In 2016-2017, Boston Celtics’ point guard, Isaiah Thomas flipped the switch, turning him from a very good point guard to a great point guard, leading the overachieving Boston Celtics to the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, and carrying the team to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since the often romanticized Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett days, eventually losing to the real best team in the East Cleveland Cavaliers in an insanely non-competitive five-game series, where Thomas sat the last three games out due to a hip injury.
During the regular season, Thomas wowed NBA fans everywhere averaging numbers of 28.9 points per game and 5.9 assists per game on 62.5% true shooting and 5.5 box plus minus, and becoming a bigger Celtic folk hero than Cu Chulainn (Google it). However, if we are comparing Thomas to Irish mythology, let me bring up the more appropriate leprechaun, as Thomas is currently the second shortest player in the league, standing at 5’9”, trailing the Cavaliers reserve guard Kay Felder by a couple decimal points.
This goes to make his achievements on court this year even more spectacular and in fact, Thomas had one of the best years of any NBA player ever under the height of six feet, trailing just 1995-1996 Terrell Brandon in box plus minus, leading in usage rate, trailing 95-96 Brandon in win shares per 48, trailing Brandon and 1994-1995 Dana Barros in win shares, and leading in points per game. However, despite how good Thomas was this season, the chances that this is his peak, both statistically and as a team leader is very likely, even though he is just 27.
The Great Offense
Let’s first look at his offensive game, which do not get me wrong is pretty stellar. In fact, Thomas is one of the trickiest finishers in the league, up there with Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry, with a bag of go-to moves he could use while attacking the rim, as despite being just 5’9”, Thomas had no fear attacking the rim, leading the league in drives per game. However, although he drives very often, Thomas was a mediocre finisher at the rim, shooting just 56.2% in the restricted area, which is 77th among 148 guards with over 50 shot attempts in the paint.
And from the outside, Thomas shot a pretty solid 37.9% from three-point range, however, when you look at his adjusted three-point percentage, which adjusts for the average player’s defensive coverage on a three-point shot, his percentage jumps to 43.1%. Meanwhile, if you compare his 2016-2017 numbers in restricted area field goal percentage and three-point shooting, to his 2013-2014 season with the Sacramento Kings where he shot 62.4% from the restricted area, 34.9% from three-point range and had an adjusted three-point percentage of about 32%, something has definitely changed with Isaiah.
So why such a drastic change in percentages? It cannot be that a player at the age of 27 experience such a steep decline in athleticism, which makes drives more difficult. This talks more about the way teams were and are now defending him. In 2013-2014, teams loosened up a bit more when defending Isaiah Thomas, and Thomas reaped the benefits. This would explain the 2.9% difference between his three-point and adjusted field goal percentage, as he got a lot more open threes than the average player, as well as his 6.2% paint reduction.
Meanwhile, in 2016-2017, his reputation had already been known throughout the league, so teams now defend him a lot tighter. And in the paint, Thomas did not really use this new concentrated defense on him as an advantage, as he had just a 9.1% assist percentage on drives in 2016-2017, to his 9.4% in 2013-2014, which means he is not passing out despite the tighter coverage in the paint. And as well as that, he has pretty much maxed out his ability from the three-point line, and defenders are starting to see that.
This is why although he shoots 51.7% on wide-open three-point shots, good enough for sixth in the league, he saw a lot more tightly contested looks within two feet of the defender, shooting a second in the league 40 three-pointers with this level tight defense, and hitting just 25% of those attempts, 2.9% below league average. Thomas is really the only player whose adjusted three-point percentage suffers so much because of their tightly contested attempts, as every other qualifying player who shoots more than five percent of their threes this tightly contested, does so at a 32.3% clip or higher. They also happen to be at least about four or five inches taller than Isaiah Thomas. This could mean that due to Thomas’s height when he gets tightly contested three-point shots, they are made even harder than the average player, as he does not get as good of a look.
The Bad Defense
Next is Isaiah Thomas’s defense or lack thereof. This season there was a good argument to be made that Thomas was the worst defender in the league. He was sixth last in the league in the defensive box plus minus at -3.3 and the Boston Celtics were an insane ten points better per 100 possessions on defense when Thomas was not on the floor, and in fact, Thomas’s defensive box plus minus has never been better than negative two. To put it simply, this is because of his height. In fact, there have only been six seasons of 131 in total where a player under the height of six feet has been able to have a positive defensive box plus minus.
This is because to most teams opposite of Thomas, who do not have a Tony Allen or Andre Roberson, who just can’t be contributable offensive players most of the time, Thomas is an automatic abusable mismatch. In fact, out of the six seasons of positive defensive box plus minuses from players under 6’0”, every player averaged more than 1.7 per 36 minutes, meaning that instead of trying to keep their men in front of them, they just tried to bother him, and pry the ball out of his hands.
And despite this strategy probably being the best for super small players, not only does it go against how most defenders should be playing defense, but it also does not have a very high success rate, as 119 out of these 131 under 6’0” players averaged more than 1.5 steals per 36 minutes, yet only six of these seasons were from positive defensive players. Furthermore, out of the six positive seasons, only one of them came from fairly recently, with it being Brevin Knight’s 2008-2009, and that is because until the mid-2000s, the NBA did not really revolve around the philosophy of abusing mismatches as it does today, so really, there is not much hope for a guy like Thomas to be good on defense.
And with a player with the defensive flaws of Thomas, it is highly unlikely that he will be able to take these Celtics to anywhere farther than their current state with him being the team leader. This is because, like I mentioned before, the team is very bad on defense with him being on the floor. Their defensive rating was 112 when Thomas was on the floor, which would give them a bottom five defense in the league if Thomas were to play 48 minutes. Just to give some perspective, not since the 1957-1958 St. Louis Hawks has there been a team to win the NBA Championship with a bottom five defense, and at this time, the Hawks had a top five defensive in the league as well because there were only eight damn teams in the league. And with the current state of the Celtics, despite the awful defense he brings, the team needs Thomas on the floor, as he is the only guard on the team who is consistently good at making plays, and so the Celtics really are kind of in a damned if they do, damned if they don’t situation with Isaiah Thomas.
This leaves the Celtics with two options on how to move forward. They can continue to start Thomas, and add a two-way star like Jimmy Butler, Paul George or Gordon Hayward who could keep the offense afloat when Thomas is out of the game, and will not be a liability on defense like Thomas. And if they want to keep their money, they can draft a guy like Markelle Fultz, who has a higher defensive potential than Thomas and can play beside Thomas or be his eventual replacement.
And this is not even a new development on Thomas, as what I am talking about is the reason why Jeff Hornacek’s Phoenix Suns and Brad Stevens’s Boston Celtics decided to bring him off the bench in 2014-2015. Phoenix had another reason too, as they started two equally talented guards in front of Thomas, in Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic, but the Celtics did not, starting Marcus Smart.
Stevens was well aware of Thomas’s terrific, but deeply flawed play, and that is why he opted to start Smart ahead of Thomas, as he thought that he could be nothing more than a sixth man with the ability to provide a large offensive boost for a second unit. It was not until Smart came down with a sprained big toe on the fourth game of 2015-2016 that Stevens decided to give Thomas a chance as a starter. Then directly after that, shooting guard Avery Bradley missed two games with a bruised lower left leg injury, and so Thomas got the call to start again. And from that point on, Thomas won the starting spot at point guard over Smart, who for the first eight games had a field goal percentage of 31.9% and a three-point percentage of 24%. In other words, Stevens decided that he would rather see Thomas’s spectacular offense and terrible defense than Smart’s spectacular defense and terrible offense starting at point guard, although both are not necessarily long term options.
So although Thomas may be beloved by Celtics fans, I think that a colossally more important figure in Celtic history, Red Auerbach, put it best when he said the simple, but undeniably true words, “you can’t teach height,” as Thomas may just be too small to get over the final hump. Now Thomas is in a very weird spot, as on paper, he is the sixth man, but is too good to come off the bench, and will never have the ability to be the best player or possibly even a starter on a championship team.