January 2, 2018 marked a pivotal moment in the Cleveland Cavaliers 2017-2018 regular season; the return of point guard Isaiah Thomas.
The Cavaliers have had an up and down season, losing seven of their first 12 games and four of their last six with a 13 game win streak, injuries and numerous lineup changes sandwiched in between. Thomas, acquired via trade with the Boston Celtics in the offseason, made his Cavalier debut Tuesday night against the Portland Trail Blazers, scoring 17 points and dishing out three assists in just under 19 minutes.
A lot is riding on Thomas’ successful return; the Cavaliers don’t stand much of a chance against powerhouses such as the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors without him. But what exactly does Thomas provide the Cavaliers?
Scoring Boost and Off-the-Ball Threat
Outside of James and Kevin Love, the Cavaliers have no true threats on the offensive end. Among currently active players, Dwayne Wade is next on the team with an average of just 11.3 points per game off the bench while the rest of the starting lineup has combined for just 20.2 points per contest.
In Thomas, as evidenced by his 17 points scored in his debut, the Cavaliers have a double-digit scoring threat to pair with Wade off the bench before Thomas is inevitably placed into the starting lineup alongside James and Love. After averaging 28.9 points per game with the Celtics last season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Thomas average 20-plus points once his hip is back to full strength and he has worked his way into some sort of rhythm.
Thomas should also serve as a weapon off the ball when sharing the floor with James and Love. James has transcendent passing vision while Love is one of the Association’s best passing big men in his own right. A good spot-up shooter and career 36.7 percent shooter from three, Thomas should see his fair share of kickouts from the paint and handoffs off of screens as well.
A True Starting Point Guard
36-year-old Jose Calderon is not who the Cavaliers, or any NBA team for that matter, want starting at the point guard position. However, due to injuries to former starting guard Derrick Rose, Calderon and his 4.2 points, 1.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists per contest have been forced into the starting lineup for 22 games this season. Any production beyond that would be a major boost and welcome gift to the Cavaliers.
In addition to his 28.9 points, Thomas averaged 5.9 assists and an assist percentage of 32.5 percent last season. Both marks would rank second among Cavaliers this season. An adept passer, Thomas initiating the offense and his presence on the floor, in general, should allow for more flow on the court and provide more consistent offense from start to finish for the Cavaliers.
Rest For LeBron James
Removing any sort of burden from the shoulders of a 33-year-old James should be of paramount importance to the Cavaliers. The only Cavalier to start all 37 games this season, James is leading the NBA in minutes played while averaging a career high in assists. His 27.7 points per game is his highest since averaging 28.4 points during his age 24 season as well.
With Thomas back in the fold, James can begin to cede some of the scoring and playmaking responsibilities to him, allowing more time for James off the ball or, more importantly, resting on the bench. Even at 33, James is one of the most athletic players in the NBA. But, eventually, everyone starts to break down. The Cavaliers would be wise to shave minutes off James’ playtime as they prepare for an inevitable postseason run.
The Cavaliers shipped out Kyrie Irving when acquiring Thomas; big shoes to fill indeed. His debut should certainly provide hope to fans, but will Thomas be able to regain his All-Star form from last season? If the Cavaliers are to succeed, Thomas will have to do just that, and likely more, as the season chugs along.
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