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LOS ANGELES — Isaiah Thomas has never been a player to mince words.
According to Sam Amick of USA Today, Thomas was crystal clear about his future: “I’m not no sixth man.”
“I just want everybody to know that, like clear as can be,” Thomas continued. “I’m a two-time All-Star and a starter who has done things that a lot of people in this league haven’t done [when] given that opportunity.”
Injuries may have pushed Thomas into the starting group against the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday, but the Lakers already have their franchise point guard to develop in Lonzo Ball.
Playing without Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart, Thomas scored 20 points with seven assists in the Lakers’ loss. He’s given the team 16.5 points and 5.4 assists a game as a reserve since a February trade to Los Angeles from the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Lakers have come on strong of late, winning eight of their last 11. And Thomas seems to have quickly built a solid chemistry on the court with his new teammates (although he and Julius Randle got into it on Wednesday).
The bigger question for the 29-year-old guard is duration. In the final year of his contract ($6.3 million), will Thomas simply move from Los Angeles to another team next season?
That’s going to depend on how successful the Lakers are at luring big-name free agents this summer.
The midseason trade that landed Thomas with Channing Frye and a draft pick, sending Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. to Cleveland, was more about opening cap space in July than it was about the two-time All-Star.
Executives Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Rob Pelinka used the word “flexibility” multiple times when speaking to reporters the day of the trade before even mentioning Thomas by name.
He may be earning notice for his play, but the Lakers have designs on adding two maximum-salaried players like LeBron James and Paul George this summer. If they don’t land two in 2018, they may protect their spending power for 2019.
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Thomas didn’t click well with James on the Cavaliers. Should the three-time champion choose the Lakers this summer, a Thomas return may be a non-starter.
But if James goes elsewhere, Thomas could be back.
As a free agent, the point guard will take up $11.4 million of the Lakers’ salary-cap space. That’s slightly less than the $12.4 million cap hold for Randle, who will be restricted in July.
If the team otherwise lets go of all their free agents and non-guaranteed players except Thomas and Randle, the Lakers project to have $37 million in cap space—enough to sign George at $30.3 million.
Los Angeles could then re-sign both players, via their Bird rights, to larger contracts. Thomas can also earn up to $30.3 million; Randle’s maximum projects to be $25.3 million.
Of course, if Thomas insists he’s a starter and will only re-sign on that contingency, the Lakers would presumably need to start him alongside Ball. If George and Ingram are forwards, perhaps Randle slides over to start at center.
The franchise can increase their spending power by either trading or stretching out the salary of Luol Deng. The Lakers could conceivably return nearly the same roster next season with the addition of George.
If so, is Thomas the starter over Kentavious Caldwell-Pope? Is Randle at center ahead of Brook Lopez? The Lakers can only start five players, so would either Thomas or Randle return to come off the bench?
Each decision will depend on the market around the league. How many teams will be looking to sign a starting point guard or a starting center?
Thomas may find a limited market, but as he recently noted, “All you need is one team to love you.”
Another obstacle for a Thomas return is contract duration. If the Lakers insist on holding cap space for the summer of 2019—when players like Klay Thomas, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker will be free agents—they’ll need to make sure they have about $33 million available after next season.
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The Lakers could have that number with George and Randle (assuming he re-signs at a starting salary of roughly $14.5 million), but that probably means no long-term money for Thomas.
Of course, the Lakers may be snubbed by both James and George this summer. If so, perhaps the team invests in Randle and Thomas while maintaining enough spending power to chase an additional star in 2019.
Each decision impacts the next. Every choice comes with risk. The Lakers have begun to build an intriguing chemistry, but their pursuit of star power may trump the incremental progress the team has made this season.
Thomas’ impact has given a glimpse of the Lakers’ potential future, showing how a veteran All-Star can help push the franchise into playoff contention.
His arrival in February was too late to make for a proper postseason run, but Thomas has been a positive addition to the roster, even if his stay with the Lakers proves to be fleeting.