Isaiah Thomas called Danny Ainge about a Celtics reunion before signing with the Nuggets

A year and a half ago, Isaiah Thomas appeared to be headed for a nine-figure payday in the summer of 2018, a free-agent windfall shelled out by an NBA team eager to cut a massive check to secure the services of one of the league’s most improbable and unstoppable crunch-time weapons. Two weeks ago, he instead took what was reportedly the only offer on the table: a one-year deal at the veteran’s minimum of $2 million to step in as the backup point guard for the Denver Nuggets.

The short-term, short-money agreement capped a stunning fall from grace for the 29-year-old Thomas, a pick-and-roll surgeon and All-Star thunderbolt of a scorer for whom the bottom dropped out after he continued to play through a hip injury for a Boston Celtics team with championship aspirations — even continuing to play through his sister’s tragic death — until his hip gave out. The injury ended his season and — for now, at least, after a disastrous 2017-18 season in which Thomas was traded twice and nothing seemed to go right before he eventually went under the knife — his hopes of landing the lucrative multi-year contract that has eluded Thomas throughout a seven-year pro career, leaving him waiting for a phone call in a cash-strapped market as one of the big losers of this summer’s free agency period.

But before Thomas agreed to his make-good deal to help make Denver one of the league’s most intriguing teams heading into next season, he made a phone call — one that, after the events of last summer, it seemed like he’d never make again. From a new conversation between Thomas and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski:

Before finalizing the agreement with Denver, Thomas had reached out to Boston GM Danny Ainge. They talked for 15 to 20 minutes, Thomas says, and he told Ainge: “If the opportunity is there, I would just like to let you know that I’d love to come back.”

Ainge says his mind was open to the idea, but the Celtics needed to work through Marcus Smart’s restricted-free-agency discussions before they could consider making an offer to Thomas. Ainge was willing to continue the conversation, but Thomas accepted the Nuggets’ offer before Boston had reached its new deal with Smart.

“S—, I’d have gone back,” Thomas says. “I don’t hold grudges.”

That did not seem likely to be true last September.

Isaiah Thomas thought he might never speak with Danny Ainge again

Thomas gave the Celtics everything he had during the 2016-17 season, averaging 28.9 points per game — the highest scoring season by a Celtic since Larry Bird’s 1987-88 campaign — and continuing to perform at a superstar level in the postseason despite the his sister’s deathandbusting his teeth at the start of the second round. And then, 3 1/2 months after being shut down for good with a hip injury that wouldloommuchlarger than anyone suspected, his tenure as a Celtic was over, as he was flipped to Cleveland in exchange for fellow All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving.

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Isaiah Thomas through his career
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Isaiah Thomas through his career
KANSAS CITY, MO - NOVEMBER 24: Isaiah Thomas #2 of the Washington Huskies dribbles the ball downcourt against the Kansas Jayhawks during the CBE Classic game on November 24, 2008 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
SAN JOSE, CA - MARCH 20: Guard Isaiah Thomas #2 of the Washington Huskies reacts after a play during their 82-64 win over the New Mexico Lobos in the second round of the 2010 NCAA men's basketball tournament at HP Pavilion on March 20, 2010 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
SACRAMENTO, CA -JUNE 25: Isaiah Thomas #22 of the Sacramento Kings smiles for the camera following a press conference on June 25, 2011 at Power Balance Pavilion in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2011 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
SACRAMENTO, CA - DECEMBER 26: Isaiah Thomas #22 of the Sacramento Kings in action besides Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers at Power Balance Pavilion on December 26, 2011 in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2011 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
Sacramento Kings point guard Isaiah Thomas (22) reacts to teammate Marcus Thornton (23) fouling Denver Nuggets shooting guard Arron Afflalo (6) at the end of regulation, which resulted in overtime, during the second half of the Nuggets' 119-116 win at the Pepsi Center on Monday, March 5, 2011. AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post (Photo By AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 15: (NEW YORK DAILY NEWS OUT) Jeremy Lin #17 of the New York Knicks tries to get by Isaiah Thomas #22 of the Sacramento Kings during a game on February 15, 2012 at the Madison Square Garden in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
The Sacramento Kings' Isaiah Thomas and San Antonio Spurs' Gary Neal, top, battle for a loose ball in the third quarter at Power Balance Arena in Sacramento, California, on Wedesday, March 28, 2012. San Antonio edged Sacramento, 117-112. (Jose Luis Villegas/Sacramento Bee/MCT via Getty Images)
SACRAMENTO, CA - DECEMBER 30: Isaiah Thomas #22 of the Sacramento Kings trying to listen in on the Boston Celtics on December 30, 2012 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2012 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
SACRAMENTO, CA - MARCH 13: Isaiah Thomas #22 of the Sacramento Kings celebrate against the Chicago Bulls on March 13, 2013 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
SACRAMENTO, CA - NOVEMBER 01: Isaiah Thomas #22 of the Sacramento Kings shoots a free throw against the Los Angeles Clippers at Sleep Train Arena on November 1, 2013 in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. The Clippers won the game 110-101. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
SACRAMENTO, CA - JANUARY 12: Isaiah Thomas #22 of the Sacramento Kings is interviewed after the victory against the Cleveland Cavaliers on January 12, 2014 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
PHOENIX, AZ - SEPTEMBER 29: Isaiah Thomas #3 of the Phoenix Suns poses for a photo during Media Day on September 29, 2014 at U.S. Airways Center in Phoenix, Arizona. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images)
PHOENIX, AZ - NOVEMBER 05: Isaiah Thomas #3 of the Phoenix Suns during the NBA game against the Memphis Grizzlies at US Airways Center on November 5, 2014 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Grizzlies defeated the Suns 102-91. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
PHOENIX, AZ - FEBRUARY 23: Isaiah Thomas #4 of the Boston Celtics gives a thumbs up to fans before the start of the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at US Airways Center on February 23, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - MARCH 1: Isaiah Thomas #4 of the Boston Celtics poses for a portrait before the game against the Golden state Warriors on March 1, 2015 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by Steve Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 27: Isaiah Thomas #4 of the Boston Celtics takes a free throw against the Charlotte Hornets at the TD Garden on February 27, 2015 in Boston, Ma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 19: Matthew Dellavedova #8 of the Cleveland Cavaliers fights for a loose ball with Isaiah Thomas #4 of the Boston Celtics in the second half during Game One in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs 2015 at Quicken Loans Arena on April 19, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Celtics 113-100. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 13: Isaiah Thomas #4 of the Boston Celtics before the game against the Atlanta Hawks on November 13, 2015 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 09: Isaiah Thomas #4 of the Boston Celtics carries the ball against the Chicago Bulls during the first quarter at TD Garden on December 9, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
MEMPHIS, TN - JANUARY 10: Isaiah Thomas #4 of the Boston Celtics shoots the ball against the Memphis Grizzlies on January 10, 2016 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC -� JANUARY 16: Isaiah Thomas #4 of the Boston Celtics shoots a free throw during the game against the Washington Wizards on January 16, 2016 at Verizon Center in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)
TORONTO, CANADA - FEBRUARY 14: Isaiah Thomas #4 of the Eastern Conference dribbles the ball during the NBA All-Star Game as part of 2016 NBA All-Star Weekend on February 14, 2016 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 29: Isaiah Thomas #4 of the Boston Celtics takes a shot against the Utah Jazz after a timeout is called during the second quarter at TD Garden on February 29, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - MARCH 11: Isaiah Thomas #4 of the Boston Celtics looks on during the fourth quarter at TD Garden on March 11, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Rockets defeat the Celtics 102-98. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 3: Jonas Jerebko #8 of the Boston Celtics celebrates with Isaiah Thomas #4 after a made basket against the Philadelphia 76ers at Wells Fargo Center on December 3, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Celtics defeated the 76ers 107-106. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 7: A pick by Boston Celtics center Al Horford (#42) on New Orleans Pelicans guard Langston Galloway (#10) frees up Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (#4) on this play during the fourth quarter. The New Orleans Pelicans played the Boston Celtics at TD Garden in Boston on Jan. 7, 2017. (Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 13: Isaiah Thomas #4 of the Boston Celtics reacts after hitting a three-point basket against the Dennis Schroder #17 of the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on January 13, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. NOTE TO USER User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Feb 19, 2017; New Orleans, LA, USA; Eastern Conference guard Isaiah Thomas of the Boston Celtics (4) shoots the ball against Western Conference guard Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors (11) in the 2017 NBA All-Star Game at Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 16, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) stands alone during the fourth quarter of the Chicago Bulls 106-102 win over the Boston Celtics in game one of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 30: Isaiah Thomas #4 of the Boston Celtics reacts during the second quarter of Game One of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Washington Wizards at TD Garden on April 30, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. Thomas lost his front tooth after colliding with Otto Porter Jr. #22. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
May 2, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas (4) reacts after scoring 53 points in defeating the Washington Wizards in game two of the second round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 25, 2017; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers guard Isaiah Thomas (3) poses for a portrait during media day at Cleveland Clinic Courts. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
SACRAMENTO, CA - DECEMBER 27: Isaiah Thomas #3 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks on while there's a time out during an NBA basketball game against the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center on December 27, 2017 in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - JANUARY 2: Isaiah Thomas #3 listens to LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the first half against the Portland Trail Blazers at Quicken Loans Arena on January 2, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - JANUARY 2: Isaiah Thomas #3 of the Cleveland Cavaliers yells to a teammate during the second half against the Portland Trail Blazers at Quicken Loans Arena on January 2, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Trail Blazers 127-110. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
OAKLAND, CA - MARCH 14: Isaiah Thomas #3 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on during the game against the Golden State Warriors on March 14, 2018 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 16: Isaiah Thomas #3 of the Los Angeles Lakers handles the ball against the Miami Heat on March 16, 2018 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
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In an open letter to Celtics fans, Thomas made it clear that the trade hurt him deeply, though he claimed “no hard feelings” after this particular “business move,” even if he didn’t agree with it. In an interview with Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated, though, Thomas made it clear that, while he’ll always appreciate the city of Boston, he’d have a harder time getting right with the Celtics organization and the man who both traded for him and traded him away: team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge (emphasis mine):

When Sacramento let Thomas walk in 2014, he left town telling himself, “F— Sacramento. I’m about to kill those dudes.” When Phoenix exiled him the following winter, he pledged, “O.K., now they’re gonna get it.” But there will be no revenge tour this time. “Boston is going to be all love,” he vows, with one exception. “I might not ever talk to Danny again. That might not happen. I’ll talk to everybody else. But what he did, knowing everything I went through, you don’t do that, bro. That’s not right. I’m not saying eff you. But every team in this situation comes out a year or two later and says, ‘We made a mistake.’ That’s what they’ll say, too.”

It’s tough to call trading Thomas a mistake for the Celtics, though

After swinging the deal in large part due to concerns over the future viability of Thomas’ hip — the treatment of which would later become a rhetorical battleground for player and former team — Ainge told Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe that informing Thomas he’d traded him was “definitely the toughest call I ever had to make.” He made it, though, because his job’s primary requirement is doing everything he can to make the Boston Celtics better, even when it doesn’t feel good. So when Irving made it clear he wanted out of Cleveland, and the Cavs wanted an in-case-of-emergency lottery pick in return, and the Celtics had a chance to get a younger, bigger point guard with an established history of NBA Finals excellence who’d be under contract for longer while also avoiding the nettlesome matter of having to weigh whether or not pay Thomas and his ailing hip come this summer, Ainge struck.

Irving went on to average a team-high 24.4 points and 5.1 assists per game before undergoing season-ending knee surgery after 60 games; even without him or Thomas, the Celtics made it back to the Eastern Conference finals, and came within one quarter of the championship round. After needing a few months working his way back from the hip injury, Thomas made only 15 appearances in Cleveland during a disastrous tenure in which he shot 36 percent from the field and 25 percent from 3-point range, couldn’t explode past defenders off the dribble or create separation to get his shot off cleanly, and routinely got exploited by opposing offenses, all of which helped lead to the Cavs re-routing him to L.A. at the February trade deadline in a deal. Things got a bit better with the Lakers, but he still rarely looked like the fire of old before finally getting the hip surgery he’d hoped he wouldn’t need.

It’s possible, given the rest of what wound up coming to Cleveland in the deal — Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson (whom the Lakers sent to Cleveland in the deadline deal for Thomas, Channing Frye and a 2018 first-round draft pick, later spent on Michigan’s Moe Wagner) George Hill and Rodney Hood, or whatever they turn into as assets (imported in another deadline deal that sent out Jae Crowder), prospect big man Ante Zizic and 2018 lottery pick Collin Sexton — that the Cavs will wind up feeling like they got the better of the deal. At the moment, though, it seems like Ainge chose wisely; with a healthy Irving in the fold, the Celtics look like favorites to win the Eastern Conference, while the Cavs are now in a post-LeBron rebuild and Thomas is looking to save his career coming off the bench in Denver.

Could a return trip to Boston for IT really have worked?

It’s interesting to think about whether or not that would’ve been possible in a return to Boston. In his conversation with Wojnarowski, Thomas still seems to chafe at the idea that his ascent into the ranks of All-NBA selection and MVP candidacy was fueled by Brad Stevens’ offensive system, and he maintains that the circumstances surrounding his continuing to play in the 2017 postseason despite his ongoing hip issues could’ve been handled better: “I don’t think Boston went about it the right way, as well.”

With the Celtics having moved on in the backcourt with Irving (who has a player option for the 2019-20 season, and with whom the Celtics will likely enter free-agent negotiations next summer), the re-signed Smart and playoff revelation Terry Rozier, as well as an offensively potent wing core headlined by Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and the returning Gordon Hayward, it’s tough to see Thomas being able to accept a spot-minutes reserve role in the same uniform he wore while rocketing to superstardom. Even if Thomas had been willing to wait on the Celtics to resolve Smart’s restricted free agency — which, it seems likely, would’ve had to wait until after the Kawhi Leonard deal went down, since Boston had been at least tangentially involved in those conversations — it feels like the fit of a reunion, on and off the court, just would’ve been too awkward to work.

So the Celtics move on, looking forward and taking aim at an 18th banner. And Thomas moves on, hoping that the opportunity to run rampant on second-unit defenses under former Kings head coach Mike Malone — with the full understanding that he will not be pushing young gun Jamal Murray for starter’s minutes — will give him the opportunity to prove he can still play at a high level, and “show the world who I am again.” And maybe, now that we know Thomas and Ainge can be on speaking terms again, all parties involved can move on off the court, too.

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Dan Devine is a writer and editor for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoosports.com or follow him on Twitter!

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