max-level, long-term contract, not lucky to land a lucrative one-year deal.

What a difference a year makes, huh? Instead of entering free agency as a 29-point-per-game scorer coming off an inspirational postseason appearance, Thomas will become temporarily teamless with a bad hip and a long list of clubs uncertain what he is outside of Boston’s ecosystem. Instead of steaming toward a place among Celtics greats, Thomas could be fighting Devin Booker for shots in Phoenix.

Don’t laugh — it could happen.

It’s depressing, really, because Thomas doesn’t deserve this. Maybe his strengths were magnified in the Celtics’ system — coach Brad Stevens has a knack for doing that — but Thomas has earned every nickel for which he’s played. He was the 60th pick in a draft in which nobody liked him. He was undervalued by Sacramento and discarded by Phoenix before finding a coach (Stevens) and a GM (Danny Ainge) who believed in him in Boston. They didn’t just give him playing time, either — he earned it.

“He’s a tough sucker, man,” former Celtics assistant coach Walter McCarty told Yahoo Sports. “He played through pain. He’d go down, he’d get right back up. IT is always IT. Win, lose, he’s the same giving, loving person. He worked hard. He was in the gym more than anybody. He put the time in. He did all the right things.”

Isaiah Thomas won’t play again this season. (AP)

Much of what’s happened the last 12 months has been out of Thomas’ control. Foregoing hip surgery last summer was puzzling — the two months spent figuring out if he would need it, more so — but doctors deemed it the right call. He struggled in Cleveland, but shaking off the rust for a team with a championship-or-bust mentality couldn’t have been easy. His insistence on taking a leadership position on a new team was grating, but the Cavs shipped Thomas to L.A. because he couldn’t play with LeBron James, not because he called out Kevin Love.

So what’s next? There are only a handful of teams with real cap space this summer and even fewer where Thomas makes sense. The Sixers will have room — they also have Markelle Fultz. The Mavericks have room. But there’s Dennis Smith, too. Chicago and Atlanta are rebuilding and make no sense for a near-30-year-old point guard coming off a brutal season.

“No one is going long there [with a deal], in all likelihood,” former Cavs GM David Griffin told Yahoo Sports. “[The hip] is a very significant factor. His whole game is predicated upon quickness and creating shot separation. If he can’t do that, he is a small non-defender.”

Said former Nets GM Billy King: “The hip is a problem. Historically, hips are a tough recovery. I would put a hip injury up there with an Achilles injury, as far as toughest recovery, for a guy his age. His game is based on speed. How does he recover? With his size, he needs that quickness.”

And the system?

“I was pleased with his willingness to come off the bench in L.A.,” Griffin said. “[It] will be very important for next season that teams believe he is willing to do whatever it takes to win and isn’t caught up in the semantics of a starting role. His willingness to speak up immediately in Cleveland was a terrible fit for the locker room, but not entirely a negative. If he is in a role as veteran leader, as he was in L.A., it can be important, positive trait.”

Added King: “He needs a system that allows him to shoot whenever he wants. This year, you heard some of the knocks on him before he got to Boston. That he wasn’t the greatest teammate. That you couldn’t find the right system to put him in because he needed to shoot all the time. Then he went to Boston, and Boston needed him to shoot all the time. That’s also probably why they were looking to move him, because they were building around Gordon Hayward and looking to play a different way.”

Where Thomas makes the most sense: The Lakers, and here is where he needs to hope James, Paul George and any other big-ticket item on L.A.’s shopping list takes a pass. A successful summer for L.A. likely squeezes Thomas out. A lackluster one leaves tens of millions available in short-term deals. Kentavius Caldwell-Pope scored one last offseason; Thomas, who by most accounts has had a positive impact on the Lakers, could grab one, too.

Which sets up a huge 2018-19 season. Stay healthy, and Thomas can be a leader on a Lakers team that has been pretty good (9-7) since the All-Star break. Bounce back, and he can be someone L.A. envisions playing with Kawhi Leonard, not being replaced by him. Struggle, and everything is off the table. Thomas has faced challenges before. This could be his greatest yet.

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