At times, the point guard felt like his old self.
“I wanted to bring something to the table,” Thomas said. “I felt like I got my powers back playing on this team.”
Calling his trade to the Lakers “a fresh start,” Thomas got over the “shock” of being dealt from the Cleveland Cavaliers by scoring 22 points and dishing six assists in his first game with the Lakers. Although Los Angeles had its four-game win streak snapped with a 130-123 loss to the Dallas Mavericks, Thomas gave the Lakers a glimpse of his scoring prowess despite not knowing the playbook.
After coming back from a hip injury and struggling in 15 games with the Cavaliers, Thomas showed flashes of returning to his old form after just one shootaround with his new team. He made seven of 12 shots, including going 4-of-8 from behind the arc, and displayed his ability to score points in bunches when he put up 11 points in nine minutes in the second quarter.
“He brings another dimension to what we have,” said head coach Luke Walton, who was annoyed with the team’s lack of defense in just the Lakers’ fifth defeat in their past 17 games. “When he is able to control pick-and-rolls and get people shots, obviously we couldn’t run a ton of stuff because he has been with us for one day, but he was good.”
Thomas had dinner with Walton on Friday night upon joining the Lakers in Dallas. He tried cramming the Lakers’ playbook on his iPad on Friday night but played with admittedly little to no knowledge of the Lakers’ play sets. Walton opted to bring Thomas, who was traded along with Channing Frye and a protected first-round pick to the Lakers for Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., into the game off the bench.
But Thomas, who said he would love to start but will play whatever role Walton wants, played the entire fourth quarter. He had six turnovers in the game, including one late when he left his feet inside the paint and threw the ball away due to his lack of familiarity with where his new teammates were on the floor, and committed five personal fouls in the fourth quarter.
Thomas had as good a debut as he could have hoped for under the circumstances, giving the Lakers elements that they are looking for with Clarkson gone: another instant offensive weapon with perimeter shooting off the bench and the ability to push the pace with some playmaking.
Thomas said he liked the pace and energy of his new team after averaging 14.7 points and 4.5 assists in 15 games before the Cavaliers pulled the plug on their stint with Thomas.
“I was shocked,” Thomas said of the trade. “It was a surprise, but at the same time, I am happy to have a new start, I am happy to be here with the Lakers, happy to be with a young team that is exciting, that likes to get up and down. That’s my style of play. I am here to help in any way possible. It’s a fresh start for me. I am excited.
“It kind of reminds me of the same situation when I got traded to Boston. It was a young team that was thinking rebuild, but we had some different thoughts than that, and we made a push to the playoffs. That is my job: to come to this team and bring that spirit, that fire, that killer’s mentality and just understand that we can take advantage of this opportunity that we have [the rest of] the season. It’s about winning, and it is about winning right now.”
Thomas made it clear that he does not want to “mess anything up” with the Lakers, who entered Saturday night’s game playing their best basketball of the season. With Lonzo Ball (sprained MCL) out, Brandon Ingram has flourished at point guard. Ingram started his fifth straight game at the position and scored 22 points while knocking down four of five 3-pointers.
“This is the best they have been playing,” Thomas said. “I don’t want to mess anything up. And I told [Walton] that. Whatever he needs me to do, I am willing to do that. Yes, I would love to be a starter. I feel like I deserve that and earned that, but at the same time, it’s a new chapter for me. I am here to help this team, help these young guys, continue to be professional, continue to work hard and continue to jell together.”
When Ball returns from his injury, Walton could start Ball, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Ingram, Julius Randle and Brook Lopez. But Walton kept his options open when asked about Thomas’ role moving forward.
“Isaiah, he is one of the best point guards in our league,” Walton said. “And I am quite aware of that. He’s been with the team for [only a few] hours now. We are going to get him playing and get him used to what we do, and I told him that for us, it doesn’t matter who starts and who doesn’t. We’re a group that different groups finish the game all the time for us.”
“He wants to start. Of course he does,” Walton added. “Everybody wants to start. I expect him to really help our team out, and I expect him to be a positive influence on our team and help us win ballgames … how many times have we changed our starting lineup this year? We are going to reward guys that are playing hard, playing the right way, that are going to help us, in our opinion, give us the best chance of winning ballgames. Now, we are still obviously developing young players at the same time, but we always take both of those into consideration.”
Thomas did not want to reflect back on his short time with the Cavaliers and what went wrong in Cleveland. Frye, who did not play on Saturday, said the pieces just didn’t fit, as evidenced by Cleveland’s adding four new players — Rodney Hood, George Hill, Clarkson and Nance Jr. — at the trade deadline.
“I think it just wasn’t working,” Frye said. “I don’t think it was a chemistry off the court thing because I went and talked to those guys all the time. I just think on the court, there just wasn’t enough give and take. I don’t think we were built to sacrifice for each other. I think a lot of guys had success in different systems. There wasn’t enough time for them to adjust to doing it a certain way, and that happens.”
While Thomas is making his way back from a hip injury, Frye says the point guard will return to the form that had him averaging 28.9 points and 5.9 assists last year. Both players are in the final year of their contracts.
“I’ll be honest, he’s gonna be fine,” Frye said. “A lot of [his struggles in Cleveland] is just system-based. I think everyone makes a big deal out of it because it’s Isaiah, but Kyle [Korver] wasn’t having a great year. I wasn’t having a great year. Jae [Crowder] wasn’t having a great year. Dwyane Wade. You gotta put all these different personalities and groups together. It sometimes just doesn’t work out.”
Lakers team president Magic Johnson said he wants Thomas to also mentor Ball. Johnson said Ball is the team’s starting point guard, and he would like to see a veteran such as Thomas take Ball under his wing.
“I mean, that’s fine,” Thomas said. “I have been in the league six more years than he has. Obviously, I am going to help him out. We are part of the same team, he’s a special young player, and he is going to be an incredible talent in this league for years to come. My job is to help where I can. I am still in my prime. So it is not like I am taking a backseat to anybody. I am here to be who I am and here to make a difference on this team, and I am excited about the opportunity.”
Thomas said things should only get better, as he will have three days to study the Lakers’ system before the next game at New Orleans.
“As I get more familiar with the guys and playbook, it will be even better, especially in close games, executing down the stretch,” Thomas said. “I had one key turnover where I might have jumped and didn’t know where guys are. That is just getting familiar with each other … it is tough putting a new guy out there. I mean, I don’t know really any plays.”
Thomas added: “All these guys are talented … I watched this team from afar. Brandon Ingram, [Kyle] Kuzma, Julius Randle has always been a tough cover. I like playing with Lopez. I think I can help him out, when it comes to the mental side of things. He gets on himself a lot. I tell him to keep pushing, and he is a big part of this team. A lot of young talent, and I am excited to be a part of it.”