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Love to Hate: Isaiah Thomas

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The smallest man on the court was once Cleveland’s biggest problem.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Amid SB Nation’s rivalry weeks, we are going to write about some players we love to hate and players we hate that we love. First up: a certain former guard.

Do you know why pyrite is more commonly known as fool’s gold? It comes from when novice prospectors mistake tiny pieces of pyrite for gold when panning. However, on close inspection, the mineral really looks nothing like gold, thus making them a fool.

During his time with the Cavs, Isaiah Thomas was also known as fool’s gold. It all started with the one of Cleveland’s greatest illnesses: hope. Days before Thomas landed with the Cavs, Kyrie Irving, arguably the greatest point guard in franchise history, demanded a trade due to no longer wanting to play in the shadow of LeBron James. (Spoiler: Every player not named LeBron James will play in his shadow while wearing a Cleveland uniform.) Oh, this is also a trade that James never wanted to happen, especially when Thomas was part of the return, according to sources. So, when Thomas was introduced as a Cavalier, people tried their hardest to mistake the pyrite for gold.

Sure, he was dealing with a hip injury that would go on to derail his career but think about the positives! Thomas had just finished fifth in MVP voting the season before! He could easily replicate the loss in Irving’s scoring production after averaging 28.9 points per game the season before! He’s even a better playmaker than Irving as well! (Both these points totally ignore the fact that Brad Steven’s system in Boston made all that possible, not Thomas.) Thomas could also finally help unlock the mythical “Minnesota Kevin Love” after Love had to play third fiddle to Irving for so long!

Mind you, this was all entirely off the court as Thomas continued to rehab from his hip injury and the anticipation for his debut only continued to grow. It became even worse during his home, and season, debut in a 127-110 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers. Thomas posted 17 points on 50% shooting along with 3 assists in nearly 19 minutes of play and looked a little bit like the Thomas of old. More fool’s gold to fuel the fire. After that, Thomas entered Cleveland’s starting lineup, where he was able to panhandle his game one last time against the Orlando Magic, putting up 19 points and 4 assists. But, after that, everyone’s hopes and dreams came crashing back to earth in spectacular fashion.

Thomas put up strong box score numbers against the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder, both games featured on national television. They also were two of Cleveland’s more humiliating losses on the year, with guards Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook victimizing Thomas’s atrocious defense. A few games later, in a 115-108 victory over the Indiana Pacers, this happened while Thomas had yet another brutal night shooting:

Which is where we should now talk about the elephant in the room, and ultimately part of why Thomas is a villain after his time with the Cavaliers: his relationship with Kevin Love. A few days before the display against the Pacers, Thomas, along with Cavs legend Dwayne Wade, confronted and launched a verbal tirade towards Love for “faking an illness” and leaving the arena during their shellacking against Oklahoma City. It turns out Love was suffering from a panic attack. Love is no stranger to being the scapegoat for the trials and tribulations the Cavaliers suffered during their championship run, but him being the fall guy for this was ludicrous. Especially considering how much better Love was able to perform with Thomas off the floor compared to when they shared the court together.

If there’s any silver lining from this fiasco, this moment did give birth to one of the greatest rants in sports history by NFL Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe, who summed up the situation as a whole perfectly:

“I couldn’t be Kevin Love,” Sharpe said. “When Isaiah did what he did, I would say ‘You know guys, I was just gonna sit back here and play the good company guy.’ Like ‘You’re right. I gotta play better.’ But since Isaiah came for me and I didn’t send for him, I’m here now.’”

“First of all, you got everybody up in arms about me missing the game,” Sharpe continued. “I had the flu. I felt faint. I felt dizzy. I went in the locker room. There’s nothing I could do. I didn’t want to spread whatever I had, so I left.

Hold on. You guys going to get onto me? Derrick Rose left here with a box. With a fade. And comes back here with dreads and you welcome him with open arms and you all up in arms because I missed 24 hours? Kick rocks, Isaiah. You just got here. You have no seniority to address me in any manner. You just got here a month ago. Where you been?”

It took Thomas only 15 games to overstay his welcome in Cleveland. That, and once the toxicity of the locker room, due to Thomas’s behavior, became public, there was no going back. Cleveland had to get rid of their shortest player, and their biggest problem, and did so at the annual trade deadline shipping him off to the Los Angeles Lakers in a series of moves to reshape the roster. Thomas has since floated around the league, finding stops with the Denver Nuggets and the Washington Wizards. He was traded from Washington to the Los Angeles Clippers, but was waived almost immediately after. It’s sad to see how an injury derailed Thomas’s career, sure. But, he won’t get much sympathy from Cleveland fans after nearly tanking James’ last season with the Cavs. Thomas was nothing and always will be fool’s gold for his legacy as a Cavalier.