Isaiah Thomas has fought an uphill battle for recognition ever since entering the league. Only after proving time and again that he was good enough to earn significant playing time, he got the money and acknowledgement he deserved. No one doubts Thomas’s bona fides as an NBA player anymore.
Now the next step is to recognize him as a true difference-maker. Thomas is putting up All-Star numbers in Boston and helping the Celtics win as a starter, yet few are talking about him.
Part of why that’s happening has little to do with Thomas. The narrative surrounding the Celtics coming into the season was that they had no stars, just a lot of average and above-average players. That’s largely true, as Brad Stevens is leveraging the team’s depth to its advantage and there’s no huge dropoff in production regardless of who plays. Since the roster construction and the way Stevens uses his rotations are novel, that’s where the focus has been.
It does a huge disservice to Thomas to consider everyone on the Celtics to be equally responsible for the good start of the season, though. He’d led the team in minutes and is their best scorer at 21 points per game, and best setup man at six assist per game.
Thomas has been accused of being selfish in the past, and his huge usage percentage and almost 20 field goal attempts per 36 minutes lend credence to the accusation. It should be noted, however, that he’s assisting on 34 percent of the Celtics’ buckets when he’s on the court, the 15th-best mark in the league. He’s not an inefficient chucker either, as his true shooting percentage ranks right in the middle of the pack among high usage scorers.
Overall, Thomas is creating almost 36 points per game, directly or indirectly. Only Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard and Eric Bledsoe can eclipse that number, and they all play more minutes than Thomas. He’s among the best offensive players in the league going by individual stats.
Numbers can ring hollow on their own, and Thomas is a bad defensive player. A case could be made that he needs to be that good on offense because he’d be a drain on the Celtics otherwise. Yet a quick look at Boston’s on/off court splits show that on the aggregate the team is over three points better per 100 possessions when he’s on the court, per NBA.com. His impact on the offensive end is huge, but his defense has actually been solid enough to not kill the Celtics when he plays.
His teammates certainly help him hold his own on that end. Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart are terrific defenders, and Evan Turner and Jae Crowder are solid, which means Thomas can be hidden if needed. Since some of their perimeter players can guard multiple positions, the Celtics can switch on occasion instead of having to chase opponents and fight through screens. The bigs also step outside often to give Thomas time to recover on pick-and-rolls. He’s had plenty of help.
Yet it’d be unfair to give Thomas no credit for his relative success as a defender. When he’s asked to guard good offensive players, he really tries. Thomas will never be great on defense because of his physical limitations, but he gives effort to get back in the play when he gets screened and has his arms up at all times to bother passes opponents want to make over the top of him:
Those little things add up. His 1.6 steals per game are impressive on their own, but when put in context, they show an energetic, albeit limited, defender.
Any other player putting up 21 and six on a winning team while not killing his squad on defense would be considered at least a minor star. Yet because of the team he’s on and the preconceptions about players with his physical profile, Thomas is flying under the radar once again.
Maybe the selfish label is still haunting him, even though he’s looking to set up his teammates plenty. Maybe there’s skepticism about the long-term viability of Thomas as a first option, a completely understandable concern. Building a team around him isn’t an easy task and will likely not result in a contender. That’s an important factor when analyzing player value, especially for high usage scorers.
Hypotheticals aside, it’s undeniable that 15 games into the season, Thomas has been fantastic for a Celtics squad that’s needed his shot creation. Brad Stevens’s use of the team’s depth deserves credit for the good start, but neglecting to mention Thomas in any discussion of why Boston is looking like a playoff squad is a major oversight. He might not be a traditional star, but he’s having a star-like impact so far this season.