Down three to the Portland Trail Blazers with the Los Angeles Lakers’ five-game win streak on the line, the ball found its way into the hands of Isaiah Thomas. For a moment, there was a sense Thomas might deliver in the clutch as he had so many times during his MVP-chant laden 2016-17 season.
Still under the impression his Superman cape had returned since departing Cleveland, Isaiah Thomas took one hard dribble into his pull-up jumper with seven seconds remaining. Perhaps Thomas’ still lagging burst emboldened Shabazz Napier. Or, perhaps, it was just being in the right place at the right time.
But instead of taking a retreat step, Napier closed on Thomas. A year ago, this would have been sufficient to take one more escape dribble. Instead, the Trail Blazers’ own diminutive guard closed on Thomas, knocking the ball away.
The moment evaded him last year’s King of the Fourth. For 24 games this season, Thomas has desperately searched for momentum, unable to find it. He’s tried talking his way into it and shooting his way out of it but to no avail.
The missing step
Thomas’s decline is hard to believe. After capturing the imagination of the fans after the 2016 trade deadline as a spark plug off the bench, Thomas earned fifth place in MVP voting a season later. In Cleveland, he struggled to coexist with LeBron James and is now coming off the bench for a young Lakers team with the hope of redeeming some of his value.
Is it as simple as saying Brad Stevens is an offensive genius who put him in advantageous positions to consistently succeed? Perhaps his hip has been the metaphorical cape all along and he’s yet to fully recover after giving the Boston faithful everything he could both physically and emotionally. Can he — at age 29 — ever be whole again?
These are questions every team considering the employ of the five-foot-nine pocket dynamo must ask.
His shooting numbers are significantly down, which can be attributed to a few different things. Returning from a layoff as long as the one Thomas had was never going to be easy. His shot has been consistently short, his game in search of a rhythm, and the general sharpness that comes with playing in three to four games a week still absent.
Thomas made just 15-of-52 three-point attempts when a defender was no closer than four feet of him as a Cavalier. That’s in stark contrast to the blistering 43.6 percent accuracy he had when faced with the same scenario a season ago.
The numbers since joining the Lakers aren’t much better, which leads one to believe his legs just aren’t there. He is a 36.2 percent career three-point shooter after all.
One of the most apparent differences in his game since returning has been the lack of burst to his drive. The Thomas of old had an ability — much like James Harden — to go slow-fast or fast-slow depending on whatever the defense was trying to dictate.
He could snare an opening off a pick-and-roll, forcing the defense to overreact. This opened pocks of space for pocket passes or pull-up jumpers.
Dare help off the corner and you surrender one of the most efficient shots in basketball. When Isaiah decides to attack himself, his unique strength for a guy his size allowed him to dig into the defender as he held them off with his hip, before using them as a springboard to create separation and elevate for an uncontested finish.
Redemption in Hollywood?
The Lakers have a 5-4 record since the Feb. 9 trade which sent Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. to the Cavaliers for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye, and Cleveland’s 2018 first-round pick.
Things appeared rosy as they racked up wins after the all-star break, but this appears to be a case of extremely hot shooting sure to dissipate soon.
Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Brook Lopez have combined to shoot 39-for-87 (44.8 percent) from beyond the arc. Julius Randle has been unleashed and his bully-ball and playmaking have combined with the long-distance hits to send a sputtering Lakers offense that scored 102.4 points per 100 possessions to 111.9 post-trade.
After shooting a league-worst 33 percent on 27.6 three-point tries per game over their first 54 games, they’re up to an unsustainable 41.2 percent on 32.3 attempts in the nine games since. It’s possible this is a progression to the mean after being so poor for so long. A clearer hierarchy in the system and role definition has allowed guys like Randle and Ingram to maximize who they are.
Luke Walton has made it clear he intends on allowing Thomas to be himself, too. And while some credit should go to him in the Lakers’ ascendancy offensively, the defensive woes since his addition need to be noted as well. They have a defensive rating of 109.6 after maintaining a top 10 defense till the trade.
His strides leave him playing catch up most of the time, while his frame allows his man to see the floor with ease and make passes without the possible threat of deterrence. The loss of Larry Nance Jr. is a factor as well. Nance’s mobility and athleticism are one of the few bright spots for the new-look Cavs.
Despite the lip service, it’s fairly clear the main reason the Lakers were willing to take on Thomas is because his expiring contract. They need to make decisions on Julius Randle and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, too. All of that will presumably be after they play their hand with LeBron James and Paul George.
With all that being said, a lot of Thomas’ free agency comes down to what he’s willing to accept in terms of money and role.
Isaiah Thomas has Brinks Truck sandals and they are amazing. 💵💵💵 pic.twitter.com/sNwz4manIH
— Chris Forsberg (@ESPNForsberg) July 31, 2017
According to the Washington Post, several executives believe Thomas is looking at a deal around the mid-level exception, “something under $10 million.”
Others speculate if he’s willing to bet on himself, there could be an agreement on a one-year deal. That would give teams the chance to see if an entire summer of building his body back to his best is all he really needed, setting the stage for a long-term deal in 2019.
If he can cope with being a sixth man — a Jamal Crawford/Lou Williams type — the chances of him securing a longer deal probably increase.
The chances of him remaining a Laker beyond these final 19 games would increase in this case. If he can be content playing behind Lonzo Ball and potentially alongside King James again, there’s a shot.
This is where a team like Philadelphia could be intriguing. Their defense, spearheaded by Embiid and Simmons, would provide just the type of environment for Thomas to succeed. A return to his offensive best would give the 76ers a crucial piece in not only addressing their shooting woes but adding a reputable closer to a young team as well. There’d be the added spice of facing Boston four times a season and potentially in the playoffs, too.
If Philadelphia strikes out on its top free agency plans, it’s shown a willingness to overpay on one-year deals. Giving Thomas the J.J. Redick treatment might be his best shot at a reasonable payday.
The soon-to-retire Parker isn’t your usual playmaker. He’s more suited to running around and looking for opportunities to score inside. The Spurs are used to scoring point guards like him and Thomas is built similarly. Their system calls for plenty of ball movement so the assists are pretty much spread out anyway. In fact, Thomas is a better scorer than Parker and should be equal to the task as a playmaker.
The Dallas Mavericks have space and have found a way to get the best out of guys like J.J. Barea, Seth Curry, and Yogi Ferrell, but Dennis Smith Jr. now runs the show. The Kings and Suns? Fat chance. The Nets have D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie. The Magic have needed a point guard for what seems like decades, so perhaps that could be his next reclamation project. There are worse places to live than Florida.
He’s between a rock and a hard place. When Danny Ainge traded him, it was as public an announcement as any that a team’s ceiling could only be so high with Thomas at the helm.
When Ryan McDonough traded him before that, it was because Phoenix had to accept that three-star point guards couldn’t coexist. The Kings traded him largely because they’re the Kings.
Every time Thomas has gained a head of steam, he’s had to start all over. The positive of a trade is it means someone wants you. The difference, this time, is that he’ll be waiting at the station not knowing who’ll pick him up.