IF MICHAEL MALONE was a college professor, class participation would account for a large percentage of his students’ final grades.
Malone’s film sessions, especially after a tough loss, can resemble a college lecture hall where Denver’s coach will survey the players who were on the court during a turnover or poor defensive sequence and ask what they were seeing as a particular play developed.
Sometimes, the room goes silent and the flashbacks to getting called on in General Psych become a little too real for many on the Nuggets’ roster who could still be in college, especially if Malone is rehashing the 17 threes Denver gave up against Milwaukee in a December loss or the season-high 21 turnovers the Nuggets committed against the Suns. Denver’s collective voice has grown louder in those film sessions over the course of the season, but if Malone was handing out participation grades for his course, at least one player would earn a 100 this semester.
“I.T.,” Monte Morris said when asked who speaks up the most when the Nuggets are watching film. “He’s always got something to say.”
It’s a delicate balance between handing out constructive criticism and commendation that Isaiah Thomas, who’s yet to play a game for the Nuggets, has to manage. But Thomas’ clout inside Denver’s locker room gives him that leeway. He’s as seasoned in NBA 101 as they come, and the playoff-tested veteran was brought to Denver for not only his basketball expertise but also for his willingness to speak up and say what needs to be said amidst a sometimes reticent locker room which houses the second-youngest roster in the league.
“Even while he’s not playing, he’s still having a profound impact on our young players,” Malone said. “His voice, his leadership in huddles during games in practices and in the locker room. We have a relatively quiet group, and one thing I think everybody knows that’s been around Isaiah is that he’s not quiet and that’s a good thing. That’s a good thing for our team. He brings an energy and a voice and a leadership that we sorely miss.”
Thomas is still yet to shed his black sports jacket for a Nuggets uniform this season, but his fingerprints are all over Denver’s 37-18 record.
THOMAS HAS SEEN IT ALL, from winning only 22 games as a rookie in Sacramento to finishing fifth in MVP voting and standing on top of the basketball world in Boston as he led the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals. He’s living proof that your NBA fate can change at the drop of a hat.
During the 2017 playoffs, Thomas tried to play through a hip injury but was ultimately shut down following Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals. That summer he was traded to the Cavaliers and tried to rehab his hip back to full health. Thomas played in 15 games with Cleveland before he was dealt prior to the 2018 trade deadline to the Lakers. He logged 17 games with Los Angeles before undergoing surgery on his hip last spring.
From a playoff hero in Boston on the cusp of a $100 million deal to the veteran’s minimum contract with the Nuggets a year-and-a-half later, Thomas’ career has taken a downward turn. Still, he maintains that this is not how his legacy will be written. While on his winding path back to full health, Thomas has hammered home a message to his teammates after every defeat that runs congruent with his career — things can change. Quickly.
That message came in handy following a loss to the Rockets back in November. It was Denver’s fourth-straight defeat after having started the season 9-1. Denver’s spirits were still high, but some doubt had begun to creep in after losses to the Grizzlies, Nets, Bucks and Rockets, who the Nuggets fell to that night for an eighth-straight time.
Denver walked slowly back to the locker room that night with their heads down. Was their 9-1 start for real, or were they the same team from a year ago? In a quiet locker room, Thomas delivered a few words of wisdom that galvanized his teammates.
“He just said that it’s a long season and you can go on a winning streak at any time,” Morris recalled. “Don’t let one game bleed into the next. He just said to forget about this one and move on.”
Denver blew out Atlanta two nights later and proceeded to win eight of their next 10 games.
But Thomas, one of the catalysts of Denver’s organic locker room chemistry, knows when to keep it light too.
“That man’s a comedian,” said DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell, who began the season with the Nuggets. “He’s one of the funniest guys I know. He’ll dance, he’ll sing. Sometimes we just have our own conversations about basketball, about other stuff. He’s a really smart guy, and he knows a lot. Everything’s kind of like a joke with him, which is good. He helps the team chemistry.”
Nuggets rookie Brandon Goodwin, who replaced Akoon-Purcell on a two-way contract in December, learned of Thomas’ jokes the hard way. Goodwin came to the Nuggets from the G League and walked into Denver’s locker room before his first game with some “busted” team Jordan sneakers that had traveled with him on the dusty G-League trails from Rio Grande Valley to Sioux Falls, Des Moines and finally to Denver. They weren’t up to Thomas’ standards.
“He clowned on me,” Goodwin recalled. “He was like ‘You gotta throw those out.'”
Goodwin did as the gatekeeper of the Nuggets’ locker room asked. He removed the shoes from his locker and threw them in the trash. Thomas then presented Goodwin with five new pairs of kicks.
“I was like ‘Cool. I didn’t like them anyway,'” Goodwin joked. “I.T., he made me feel comfortable as soon as I got here.”
Many around the team credit Thomas’ brashness for the lively and stimulating vibe inside the Nuggets locker room this season, which some veterans have compared to a local barbershop. Earlier this year, players were debating what kind of impact Magic Johnson would have on today’s game. Then, it was a discussion centered around if Klay Thompson would be a big-time scorer if he wasn’t on Golden State. Thomas, who Morris nicknamed “Stephen A. Smith” at the beginning of the season for his penchant to finding himself in the middle of arguments, was at the center of both discussions. No topic is off limits at 1000 Chopper Circle.
“I said if Klay Thompson was the No. 1 option on a team he would average 25 points per game,” Thomas said. “I’m not gonna name any names, but somebody said he would only average 18. Klay Thompson is the second-best shooting guard in the NBA behind James Harden. Somebody said he wasn’t. … The other day I was in here for an hour and a half extra arguing with these guys. I almost got into trouble with my wife because I was here too long.”
THOMAS ALWAYS OCCUPIES the last seat on the Nuggets bench during games. At times it was Akoon-Purcell or Goodwin who sat adjacent to Thomas. Other nights it’s Nuggets rookie Michael Porter Jr. and Jarred Vanderbilt, who for 48 minutes get a crash course on NBA trash talk from the nine-year veteran who’s constantly chirping at the opposition from Denver’s sideline.
Thomas isn’t playing yet, but he still watches film of every opponent Denver faces. On the bench, he’ll relay pick-and-roll coverages to the Nuggets’ defense. Before Malone addresses his troops during a timeout, Thomas will sometimes huddle everyone up and give his two cents about how Denver should alter its offensive or defensive gameplan.
“It’s invaluable,” Malone said about Thomas’ leadership.
“He’s a guy who’s played at the highest level, guy who has been on a team that’s been to the eastern conference finals and played in big playoff games,” added Paul Millsap. “To have his voice in our locker room to help some of these younger guys out, it takes a lot of load off myself.”
During games, players on the Nuggets’ bench will constantly pick Thomas’ brain. They’ll pepper the two-time All-Star with questions about offensive execution, defensive alignment and strategy. Thomas has gone against so many current NBA stars that he knows their tendencies by heart, information he’s happy to share with anyone sitting within earshot.
“He’s probably annoyed with me because I ask him so many questions,” said Malik Beasley.
For a young point guard like Morris, Thomas’ presence has been crucial to his growth. The 23-year-old, who only played 25 minutes with the Nuggets last season, has emerged as a rock-solid backup point guard for Denver this year averaging roughly 11 points on 50 percent shooting from the field and 44 percent from three, to go with 3.9 assists per game.
Morris success stems from a rigorous summer workout regiment where the point guard practically lived in Denver’s practice gym. His detailed summer shooting routine, where the point guard recalibrated his form by holding a gum wrapper in between his index finger and thumb on his guide hand, has Morris shooting a cleaner ball from three. Drills specifically designed to get Morris acclimated to shooting over seven-footers at the rim has the Iowa State product hitting 55 percent of his field goals from 5-14 feet away from the basket (via Cleaning The Glass), which places Morris in the 97th percentile of all guards from that distance.
Morris also credits Thomas with giving his game a certain edge.
“He’s always telling me to keep a next-play mentality,” Morris said. “If I miss a shot, he says ‘Keep shooting. Be aggressive’ He’s always telling me to just try and be a dog out there.”
Morris and Thomas have been tied at the hip this season. The two hang out off the court and often exchange text messages about upcoming opponents and past games. Morris also hangs out with Thomas’ two boys, Jaiden and James.
Their tight-knit relationship could put Morris in a tough spot. When Thomas is ready to play, he could swallow some of Morris’ minutes, even with how good Denver’s primary backup point guard has played this season. But Morris can’t wait for Thomas to return to the court, even if it means his playing time could take a small hit.
“His leadership alone helps us. We probably wouldn’t be this high in the West if he wasn’t in our locker room giving us tips on guys he played and just knowing how to pull through,” said Morris. “I look up to him a lot, not just because he plays my position, but because of what he’s been through and everything.”
“I’m looking forward to I.T. coming back. It’s going to be big time for me to just be a part of the journey because it’s going to be a crazy story how he comes back because he has so many naysayers and things like that about his career. Him coming back, I’m not tripping about it. I’m excited.”
THE MOST FASCINATING SUBPLOT to Denver’s season has always been Thomas’ eventual return. When he was signed last summer, there were ample minutes available for Thomas in the Nuggets backcourt. Now, with Morris and Beasley playing as well as they have this season, there’s some uncertainty around where his minutes will come from.
Still, Denver can use Thomas’ energy, his spirit, will to win, and competitiveness. Especially now. The Nuggets have dropped three games in a row for only the second time this season. Denver looks tired and like a team that can sense the All-Star break that’s around the corner. Injuries have hit the Nuggets hard all season, and they currently have the most games in the league missed due to injury. The team hasn’t been able to play their opening-night starting lineup together since the second game of the regular season.
Millsap and Mason Plumlee have played significant minutes in the playoffs before, but Denver is largely heading towards its first postseason appearance since 2013 with a Nikola Jokic-Jamal Murray-Gary Harris core that’s yet to log a minute in the playoffs. Thomas’ postseason reps could help a young Nuggets roster when the games matter just a little bit more come April.
When Thomas does return, he’ll join a roster that he’s already had a profound impact on and reinvigorate a locker room that he helped mold craft and shape into what it is. The Nuggets don’t view Thomas as the replacement level player he was in Cleveland and Los Angeles last season. They still think of him as the MVP-caliber, playoff-tested point guard who was one of the most feared lead ball handlers in the league in 2017.
And they can’t wait for his debut.
“I hope he’s going to be back soon,” Jokic said. “What he’s doing off the court its really important for us. He’s keeping the locker room really high energy; he’s keeping the atmosphere really good. He’s one of the only ones who’s going to say something like ‘You’re not playing good. You need to step up,’ or something like that. I think that’s what veterans do and that’s what he does. That’s why he was the best player when he was in Boston.”