Watching Isaiah Thomas play basketball in 2016-17 bordered on a euphoric experience.
The diminutive floor general with the over-sized headband lighting up the mutants who moonlight as NBA players on a nightly basis became must-watch television whenever the Boston Celtics hit the floor last season. And not just for fans of the historic club, but for basketball aficionados everywhere.
Simply put: Thomas had one of the most efficient high-volume scoring seasons in league history last year.
Among players to see the floor for at least 30 minutes nightly while attempting a minimum of 19 field-goal attempts per contest throughout a season in NBA history, the former Celtic’s 2016-17 campaign ranked 19th in offensive box plus/minus, merely trailing names such as Michael Jordan, Stephen Curry, James Harden and LeBron James.
For the year, he averaged 28.9 points, 3.2 triples, 5.9 assists and 8.5 free-throw attempts while slashing effective 46.3/37.9/90.9 shooting splits.
Taking a deeper dive into Thomas’ game only makes his 2016-17 all the more impressive.
According to Synergy Sports Tech, Thomas ranked above the 90th percentile in three separate play-types: as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, in spot-up situations and in one-on-one chances. Coming off screens, the explosive floor general was in the 86th percentile. In dribble hand-offs? 81st percentile.
Account for passes in his pick-and-roll and isolation opportunities, and he still received an ‘excellent’ rating from Synergy.
No other player, not even eventual league MVP Russell Westbrook, came close to matching Thomas’ outputs as a per-possession scorer last season.
Unfortunately, the run of otherworldly form hasn’t been sustainable for the 5-foot-9 point guard – and it’s been due to a variety of factors.
However, the start of Thomas’ downfall can clearly be pinpointed to a hip injury sustained late last season. Though the exact date of the ailment isn’t known (some speculate it happened on Mar. 15 against the Minnesota Timberwolves, after a collision with Karl-Anthony Towns), Thomas himself says suiting up for the playoffs was a mistake – one that only exacerbated the problem.
Prior to the potential injury date in mid-March, the Los Angeles Lakers’ lead guard averaged 29.2 points on 46.2 percent shooting over a 64-game sample size. In the playoffs, Thomas’ numbers fell to 23.3 points nightly on a paltry 42.5 percent shooting rate.
It was obvious to anyone watching that the one-time thrilling floor general had lost a step. And for a player with his physical limitations, losing even a bit of explosiveness can be a major blow to potential effectiveness.
Because Thomas’ first step hasn’t, to this point, been what it used to be, his ability to blow by defenders to use his tact and touch to drop buckets in the paint is all but gone. The proof can be found in how often the undersized guard is getting blocked this season when compared to last.
In 2016-17, when Thomas was a certifiable MVP candidate, he got blocked on just 7.7 percent of his field-goal attempts. Thus far this year, he’s getting his shot sent away on 11.8 percent of his attempts.
The numbers further translate to Thomas’ per-possession scoring marks. Once his most impressive analytical achievement, the Washington product has fallen off in every facet of scoring, according to Synergy.
Most importantly, Thomas’ point production as the pick-and-roll ball-handler has fallen from 1.04 points per possession (PPP) to 0.97 PPP this campaign (still a healthy rate, but a clear drop-off); his one-on-one scoring has dipped from 1.12 PPP to 0.65 PPP (an insane drop-off); and his spot-up shooting from 1.22 PPP last season to 0.85 PPP this year.
Along with the lack of an explosive first step, Thomas isn’t getting the same lift he used to on jumpers, thus making it more difficult for his shots to find the bottom of the rim, while making it easier for opponents to contest.
Again, for a player of his stature, losing even a bit of athleticism could signal huge problems going forward. We could end up with more situations like this:
Obviously, other factors exist for the current state of Thomas’ play.
There’s the fact that his fit with the Cleveland Cavaliers was downright horrendous. Asking a player so used to dominating with the ball in his hands to take a secondary role, and to adjust to it immediately after coming off a major injury, was unfair.
The Cavaliers were right to trade him (Cleveland’s locker room was a mess pre-trade deadline), but they were also asking a lot of him right away. Probably too much.
Thomas’ fit with Los Angeles appears to be better, as the team doesn’t have much in the way of aspirations – outside of player development – this season. That should theoretically give Thomas the freedom to try and regain his magic touch from his time with Boston.
But at the same time, the Lakers’ front office is rightfully more worried about developing their present young core, one of the most promising in the league.
Thomas, on the other hand, is already 29, and an impending free agent. Sure, they’d like to see what they have in him, but their priorities lie elsewhere on the roster.
What’s more, considering Thomas’ agent has already stated his client has no interest in coming off the bench, what rationale does Los Angeles have to even want to bring him back next season? He surely wouldn’t be starting over Ball or Hart, two players with different levels of upside, but both promising young talents nonetheless.
For Thomas, the rest of 2017-18 will be about finding a modicum of the form he displayed last season. It won’t be easy, but it’s not totally out of the question either, especially as he continues to get healthier.
Though he likely won’t ever reach that level of success again, even 75 percent of the 2016-17 version of Isaiah Thomas would be an enticing option for teams once free agency opens up this summer.
You can find Frank Urbina on Twitter @frankurbina_.