(Editor’s Note: To kick off our coverage of the 2015-16 NBA season, we’re profiling the most intriguing player of all 30 NBA teams. What makes them intriguing? It could be their talent, quirkiness or the unknown, it doesn’t matter. Follow The NBA’s 30 Men of Intrigue series here with us at TSFJ, as our friends and family join us for another awesome basketball campaign.)
Isaiah Thomas (Not That One, The Other One)
2014-15 Boston Celtics: 40-42, lost in first round
The Boston Celtics made the playoffs last year. You could be forgiven for forgetting that because they were unceremoniously dumped by the eventual Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers (Kevin Love understandably didn’t forget, however).
For a large part of the season, the only reason anyone paid attention to the team on Causeway Street was the will they/won’t they trade talks around now-Kings point guard Rajon Rondo. The Cs drafted Marcus Smart out of Oklahoma State in the idea that once they eventually moved Rondo, Smart could possibly assume the starting job. Smart has the headiness and tenacity needed out of a starter, and with Avery Bradley as his running mate, they are attempting to grow into the top defensive backcourt in the league — or at least the Eastern Conference.
Yet, there was still something missing from the backcourt by way of scoring. As always, Danny Ainge looked for help from the outside at the trade deadline, motivated by injuries to Smart and a need for points. He took advantage of a deteriorating situation in Phoenix and pried Isaiah Thomas away from the dimming Suns.
The trade out of Phoenix was a strange blessing for Thomas as he fell into an almost right situation: a rebuilding team looking for offensive punch, a defined role and an uptick in playing time. However, for a guy who has been trying to prove that he can be the man since his breakout 2012-13 season in Sacramento, he never started a game for the Cs. In 21 games, he scored 19 points per contest and added 5.4 assists per game in 26 minutes. Stretched out on the famed per 36 minutes metric, he averaged a career-high 26.4 points and 7.5 assists.
Thomas isn’t thought of in the upper echelon of point guards for the sheer fact that he's not a starter, yet he's a seriously talented scorer and as you would expect of sub-6’ point guards that make it in this era of the Association, he's absolutely fearless when it comes to attacking the rim. The Cavs knew that he was pretty much the only offensive weapon Boston had in its arsenal last spring and still had trouble keeping him out of the paint. Despite being swept, Thomas played quite well with averages of 17.5 PPG and 7 APG in a shade over 30 minutes per game. While not starting, he was on the court in the final minutes of games, and most importantly for an offensively challenged team, he got to the free throw line, missing just one of the 32 charity shots in the four games.
He is also getting creative, as ESPN's Chris Forsberg found out recently during a team preseason shoot-around. Head coach Brad Stevens was asked about Thomas borrowing Steve Nash's famous one-footed shots as a way to diversify his offense.
"Shoot it," said Stevens. "It's great. Hey, creative players have to make creative plays. If you’re 5-9 or 5-10, and if you’re the kinda scorer that he is, if you’re going to draw a ton of attention like he does, traditional is not going to work. So just because somebody says it’s untraditional or just because somebody deems it to be unsolid or whatever the case may be, the great players have those plays in their game.
"And if you wanna be great, you better keep being creative," Stevens added.
A player like Thomas can thrive, provided his teammates know where to be on the floor when he has the rock. Obviously, we're not talking Stephen Curry, who had to be reminded that he could drive into the lane with the best of them during last year's Finals, but in how smaller ball-handlers play, there's a common theme of penetration. As basketball fans know, a lead guard who can drive into the paint opens up offenses in a different way than a pass-first one does because he can draw defenders. The guard can draw a foul and score on a layup or dunk, pass the rock to an open teammate, or even flirt with a mid-range jumper. If the team has good to great perimeter shooters, this is death by a thousand cuts. If a team doesn't, then you let the guy go off in measured doses in hopes of keeping him fresh and effective for the long haul.
So what does this mean for Boston? Ideally, Thomas should be one of the first five on the floor, as a team still figuring itself out needs all the points it can get. However, Stevens sees him as the spark plug off the bench, a perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidate in the making who could spell Smart during games or start on occasion. And yet, Thomas will have demonstratively more freedom to play his game than was the case in Phoenix. He doesn't have to fight for points with two other score-first point guards as he did with Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic. Though the Celtics don't have anyone in the same realm as another former teammate in DeMarcus Cousins, he can be helped greatly by Boston's bigs provided they know how to move with him on offense and back him up on defense.
Of course, the Boston Celtics need a bit more than Thomas to pull themselves out of mediocrity. Despite the jokes about the Atlantic Division, going against Toronto's Kyle Lowry is no picnic, the Knicks will be improved, Brooklyn has the experience and Philadelphia's frontcourt may win a few more games than expected. Yet, Isaiah Thomas is always trying to show and prove, showing that he can light up a scoreboard and proving he's worth more than just 20 minutes per game.
Jason is the editor-in-chief here at TSFJ. In addition to a past life as a research analyst in advertising, television and online media, he spent seven seasons as the New York Beacon's beat writer for the New York Giants. Jason has written for Yardbarker, Dime Magazine, Decider, Awful Announcing and The Week. He is also a member of his high school's 4th period gym class floor hockey champions.
He shares more of his perspectives at jasonclinkscales.com.