Rarely does an organization have the opportunity to acquire a player that instantly becomes their most potent offensive weapon. Over the break, general managers across the league were busy swapping point guard for point guard while Danny Ainge and the Boston Celtics were exchanging ponies for a thoroughbred guard. Making the trek from Phoenix, Isaiah Thomas has been the catalyst to Boston’s mini surge in the Eastern Conference.
After a year-and-a-half of turnover, head coach Brad Stevens has finally been afforded a gleam of continuity with this roster. Stevens has dealt with a cumulative list long enough to resemble a football team’s starting lineup. With the trade deadline in the rearview mirror, Trader Danny isn’t legally allowed to pull the trigger on any more moves, and Stevens is most likely breathing a sigh of relief. His pace and space system, along with the addition of a point guard that can run the system, has allowed the Celtics to post a 5-3 record since Thomas’s arrival.
Thomas has been given considerable freedom in Stevens’s offense, evidenced by posting a 33.7 percent usage rate. Since the trade deadline, only LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Dwyane Wade have had the ball in their hands at a higher clip. The system has allowed him to play to his strengths, a concentration of quick-hitting pull-up threes and relentless attacks at the rim. Not only has his scoring increased from 15.1 points per game to 21, his assists numbers have jumped from 3.7 assists per game to 5.1.
Stevens has the roster, and more specifically Thomas, playing through a more analytics-driven approach. With Phoenix, Thomas shot from beyond the arc on 39.9 percent of his shot attempts. On the East Coast, IT is pulling the trigger 45 percent of the time at a 35.2 percent clip. Not necessarily hitting at an above-average rate, high dribble hand-off and screen actions have given Thomas the space to pull the trigger more often.
Still, that’s more than enough to keep opponents on their toes and lunging at Thomas. Once the defender starts crowding him, Thomas has used this increased space in Boston to attack the paint more frequently. He can reach the paint in a variety of ways, slithering past the mesh point of a screen or rejecting that same screen to jet into the lane for an easy floater. Not only is there an uptick in perimeter shooting, but his concentration of shots within five feet have risen from 27.7 percent to 41.7 percent as well, according to NBA.com. The change in the concentration of shots is an indication that Thomas is making a conscious effort to abide by the highly efficient style that has swept across the league:
The screenshot above is a perfect example of IT’s effectiveness in the half court. Notice the shooters dotting the perimeter, opening the paint for Thomas. Earlier in the play, Thomas rejects a screen from Jae Crowder (not shown) and ends up with a full step on Brian Roberts. At this point in the fourth quarter, Charlotte’s defenders are so concerned with him finishing at the rim that three different players converge on him. He has Marcus Smart or even James Young open for a catch-and-shoot opportunity, but the ball goes to Jonas Jerebko. Jerebko, undoubtedly, knocks down the uncontested three-point attempt.
With Thomas increasing his shot attempts by nearly four per game, his overall efficiency on the floor has dipped slightly. However, with these drops both at the rim and beyond the arc, he has increased his free throw attempts by 2.4 per game. Now that he has increased room to work within the half court, he’s able to get to his sweet spots on the floor and draw contact without the help defense rotating and smothering his attempts.
Since being dubbed Mr. Irrelevant in the 2011 draft, Thomas has turned himself into one of the most crafty finishers at the rim. At 5’9″, he’s an explosive leaper that can use either hand to finish over an opponent’s rim protectors. If a defensive rotation comes late, he’s turning the corner on his defender and heading straight to the rack. If a defender rotates early, he’ll either throw in a reverse to stave off the block attempt or throw a floater right over him.
Thomas’s most useful technique, although subtle, is his ability to use a scoop shot with either hand. At his height, it’s essential for him to hone skills that allow him to separate from his defender. Thomas has a particular way that he contorts his body once he launches his body at the rim. At times, he’ll hesitate for a split second, invite the contact, and finish with a scoop shot just out of the opponent’s reach. These are the plays that have had TD Garden on its feet.
It has only been eight games, but Coach Stevens may finally be deadlocked on a player that can run his offense. Of course, that is until Trader Danny flips him for another piece.