This is the stretch run, not just for the Lakers, but for Isaiah Thomas. The point guard only has so many opportunities left to make a good impression, not only on his current team, but on the rest of the league who will have the chance to sign him as a free agent this summer.
If we go back a year, it is unimaginable we would even be at this point. Thomas was in the midst of posting the best season of his career. He was averaging nearly 30 points a game for the top seeded team in the East. He was entrenched in the MVP discussion, if not as a “he could win” candidate then as a “he deserves to be talked about as one of the most valuable players in the league” one.
He was the king of the 4th quarter. The man who, then on his 3rd team, had finally found a home; finally found a place that appreciated him for what he was and believed in what he could do. For a player who was selected 60th overall and final the selection of the 2nd round, then allowed to walk in free agency, then traded into his first season with the team who signed him just months earlier, this is no small thing. He’d been doubted and cast aside at nearly every level of his journey to and in the NBA — but that had seemingly changed.
Now, though, Thomas is back to being doubted. A hip injury and subsequent rehabilitation clouded his future in Boston. A trade to Cleveland in exchange for Kyrie Irving was supposed to be a blessing – a chance to play with the game’s best player and compete for a championship. Things didn’t go that way, of course. At the February trade deadline the Cavs treated Thomas like an expiring contract, swapping him for younger players with upside while packaging him with a future 1st round pick to facilitate the trade.
Now Thomas is on his 5th team and searching for a path back to what he had in Boston. He did not find it in Cleveland. Time is running out for him to find it in Los Angeles. But if you listen to him talk, he believes what’s missing isn’t inside him, but what others are (or, really, are not) offering him as a means to reproduce his All-NBA level play.
Give me the same opportunity I had last season and I’ll do the same stuff. You can’t compare this year and last year. My opportunity is totally different! Be a real student of the game and stop just looking at stats dumbass https://t.co/ckQbdODaKv
— Isaiah Thomas (@isaiahthomas) March 19, 2018
This is a common theme in Thomas’ media soundbites. It’s not that he’s played poorly or been inconsistent or anything else. It’s give me the same thing I had in Boston and I’ll play at the same high level.
No offense to Thomas, but not only is this a dubious assertion, this approach may be a key part of the problem for him and his future role on any team, not only the Lakers.
First, to be fair and to support Thomas’ assertions, he’s not had the same opportunities or role since departing Boston. While on the Cavs, not only was he asked to play second fiddle to LeBron, but he was thrust into a situation where the team was clearly not playing well and where he was asked to hit the ground running when coming back from a severe injury.
No one should reasonably blame Thomas for not looking like the player he was in Boston upon his return to the Cavs’ lineup. The combination of playing more off the ball while also trying to get back to game speed after not really playing or practicing at full speed since the playoffs is a lot to ask of any player — but especially one who needs all aspects of his game to be in sync to play at his top level.
With the Lakers it’s a similar story even if the story is different. Thomas has more freedom and opportunity to play his style now, but he’s coming off the bench and still playing more without the ball than he’s likely accustomed to.
He’s shared the floor a lot with Lonzo Ball and Julius Randle — the former the culture setter for the ball sharing mentality the coaches want to instill, the latter a versatile PF who the Lakers have played more through via post-ups and elbow initiations. This is to say nothing of Brandon Ingram, who has also been a high-usage ball-handling wing who can initiate the offense and serve as a grab-and-go player who thrives in the open court and waits for no player as he bounds towards the painted area looking for any advantage that materializes.
Sure, Thomas can shoot when he wants and monopolize possessions as he sees fit. But he does so in an ecosystem that was formed before he was dropped into the mix. His teammates have done a good job accommodating and blending Thomas into their systems, but they’re also not beholden to him as a savior who should be turned to as the only viable orchestrator.
There is another side to this, though, which is more important. Thomas is not the player he was in Boston. He’s not even the player he was in Sacramento or Phoenix. And while he’s been better for the Lakers than he was for the Cavs, better is a relative term and doesn’t reflect a return to his career norms.
In a recent post at Cleaning the Glass (insider), Ben Falk highlighted one area of Thomas’ struggles this season; an area where he’s historically been very good, but this season — in both Cleveland and L.A. — has been well below his norms: finishing at the rim.
In Boston, Thomas took almost 40% of his shots at the basket, and another 10-20% in short midrange. His ability to convert around the cup despite his diminutive stature is what set him apart from other similarly-sized guards who haven’t been able to succeed at a high-level in the NBA.
But so far this season Thomas has not gotten to the rim as much and, more importantly, has not been able to finish there. He’s made just 50% of his shots at the basket — a poor number for a guard in general (just 17th percentile this year) and especially poor for a player who, over his career, had made 58% of his attempts there and who had never, over a full season, shot below 55% at the rim.
This is where the disconnect between opportunity and current ability comes better into focus. Thomas’ current view of himself is not based on his current ability to play efficiently, it’s based on the player he’s been.
This often is the case for players coming back from injury, of course. Why should Thomas believe less in himself now just because he got hurt? If anything, Thomas — a player who has depended on an elevated level of self belief his entire career — is someone who is least likely to adjust his mindset of how good he thinks he is. Believing in himself when few others have is how he’s gotten to the point he has in the first place.
That said, when a player cannot adjust to his current circumstances or take into account his declined (or, if you prefer, more inconsistent) level of play, the problems can percolate. We saw this in Cleveland via testy media sessions that neither Thomas, his teammates, nor the coaches benefitted from.
Let me be clear: I’m not expecting Thomas to cause problems in L.A. He’s said the right things about wanting to fit in and not rock the boat, he’s taken on a leadership position in the locker room, and comments I’ve heard from his teammates are generally positive. But, on some levels, this is how it had to be for Thomas after the trade. He’s battling for his next contract and was just jettisoned in a manner that clearly pointed to chemistry issues that he was a part of — if not, in some ways, at the root of. Causing issues gets him nowhere and puts his future value to other teams into question. He’s smart enough to know that.
It’s hard to know how this plays out down the line. But I am skeptical it leads to a long term future with the Lakers. Not because Thomas will never be the player he was. I’ve no clue if another off-season of recovery, rehabilitation, and work on his body and game can inspire a rediscovery of what made him the player he was in Boston. But more because what Thomas was in Boston – the undisputed best player and number one option – may not be available with the Lakers. Nor may it be available anywhere else.
Those opportunities don’t come around often. And just because Thomas keeps seeking it out or saying he’ll be as good if given that chance, doesn’t mean it will come back to him. The question now is whether he can adjust his mindset if it doesn’t. For a variety of reasons, I have my doubts which makes me wonder if he’ll be chasing those elusive opportunities on a sixth team next year.