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Isaiah Thomas has Been Worth the Gamble for the Celtics

Isaiah Thomas was moved to his third team in just four NBA seasons when the Phoenix Suns sent him to the Boston Celtics at the trade deadline. The Celtics had to fork over the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2016 first-round pick, which was viewed by many as a gamble with three years and about $20 million remaining of the pint-sized guard’s deal. Thomas, who has a reputation as a ball hog, supposedly isn’t a guy teammates like to play with. On Wednesday, Thomas showed exactly why he was worth the gamble for the Celtics:



Thomas carved up the Pistons on Wednesday, scoring 34 points on an efficient 10-of-17 shooting from the field. No one on Detroit, whether it was Reggie Jackson, John Lucas III or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, could handle the 5-foot-9 bundle of energy. Thomas was a +35 in a game the Celtics won by 10. That’s an impressive feat.

Per Basketball-Reference, Thomas is just the 12th player in the last decade to score 34 points off the bench while shooting 58 percent or better from the field in 30 minutes or less. (J.R. Smith did it three times) This game wasn’t an aberration: Thomas (when healthy) has been spectacular with the Celtics so far.

Thomas is putting up career numbers on a per-minute basis in Boston. He’s averaging an electric 27.1 points and 7.3 assists per 36 minutes in 18 games. He’s also drawing a ridiculous 9.4 free throw attempts per 36 minutes despite his small stature. These numbers equate to a 22.5 PER, a number that would rank 14th in the league this season. Of course, he’s helped by the fact that he seldom passes the ball.

His usage rate has increased to a ridiculous 32.8 percent with the Celtics. To put that number in perspective, only perennial shot-chuckers Russell Westbrook (38.0) and Kobe Bryant (33.6) have higher marks this season. Thomas ranks fourth overall in usage rate even when including his Phoenix numbers. (32.0) Thomas is a ball hog, but with good reason.

Thomas’s quick first step and outstanding ball handling skills make him one of the toughest defensive assignments in the league. He doesn’t shy away from the paint despite being one of the smallest players in the league, ranking 14th in the league in points per game from drives (6.4), according to SportVU. He’s shooting 48.7 percent on drives with the Celtics, which is a higher mark than James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Kyrie Irving. Thomas is such a crafty finisher, comfortable using either hand with his potent floaters and flip shots. Thomas also draws a heap of fouls while driving thanks to his uncanny body control and scoring instincts. Per Synergy, Thomas also ranks in the 87.5th percentile in isolation sets, proving that trying to stop him one-on-one is a mistake.

However, Thomas does most of his damage in the pick-and-roll. 39 percent of Thomas’s plays have come as the pick-and-roll ball handler with Boston, and with good reason: Thomas is quite simply a maestro out of these sets. Thomas ranks in the 92.9th percentile as the PnR ball handler, scoring .98 points per possession, per Synergy:

Thomas loves attacking players in no man’s land after a pick is set. He catches his defender off balance and penetrates at will, where he then uses his expert finishing skills. Thomas splits pick-and-rolls with the best of them, as seen in the above clips. First, Thomas splits through Iman Shumpert and LeBron James, who’s late on a hedge attempt. On the next clip, Andrea Bargnani drops back in the pick-and-roll instead of hedging, where Thomas then happily drives to the rim and finishes with his left hand. Dropping back, hedging or even switching on the pick-and-roll against Thomas is really just picking your poison. Thomas is going to get a full head of steam towards the rim no matter what. Of course, none of his individual numbers would matter if he wasn’t impacting the team positively while on the floor.

Per NBA.com, Thomas has the third-best net rating on the Celtics among players with at least 400 minutes played this season. (3.6 points per 100 possessions) Boston scores 108.8 points per 100 possessions with Thomas on the floor, a full 7.3 points per 100 possessions better than when he’s off it. That number would rank as the third-best offense in the league over the course of this season. (The Celtics rank 20th in offensive efficiency at the moment.) Thomas’s offensive ignition comes at the price of some dreadful defense, though.

Boston has been 2.6 points per 100 possessions worse defensively with Thomas on the floor this season. His -3.66 DRPM is worse than every point guard in the league other than Tony Parker (odd) and Zach LaVine. Thomas is just too small to bother anyone on defense. His hefty usage rate on offense also isn’t going to help him conserve any energy on defense. However, Thomas’s offense more than makes up for his defensive shortcomings, as he ranks seventh among point guards with a 3.74 ORPM.

Thomas projects as a terrific off-the-bench guard for the Celtics for many years to come. Thomas is also the perfect complement to Marcus Smart, who is a huge, defensive-minded guard. Thomas comes at the cost of some awful defense and so-so playmaking, but his scoring alone should make that first-round draft pick look like a bargain.




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