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Wizards 2019-20 season preview: Isaiah Thomas is Washington’s X-Factor

Depending on how the 5’9 Thomas plays, the Wizards will either tank or surprise.

2019 Las Vegas Summer League - Day 5 - LA Clippers v Washington Wizards Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

The Washington Wizards’ reconstructed front office built the roster with many things in mind — youth, development, cap space and flexibility.

Winning wasn’t one of those things.

But if you ask the players on the roster — especially those not accustomed to losing — they will tell you about other plans.

Not too long ago, Isaiah Thomas led the Boston Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals, scoring 53 points in Game-2 of the semifinals against the Washington Wizards. He was an MVP candidate in 2017 — a leader who, if he was able to avoid injuries, was on pace to have a statue built in Boston. He was that loved — not only because he was able to overcome his size, but because he never quit.

Good luck telling Thomas the Wizards are lottery-bound.

Thomas comes to D.C. not too far removed from his success in Boston, but it feels like it’s been decades since he was considered a top player in the league. He’s bounced around, with short stints in Cleveland, Los Angeles, and Denver, mostly due to a hip injury that stopped him from getting the monstrous payday he was expecting.

At 30, Thomas should be in the prime of his career, but he finds himself looking for a chance — and that’s what he’s getting in D.C., where he will have an opportunity to prove himself, and possibly regain his position as a starter.

Since 2017, Thomas has played a total of 44 games. His shooting has been inefficient — he made just 34 percent of his shots in Denver and lost his spot in the rotation. Defense has never been his calling card, either. The Nuggets were entirely focused on winning and couldn’t afford to give a rehabbing player minutes. It was, in a way, the complete opposite of the situation Washington offers.

There’s irony in his signing with Washington — because the last time “IT” was “IT,” he was lighting up the Wizards in the playoffs. Though they didn’t know it at the time, both were hitting their peaks — the Wizards never reached the Eastern Conference Finals with the core Thomas and the Celtics eliminated, and Thomas has yet to regain the level of play he showcased against the Wizards.

Given how much time he’s missed due to injuries (and really, the severity of the injury he faced), it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where Thomas plays at an All-Star level again. But if anyone is going to beat the odds, it’s Thomas — a 5’9” point guard picked last in the 2011 NBA Draft.

Of course — his situation became more complicated after he injured his thumb during a pickup game, sidelining him for at least the next six-to-eight weeks. The injury will take Thomas out of training camp and preseason, but assuming the timetable doesn’t change, he isn’t expected to miss a ton of game-action.

Even before the thumb injury, no one expected Thomas or the Wizards to perform well next season — which makes it a fantastic pairing.

If neither performs well, there’s no let down. But if one performs well — in this case, the Wizards, it will likely be attributed to how well Thomas played.

It’s no secret that Washington is looking ahead to the future and aren’t terribly concerned about competing next season. But if Bradley Beal continues to play at an All-NBA level and Thomas can somehow return to All-Star form (or close to it), beating the Wizards — even with an unrecognizable roster — is going to be difficult in the not-so-intimidating Eastern Conference.

Thomas knows that the odds are against him — after all, that’s how it’s always been for him.

“These last two years have been tough,” Thomas told reporters, via NBC Sports Washington. “But I always say that it can’t storm forever. So, at some point things gotta open up. Hopefully with this big opportunity with the Wizards, I can show people that I can still play at a high level.”

Thomas signed with the Wizards on a one-year, $2.3 million deal — a “prove it” deal that could be his last if critics are right, or a gateway to a long-term deal with a team looking to add a scoring guard.

Thomas hasn’t been quiet about his off-season workouts — he’s frequently updated his followers by posting videos which show his quickness and accuracy from deep, the same type of accuracy that made him an elite offensive guard just a few seasons ago.

Right now, Ish Smith, who signed a two-year deal with Washington, is the only other veteran guard on the team. Needless to say — the opportunity for Thomas to play (and to shoot regularly) is there. Looking around the league, the nation’s capital might be the only place Thomas could have gotten such an opportunity — a chance to prove himself again.

As the season approaches, Thomas, being a few years removed from stardom, will continue to fly under the radar. But if he performs like the Thomas of old, it won’t be long before teams take notice — and the wins that come with it will be just as surprising.