Isaiah Thomas was Born to Ball
Why Isaiah Thomas could be a wild card that changes everything and makes the Lakers rethink their grand plans for free agency
To say Lakers fans have not embraced Isaiah Thomas’ arrival in purple and gold would be an understatement. In less than one year, Isaiah Thomas has gone from being an MVP candidate who led the Boston Celtics to the best record in the Eastern Conference to a pariah the Cleveland Cavaliers were so eager to move they were willing to give the Lakers a first round pick in return. Thomas was nothing more than an expiring contract and one year rental.
But while there’s no question their main motive in trading Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance, Jr. was to create the cap space to sign two max-contract free agents, the Lakers had other options besides the Cavs. In the end, I believe it was the opportunity to acquire Isaiah Thomas that convinced the Lakers to trade with Cleveland even though the trade might ultimately lead LeBron James to stay and hurt the Lakers’ chances of luring him to join them in LA.
That the Lakers were willing to make a trade that could help the Cavs retain LeBron is surprising and shocking considering the concerted effort they’ve made to court him ever since Magic Johnson became president of basketball operations. They might have done it just to get the draft pick but it’s likely the Lakers were also looking at how a healthy Isaiah Thomas could improve their roster and upgrade their offensive firepower. Both short and long term.
With 25 games left in the season, the Lakers no longer have a realistic shot at making the playoffs but they can finish out the season playing like a playoff team, maybe winning 15 of their 25 games and giving free agents a preview of what they could expect to be part of if were they to sign with the Lakers. Isaiah Thomas could give the Lakers the elite offensive weapon they need to improve their poor 3-point shooting and half court pick-and-roll offense.
We’ll find out in the next 25 games what the Lakers have in Isaiah Thomas. I’m hopeful that the week off for the All-Star break will give Lakers’ coach Luke Walton the time he needs to integrate Isaiah into the Lakers’ offense as well as re-integrate Lonzo Ball, who is finally ready to return from his injury. Thomas is obviously still not 100% and lacks his normal freakish quickness and explosiveness but should get steadily better as he gets back in shape.
We’ll also find out how Isaiah Thomas and Lonzo Ball fit together on court and whether they can thrive together as James Harden and Chris Paul do. I think Mike D’Antoni’s argument regarding the importance of having an elite point guard on the court for all 48 minutes of the game resonates with Luke Walton, who has struggled finding solid backup play at the point. I’m looking forward to seeing how Luke utilizes the two of them on the court together.
I think we’re going to see more and more NBA teams play two point guards together. It’s part of the positionless basketball revolution. It makes teams less predictable and thus harder to defend. I think Lonzo and Isaiah would have little problem playing together. Basically, Lonzo can play with anybody and all you really need with Isaiah is to pair him with a guard who has the size, length, and defensive skillset to complement him, which is Lonzo.
Finally, we’ll get some answers as to whether Isaiah’s superior offense can compensate for his inferior defense. Frankly, it all depends on Isaiah getting better and recovering from the hip injury that sidelined him in the playoffs last year. The Celtics were able to be a Top-5 NBA defense with Isaiah playing as a starter. There’s no reason the Lakers shouldn’t be able to do the same. In many ways, Isaiah is actually a better fit on the faster paced young Lakers.
Coming off the bench but playing starter minutes and closing most games, I’m hopeful Isaiah can get his mojo back by the end of the season and help the Lakers finish strong and become an attractive landing spot for free agents.
But that’s just the short term return. What the Lakers are really hoping for is Isaiah Thomas returning to his MVP candidate form of last year. That’s the wild card the Lakers are hoping will turn into a hidden ace and be the first of the two or three superstars they need to compete for an NBA championship. That’s the home run Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka are hoping they hit with the trade with the Cavs. That’s why they’re willing to risk helping the Cavs.
Was Isaiah a superstar with the Celtics? Ask Kobe Bryant, who thinks so and said this about Isaiah as an MVP candidate with Boston last year: “I love watching IT play. Is he a superstar? I don’t even know what that means. All I know is he goes out and competes every single night. He’s been playing at a level rarely seen. And he’s been doing it all year. If Russell and James hadn’t put in the outrageous seasons they had, you’d all be talking about Isaiah.”
The one thing I do know is the Lakers need a player they can count on to close out games like they were able to do with Kobe Bryant for so many great years. Healthy, I believe Isaiah Thomas could very well be that player for the Lakers. Watch this video Kobe Bryant made for his Musecage Basketball Network. The Rise of the Mighty IT was the fourth installment of Kobe Bryant’s Canvas series and focuses on Isaiah Thomas’ ascent to superstardom against all odds.
The bigger question than whether Isaiah Thomas is or is not a superstar is whether or not he is the right fit for the Lakers. To start with, the Lakers already have their starting point guard in #2 draft pick Lonzo Ball whereas Isaiah isn’t going to sign with a team that wants to bring him off the bench. Then there’s the issue of how do you hide Thomas defensively when your goal is to switch everything. Not to mention the max contract he wants.
But there are also very strong areas where Isaiah is a great fit on the Lakers. To start with, the Lakers want to play fast, which is exactly where Thomas and his game are at their best. You could make a good argument the Lakers’ league leading pace makes them an even better fit offensively for IT than the Celtics, who ranked 12th in pace in the league last year. 48 minutes per game of Lonzo and Isaiah relentlessly pushing the pace would reprise Showtime.
Isaiah’s lethal 3-point shooting and his elite playmaking also make him an excellent fit offensively for the Lakers playing with or without Lonzo Ball. Further, both are outstanding spot up shooters and play well without the ball and while Isaiah likes to have the ball in his hands, he usually makes quick decisive moves to attack the paint which opens up lanes and keeps players and ball moving, which is exactly how Luke wants the Lakers to play.
As for the concerns about Isaiah’s defense, I’ve long thought the Lakers were becoming to predictable with their switch everything strategy and needed to adjust their approach more to avoid bad matchups whether with Isaiah, Lonzo, or any smaller player being posted up. If the Celtics could cover for Isaiah before and Kyrie now, the Lakers should be able to cover for Isaiah. That’s the advantage of having multiple plus defenders on the roster.
As for the concerns about Isaiah needing to start or wanting a max contract, I think both can be resolved easily because Isaiah has always wanted to play for the Lakers and will be satisfied coming off the bench as a 6th man playing starter minutes and closing out games and isn’t really in a position to demand a long term contract. Because of circumstances, I think the Lakers should be able to sign Isaiah for $10 to $12 million on 1-year deal to prove his worth.
What happens next will be up to Isaiah. If he can come back and be anything like the player he was with the Celtics last year, the Lakers will likely rethink their grand plans for free agency and re-sign Isaiah to a long term contract, which is ironic since the Lakers missed out on a chance to sign him as a free agent summer of 2014 when they fruitlessly waited for Carmelo Anthony. With good luck and health, Isaiah could give the Lakers a second chance.
In many ways, Isaiah Thomas was destined to be a Laker. He grew up in Inglewood rooting for the Lakers with Kobe Bryant as his boyhood idol. He was famously named after the Detroit Pistons’ Isiah Thomas because his father James, a die-hard Lakers fan, lost a bet on which team was going to win the 1989 NBA Finals to his best friend, a die-hard Pistons fan. It was Isaiah’s mother who changed the spelling of his name to the biblical version.
Fathers and sons and growing up as Lakers fans is something Lonzo and Isaiah share in common. I remember seeing heartfelt Tweets from Lonzo and Isaiah last Father’s day thanking their dads for always being there for them. Now destiny has them both completing journeys they longed for as kids and finally playing together on the Lakers. One is a quiet but confident 20-year old. The other is a 29-year old 6-year veteran. Both destined to be Lakers.