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NBA PM: This is Isaiah Thomas’ Time to Shine

Isaiah Thomas is arguably the Celtics’ best player and is finally in the spotlight after being underrated for years.

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The 2014-15 NBA season featured quite a few trades prior to the February deadline. Oftentimes, there are plenty of rumors, but only a few notable deals that actually occur. But last year, there were transactions involving Goran Dragic, Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett, Reggie Jackson, Brandon Knight, Enes Kanter, Thaddeus Young, Jeff Green, Arron Afflalo, J.R. Smith and Michael Carter-Williams among others.

Perhaps that’s why the Boston Celtics’ move to acquire Isaiah Thomas from the Phoenix Suns in exchange for Marcus Thornton and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2016 first-round pick flew under the radar a bit. After all, it wasn’t even the biggest trade that Suns general manager Ryan McDonough made that afternoon since he also dealt Dragic and acquired Knight in two other deals.

However, it was a huge trade for the Celtics. Since putting on that green and white jersey, Thomas has been remarkably productive and emerged as Boston’s best player. That may seem like a strange statement considering Thomas hasn’t started a single game for Boston, but he was fantastic after the change of scenery and the fact that he produced at such a high level as a reserve makes his stats even more impressive.

IsaiahThomas_CelticsInside3Coming off of the bench in his 21 regular season games with Boston, Thomas averaged 19 points, 5.4 assists and 2.1 rebounds in 26 minutes a night. He played a huge role in Boston’s late-season playoff push and helped them land the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference with 40 wins – all while he was still getting acclimated to his new teammates, city, coaching staff and more.

Thomas even made history last season, becoming the first NBA player ever to average at least 16 points and four assists despite playing fewer than 26 minutes per game.

Once the playoffs started, Thomas continued to play well in the Celtics’ series against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Even though it was his first time competing in the postseason, Thomas averaged 17.5 points, seven assists and three rebounds in 29.8 minutes per game. He had a 22-point, 10-assist, five-rebound performance in Game 1 as well as a 21-point, nine-assist, five-rebound outing in Game 4. The Celtics were swept by Cleveland, but it was a good learning experience for their young squad.

“The playoffs were huge for us, even though we got swept by a great Cavaliers team,” Thomas said. “It was a confidence builder for us because nobody expected us to be there and nobody expected us to compete against them the way that we did. As a young team, that helps our confidence a lot. It also lets us see where we are as a team [compared to one of the NBA’s top contenders].”

After a strong offseason in which the Celtics added David Lee, Amir Johnson, Terry Rozier and R.J. Hunter among others, Thomas is confident Boston can be even better.

“This year, our goal is to make the playoffs at least and then build from there,” Thomas said. “We want to go even further than we did last year, winning a couple of games and hopefully winning at least one playoff series. We just want to continue getting better and we’re trying to build on last year.

“We added a few nice pieces and I definitely think that’s going to help us, especially playing in the Eastern Conference. David Lee is a former All-Star and an NBA champion who can help us as a veteran since he’s been one of the best power forwards in the game when given the opportunity. With Amir Johnson, every time someone brings up his name I only hear great things about him. He’s someone who brings a lot to the table and can help any team he’s on. We need that type of leadership and those kind of experienced veterans, so I liked the additions. And the young guys, the rookies we drafted, are very talented too. If given the opportunity, I definitely think they can help us out.”

Thomas ended up finishing the 2014-15 campaign as Boston’s leading scorer in the regular season and in the playoffs – topping all of the team’s starters. He has become a fan favorite and he admits that he has trouble walking around the city without being stopped a lot, which is new to him since he usually just blended in earlier in his career thanks to his 5’9 height. He appreciates that he’s being acknowledged as one of the Celtics’ best players; however, he says he won’t be satisfied until he’s acknowledged as one of the NBA’s best players.

“It’s nice – it’s pretty cool – but I want it to get to the point where everyone respects me that way and everyone looks at me as that guy,” Thomas said of being widely regarded as Boston’s best player. “I want to be that guy. I’m going to do whatever it takes to [be a star] and work tremendously hard until I’m that guy. I like having that kind of pressure on me and having everything on my shoulders. That’s what I work for: to be one of the best players in the NBA, one of the best players in the world. I want to be a guy who can carry a team. That’s what everyone wants growing up – you want to be that guy. I’ll do whatever it takes to be that. If that’s my role and what the [coaches] want me to do and what this organization sees out of me, then so be it and I’ll take full advantage of that.

“I still feel underrated, no doubt about it. I’ve always felt that way, but I’m going to earn my respect no matter what. I work extremely hard and I don’t want to be given anything. I want to earn it and get that respect from people. When you work hard on your craft – when you work as hard as the stars do – that’s how you earn people’s respect. Winning obviously takes care of everything too, and I think I did gain more respect from being on a playoff team. I just want to build on that and show the world that I’m one of the best players in the NBA.”

Thomas certainly emerged as one of Boston’s most important players last year after the trade, which becomes evident when taking a deeper look at some of his advanced statistics.

When Thomas was on the court, Boston had a remarkable 109.2 offensive rating. When he was off the court? Their offensive rating dropped to 98.8. A player’s offensive rating is the number of points their team scores per 100 possessions when they’re on the floor. Thomas’ on-court offensive rating was by far the highest of any Celtic player. Putting those numbers into perspective, a 109.2 offensive rating would’ve ranked third in the NBA last season (behind only the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors). Meanwhile, a 98.8 offensive rating would’ve ranked 27th in the NBA (ahead of only the Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks and Charlotte Hornets).

IsaiahThomas_InsideCeltics1Offensive box plus/minus is another stat that shows Thomas’ effectiveness, as it tracks how a player fared offensively per 100 possessions relative to league average. With Boston, Thomas’ OBPM was 6.4. Only four players finished with a higher OBPM last season (Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and James Harden). Now Thomas’ Boston sample size is obviously smaller than those players, but his full-season OBPM of 4.6 still ranked eighth in the league.

Not to mention, Thomas was incredibly efficient last year. His player efficiency rating for the entire 2014-15 season was 20.6, ranking 32nd in the NBA and first among all reserves. He finished with a higher PER than some All-Stars, such as John Wall, Chris Bosh, Paul Millsap, Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant among others. Looking solely at his time in Boston, his PER was an even better 22.3. That would’ve ranked 15th in the NBA and fourth among all points guards (behind only Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry and Chris Paul).

Boston relied heavily on Thomas – and understandably so – as evidenced by his 32.1 usage percentage. Only four players were involved more than Thomas: Westbrook (38.4), Dwyane Wade (34.7), DeMarcus Cousins (34.1) and LeBron James (just barely at 32.3).

Put simply, Thomas was a tremendous deadline addition for the Celtics. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Thomas’ success was that he didn’t have any chemistry with his teammates or know head coach Brad Stevens’ system, so he was oftentimes just free-styling. Now that he’s comfortable with his teammates, coaches and plays, he expects to be even more productive in this upcoming season.

“Last season, after I got traded, everything I was doing [with the Celtics] was on the fly,” Thomas said. “It was basically like we were playing open gym. We had a lot of plays that Coach Stevens couldn’t put in because everything was happening so fast. They helped me figure some things out and let me just go out there and play. Having a full offseason to learn everything really helps me, and I think I should be even better because I’m more comfortable. I’ve learned the plays, I know the system and I have more familiarity with my teammates and the coaching staff. I’m looking forward to this season and hopefully it’s a good one.”

Thomas and Stevens have developed a solid bond and were in contact with one another quite a bit over the offseason.

“We have a good relationship,” Thomas said. “We’ve texted back and forth throughout the summer; sometimes he’ll just reach out to check in on me. We actually just went to dinner together last week – I went to his house for dinner with my family and it was really nice. We’re building our relationship, and we want to get as close as we possibly can and always be on the same page because the point guard is an extension of the head coach.”

Speaking of being a coach on the floor, one of Thomas’ goals for this season is to be a better leader for Boston. It’s difficult to join a team midseason and take on a significant leadership role, but now that he’s entering his first full season with the Celtics, he is hoping he can be a strong veteran presence.

“I’ve always been a leader ever since I was a little boy, so that comes second nature to me and I want to be a leader for this team,” Thomas said. “I’d love to be a team captain and one of those guys who everyone on the team can turn to when times are hard. I want to be looked at as a leader and someone who people can turn to at all times. Hopefully the coaching staff and organization chooses me to be one of those guys because I’d embrace being in that position.”

Throughout Thomas’ four-year career, he has been one of the most underrated players in the NBA. When given minutes, he has thrived and he has career averages of 15.6 points, 4.7 assists, 2.4 rebounds and a steal in 28.3 minutes per game. For a guy who was the final pick of the 2011 NBA Draft, with no guarantee he’d even make the Kings’ roster, he has exceeded all expectations and then some.

And it’s not like Thomas can only succeed as a sixth man. While he does do well as a spark plug off of the bench, he has also shown that he can be a very effective starter. In the 2013-14 season – his final campaign with the Kings and the last year he was used as a starter – he averaged 21.2 points, 6.8 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.2 steals while shooting 45.1 percent from the floor in the 54 games he started. That year, his 20.5 PER was fourth among point guards (trailing only Paul, Westbrook and Curry) and his 21.2 PPG was also fourth among point guards (trailing only Curry, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard).

Whether he starts this season for Boston remains to be seen. The numbers show that good things happen when Thomas is on the floor, so starting him seems like the best option. However, the team hasn’t said whether Thomas will surpass Marcus Smart on the depth chart. Danny Ainge did recently acknowledge that he and head coach Brad Stevens have discussed the possibility of putting Thomas in the starting five, but no decision has been made. For his part, Thomas has said all of the right things, saying that he’s fine with any role given to him and that he just wants to do what’s best for the team.

Thomas has constantly been doubted due to his 5’9, 185-pound frame; that’s the main reason he slipped so far on draft night. There have also been some concerns about his shoot-first mentality, but that’s extremely common among point guards in today’s NBA. Even though he has had so much success, he continues to use the fact that he’s often overlooked and doubted as motivation. Quite frankly, it’s odd that a player so productive has bounced around so much. The Kings could’ve kept Thomas last summer since he was a restricted free agent, but they chose to let him walk. Then, the Suns quickly traded him in a move that blindsided Thomas, as he had just gotten situated in Phoenix when he was uprooted. Now, since he has thrived with the Celtics and Ainge is a big fan of his game, it seems he may have found a home. Still, Thomas has learned never to assume he’s completely safe from being moved.

“It’s nice, but I always tell myself that you can never get too comfortable; in this business, in this league, you never know what’s going to happen,” Thomas said. “You can be here [with your team] today and then gone tomorrow. I’ve been through that. Last year, I definitely thought I was staying in Phoenix and then they traded me. You can never get too comfortable. You just have to take advantage of the opportunities given to you in your current situation. That’s what I’m doing here, and I’m hoping I can be here for a really long time.”

In addition to his production, another reason for Boston to keep Thomas long-term is that his contract is a bargain. His salary decreases each year, so he’ll make $6,912,869 this season, $6,587,132 in 2016-17, and $6,261,395 in 2017-18 (which will be excellent value over the final two years since the cap is about to skyrocket). Getting star-level production for that price is every executive’s wish.

And Thomas may not be done developing. He has only been in the league for four years, and he spent this summer working extremely hard in hopes of expanding his game and reaching his full potential. This offseason, he worked on his three-point shooting as well as his ability to finish at the basket.

“Mainly, I’ve been working on extending my range – being able to pull-up from anywhere – so that I’m a more consistent long-range shooter,” Thomas said. “I’ve also been working on a lot of one-foot shots, a la Steve Nash. I liked some of those shots he used to do. Those were my main [priorities] this summer, extending my range and working on different types of finishing moves around the basket. I’ve also been working on my mid-range game, and I have a one-foot three-pointer that I’m going to show off this season. I’m just trying to add different things to my game and become an even more complete player.”

For years, Thomas has been trying to prove himself and solidify himself as a quality NBA player. Now, he’s being viewed as a star and it’s his time to show what he can do with the spotlight pointed directly at him.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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