Basketball: Loyalty in sports goes both ways – just ask Isaiah Thomas of the Cleveland Cavaliers
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Basketball: Loyalty in sports goes both ways – just ask Isaiah Thomas of the Cleveland Cavaliers

FANS demand loyalty from their sporting heroes – but the Isaiah Thomas-Kyrie Irving trade shows the issue of loyalty in team sports to be a complex and multifaceted one.

For example, where was Boston Celtics’ loyalty to Thomas when the opportunity to trade for Irving arose?

Fans can beat up their favourite players over a perceived lack of loyalty, but when even the top players can no longer guarantee such loyalty from their employers, the issue is clouded.

That a conference finalist’s star performer can be traded a few months after a season performing heroics goes some way to explaining why players make decisions some fans can perceive as selfish.

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In 2016-17, Thomas had one of the best offensive seasons in recent National Basketball Association (NBA) history, averaging 28.9 points over 76 regular-season games.

He became the face of the Celtics, an offensive live-wire who belied his lack of height to come up with the goods night after night after night.

But the minute the Celtics felt a better option became available – in the form of Irving, who had asked to be traded by Cleveland Cavaliers – they moved Thomas.

The 28-year-old will now get to play with arguably the best player in the world, LeBron James, but that could present its own issues, especially as he is in a contract year.


Kyrie Irving, pictured at a promotional event in Taiwan last month, was eager to leave LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Source: Reuters/Tyrone Siu

Thomas, who will earn US$6.2 million this season, will be in line for a maximum deal next summer, so it will be interesting to see how his value is affected by a season where he is no longer the main man on his team.

By being traded, and to a team who may lose James next summer, Thomas’ prospects of a huge pay-day – one he arguably deserves after his past two seasons – are now out of his hands to a certain extent.

Yes, he can influence his future earnings to an extent, based on how well he plays in Cleveland in 2017-18.

But, unlike in Boston, where he was the primary ball-handler and the fulcrum of his team’s offensive play, he will play second fiddle to James in Cleveland.

That was a role with which Irving was clearly not comfortable – and he has got his wish by moving to a team who will embrace him as the primary offensive weapon.

Having appeared to have found a home from home in Boston, after spells with Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns, Thomas has been ushered out of the door at a key point in his career.

That will no doubt benefit Cleveland, who inherit an elite offensive player with a chip on his shoulder and a hunger to show he is worth a mega-contract next summer.

But does it benefit Thomas himself?

Players and teams have to make decisions in their best interests – and it seems Boston, Cleveland and Irving have all emerged from this trade victorious.

Boston have acquired Irving, who in turn gets to be their main man away from James’s shadow, while Cleveland get an elite point guard plus Jae Crowder, prospect Ante Zizic and the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 first-round pick.

For Thomas, though, follows a year of uncertainty.

He must prove he can overcome the hip injury that ruled him out of the final three games of the play-offs – against Cleveland – and then must prove he can align with James on the court.

At the same time, he is playing for the biggest contract of his life, without the safety net of his emotional attachment to Boston, who may have felt compelled to offer him the max next summer.

Loyalty in sport is an emotive issue – but it is not always as straightforward as it seems.