The 2016-17 season was an incredible one for Isaiah Thomas, but what are the odds that he sustains those dazzling numbers?
Being the NBA’s shortest player, Boston Celtics star Isaiah Thomas was the most unlikely juggernaut. Listed at 5-9 (although, Bill Simmons believes he’s no taller than 5-8), Thomas wasn’t supposed to do what he did this past year. The NBA is a tall man’s game. It’s always been that way. Even now, despite small-ball being more prominent, the league’s top tier players are somewhere between 6-3 (Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook) and 7-0 (Kevin Durant).
In 76 games this year for Boston, the Little Guy put up 28.9 points (third) with a true shooting percentage of 62.5. Here’s the list of the other guys this year who scored at least 25 a night while having a true shooting clip of at least 62:
- Stephen Curry
- Kevin Durant
Here’s an all-time list (before this year) using the same criteria:
- Adrian Dantley
- Charles Barkley
- Kevin Durant
- LeBron James
- Stephen Curry
- Karl Malone
- Kevin McHale
- Chris Mullin
- Amar’e Stoudemire
If Thomas were 6-4, there’s no doubt we’d be talking about him being one of the three best players in the NBA. His lack of defense hampers that conversation, and his anatomy is to blame.
However, there’s no doubting that Thomas is an elite scorer. The numbers back it up. Not only that, he’s got a full repertoire of moves on the perimeter and his low center of gravity makes him a step quicker than some of the league’s fastest guys. Defenders counteract that with length, but Thomas also has surprising explosiveness and is crafty when hovering around the basket. His 530 attempts inside the restricted area place him fourth amongst guards, behind John Wall, Russell Westbrook and Giannis Antetokounmpo, who should be with the forwards. On those, Thomas converted on 56.2 percent. It’s an average clip, but higher than notable guards like Dwyane Wade, Kemba Walker and Devin Booker.
The fearlessness to attack the trees is what helped Thomas make that leap offensively. Not only did he score more, but he also shot a ludicrous amount of free throws. Overall, Thomas’ 649 attempts put him fifth overall, and that worked out to a per game average of 8.5, which placed him at seventh. Those free points did magic for raising his average, and C.J. McCollum was the only player to hit a higher percentage of his foul shots.
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It’s taxing for any player to throw their body into contact like that. Thomas is short but has a robust frame. His strength allows him to absorb a lot of contact, and he tips the scale at 185, according to NBA.com.
Few guards in league history have been able to make an impact in the scoring column without being a multi-dimensional scorer. They’re the generational talents like Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson. Guys like them had one thing that was naturally-gifted, and they used that to dominate while they expanded to other areas. Young Jordan was able to fly and get to the hoop at will. He didn’t start to play in the post and mid-range until he matured. Iverson just beat up the defense until they cracked, never relenting and never allowing his opponents to get a breather.
Isaiah Thomas having the season he did is nothing short of sensational. Average-sized humans rarely make it to the NBA. Even if they do, the odds of them having an impact are even smaller. Calvin Murphy is the only other sub-six-foot player to have multiple seasons averaging more than 20 points a night. Excluding Murphy and Thomas, only three other guys of short stature have put up more 20-plus for an entire season. Of the group that’s bulleted a few paragraphs up, Curry is the shortest, and he’s still 6-3, making him only four inches shorter than the average player.
Because Thomas doesn’t have that other-worldly gift, it’s a necessity that he’s diverse. At 37.9 percent from three, Thomas is slightly above-average, but still deadly enough for the defense not to give too much room. He buried 245 triples this season, with a majority of them being uncontested. According to Synergy, any shot taken where the defender is between 4-6 feet away is considered “open.” On those looks, Thomas connected on 38.9 percent, and that clip ballooned to 52.3 when left wide open.
A lot of guards can shoot. It’s almost a prerequisite to being an All-Star. What a lot of guards can’t do is make shots from in between, and Thomas was the most efficient on mid-range looks last season. With a clip of 48.7 percent, he sat atop the list. It’s not a big part of Thomas’ game (just 152 attempts), but it could be he decides to take a step back and not attack as often to avoid the fatigue on his body.
There’s no denying that Thomas is an elite offensive player. He’s got the volume and efficiency to match. Plus, he’s not limited to just one way of scoring. The 28-year-old can put the ball in the basket from wherever, and more data from Synergy proves it:
- Isolation: 95th percentile
- PnR Ball Handler: 94th percentile
- Spot Up: 92nd percentile
- Off Screen: 86th percentile
- Hand Off: 81st percentile
- Transition: 65th percentile
We asked a similar question heading into this season with Steph Curry. His 2015-16 campaign was so outstanding that there isn’t an adjective to describe it. (There really isn’t. When my kids or grandkids ask about it, I don’t think I’ll be able to articulate it properly. I’ll be sat in my living room stuttering before I pull up the clips on YouTube.) The rate he scored combined with the staggering efficiency from everywhere makes it one of the greatest offensive showings ever. When it was all said and done, we looked at Curry as an elite player, not just an elite scorer. Thomas isn’t in the same light. Steph won the MVP unanimously that season. The situation, however, is similar.
Kevin Durant joined the Warriors last summer. Everyone knew Curry’s numbers would suffer. He came back down to Earth and averaged 25.3 points on 46.8 percent shooting overall; he also connected on 41.1 percent of his threes. Regardless of the volume, Curry is still an elite player because he’s got the perfect blend of numbers, efficiency and versatility. Just like Thomas, there isn’t a spot where he can’t get it done.
Boston also made a big acquisition this offseason. No, it’s not Kevin Durant level. Gordon Hayward is an All-Star caliber player and is going to play as such, thus taking away from Thomas’ numbers. I’m sure Thomas is fine with that. Ultimately, they want to win.
If I had to guess, Thomas is going to fall to anywhere between 24 and 25 points a night. His skill set isn’t going to shrink, and he’s not going to all of a sudden forget how to shoot. We may even see Thomas make a higher percentage of his shots because he won’t have to launch 19 or 20 attempts a night. The Celtics can also run their offense a bit differently. What hurt them more than anything else was their game plan, and the 29 other teams knew that Thomas was going to have the ball. As the contests wore on, Thomas would get double-teamed, and others would have to make plays.
That was how Cleveland wanted to beat Boston in the playoffs, and it worked. With Hayward, it’s different. Coaches are going to be reluctant to help off a guy who can put up 20 and shoot 40 percent from three. Theoretically, Thomas will have easier looks at the rim, and it’ll be more spacious to work out of the pick-and-roll. I expect him to have gaudy numbers throughout November and possibly December as other teams figure out ways to slow him down.
It happened to DeMar DeRozan this year, remember? For the first couple of weeks, DeRozan was on a torrid stretch where no one could stop him. He averaged 28.9 points through Toronto’s first 18 games and looked like a legitimate MVP candidate. DeRozan didn’t have a painful descent and still put up more than 27 a night, but it’s arduous to sustain that for 75 to 82 games. Thomas is a more dynamic player; DeRozan got almost all of his buckets from side-step-backs from 19 feet away.
The mark of any great person is producing over an extended period. I don’t expect Isaiah Thomas to duplicate what he did last season. However, I expect him to produce at an All-Star level and continue to give defenses problems with his versatility on offense.
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