Seeing Isaiah Thomas take part in warm-ups on Thursday night might give fans a feeling they are seeing ghost of Cavaliers past. A dazzling offensive point guard who struggles to defend and puts up modest assist numbers? Where have we seen that before?
But our version of Tiny Tim has a few tricks up his sleeve that could help these new-look Cavaliers maintain the style of play that has seen them win 19 of their last 21 games.
Kyrie Irving caught a lot of flak in Cleveland for his lack of playmaking for teammates. He never racked up consistent assist totals and rarely played within much of a system. He was an elite isolation scorer, and the Cavaliers (and especially head coach Ty Lue) were more than happy to let him play that role. Fans may be surprised at just how similar Thomas played last year in terms of involving teammates. His assists and assist rate were similar to Irving, even though Thomas was the sole ball handler in Boston and Irving had to share the court with de facto point guard LeBron James.
You can see the similarity as playmakers above. They take the same number of shots. They were nearly identical in assists and potential assists. They ran the pick and roll at a similar rate. The slight differences in assist rate and total passes for Irving are impressive considering the number of possessions that were dominated by James. When Irving and Thomas face off in the next Cleveland versus Boston match up, it may look something like this:
If anything, Thomas was the superior scorer last year, putting up more points at a more efficient rate. He was second-team All-NBA for a reason. And while his numbers last year were career highs, the ways he scored (high number of threes and free throws) should let him maintain a high level of success in the future.
So how does a score-first point guard fit on this Cavaliers team? Well, they won a title with Irving, so pretty well. But since his trade, the Cavs have reinvented themselves to some extent. LeBron James runs the show, and does it by finding his teammates coming off of screens and through moving the ball around the court. This has led to more passing, more assists, less time holding the ball, and less focus on driving to the basket on every possession. They had the highest frequency of isolation plays by a long-shot last year—a number that still ranks in the top five this season—but much closer to what is seen around the NBA.
Irving’s style was spectacular, but the Cavs are getting an All-Star worthy season out of Kevin Love, a Sixth Man of the Year Award-level season from Dwyane Wade, and seeing veterans like Kyle Korver, Channing Frye, and Jeff Green play as well as they have in years. It would be a shame to see the Cavaliers’ role players be forgotten as they work to run the offense through Thomas.
Maybe they won’t have to.
Thomas certainly uses a lot of possessions and takes a lot of shots, but last year he was able to do that within the flow of an offense. He wasn’t dribbling the air out of the ball before going one-on-one, he was using his teammates to find ways to get open, exploiting a league-high hand-off total and running around screens. The chart below shows the types of plays (as defined by NBA.com) that were run most frequently by both Irving and Thomas.
To drive this point home, here is a look at how Irving and Thomas used possessions last year.
Thomas likes to move without the ball, and is savvy in using his size to find ways to get open. Korver and Green have shown us how deadly LeBron can be when he has veterans that know how to find gaps, and Thomas is an exponentially better player. If those two can find a groove, there’s a chance the offense’s evolution won’t be as drastic as reverting back to the version when Irving was here.
But it isn’t just when James is running the offense. Irving and Kevin Love struggled to find much in terms of chemistry. As shown below, Irving rarely found Love, and when he did, Love struggled to convert.
Thomas and Boston center Al Horford developed a lot of chemistry, both running the pick and roll and with Horford running the offense as Thomas looked for hand-offs and passes coming off screens. Love should be able to replicate Horford’s passing with the added benefit of better three-point shooting. Another beneficiary could be Jae Crowder. Crowder has struggled to find his shot, and playing next to a familiar face in Thomas could help get him the looks he had last year as he set a career high in three-point percentage.
This isn’t to say Thomas is better than Irving. Kyrie was an animal, and could take over games in ways that I’m not sure we’ll see from Thomas. And for all of Irving’s shortcomings on defense, he was able to go stretches of solid play. Thomas’ height makes that nearly impossible and harder to hide.
But in the specific construct of fitting with a team that is firing on all cylinders, Thomas’ integration may be a bit more seamless than originally thought.