Nobody thought the Sacramento Kings would be any good this season. DeMarcus Cousins is still an emerging star with a bit of an attitude problem, first-round draft pick Ben McLemore is shooting under 40 percent from the field and there isn't much talent elsewhere on the roster.
There's also a matter of the rotation. With the recent acquisition of forward Derrick Williams, 10 players on the roster average over 20 minutes per game, according to NBA.com. There's a lack of lineup continuity in the rotations that is undermining chemistry.
The point guard situation is of particular note, as the starter, Greivis Vasquez, averages slightly less minutes than the backup, Isaiah Thomas (27.5 to 26.3). All of the turmoil has manifested itself in the numbers, with the Kings ranking 19th in offensive rating thus far into the season.
The two players are fundamentally different. Thomas prefers to knife into the lane, attacking defenders and using his excellent balance and crafty finishing to get his shot off in the lane. Vasquez is slower but significantly bigger at 6'6". He's also a methodical player, preferring to finesse his way to the rim.
Ultimately it's about production over style, and the Kings offense is significantly better with Thomas on the floor—posting an offensive rating of 102.8 when Thomas leads the offense and 97.8 with Vasquez.
There are two common refrains condemning Thomas as player: the first, that he's too small. At 5'9", he sometimes has trouble handling bigger guards. But on the flip side, he's much better at shadowing offensive players up the floor and disrupting the initiation of an opponent's offense.
The second is a matter of sharing the ball: Because Thomas is a scoring point guard, the common assumption is that the ball moves more with Vasquez. While this might be slightly true, both players create points at almost the same rate: Thomas' assist percentage is 31.2, whereas Vasquez's is 33.5.
But more than just directly creating points, Thomas' penetration skills—or, really, his ability to create something out of nothing—stands out.
On this play, his pick-and-roll goes nowhere. Phoenix defends it well, leaving him one-on-one at the top of the key against Goran Dragic. These are the types of possessions that often lead to bad shots. The initial action is stopped, and a player takes it upon himself to score. Except with Isaiah Thomas, who is often able to generate a high-quality shot.
Here, he gets to the rim and drops in a short floater.
This time, he slices into the lane after Phoenix's Alex Len drops on the pick-and-roll. Look at how there are four sets of eyes on him, and very little room to get into the paint.
Despite Len's 16-inch height advantage and all eyes staring back at him, Thomas is quick enough to beat the help. So quick, in fact, that Phoenix's perimeter players can barely stunt—which is to say, stepping into the paint only briefly to feign help defense before recovering back to perimeter shooters. This allows Thomas to go directly at Len.
Once he's at the rim, Thomas stops on a dime, rises up and shoots before Len can even get off the ground.
There are very few bigs who can handle Thomas' quickness, and a rookie like Len doesn't have much of a chance.
When teams do bring help, Thomas is a better distributor than he's given credit for. He's particularly strong in maintaining possession of the ball through contact. He does that here when he gets partially tied up before muscling the ball to Chuck Hayes.
Then there's the other side to Thomas' unyielding aggression as a dribble-driver: Because he needs room to shoot the ball as compensation for his lack of size, he's often goaded into bad shots once he detects a sliver of space. He knows these spaces will be hard to come by, so he's become especially adept at being a bad shot-maker.
In the short term, such as end-of-game situations and end-of-shot-clock-isolation situations, this is fine. There's a lot of variance in small sample sizes, and having someone who can bail a team out of a bad possession is not the worst thing.
It's when teams begin to rely on this type of offense, or players lean on it too heavily that it becomes a problem. For Thomas, he's still working on this balance. See here, when he takes a step-back two-pointer from just inside the three-point line.
This is a poor decision for a number of reasons, but primarily due to shot type and location. Off-the-dribble shots are hard enough, but step-backs are even lower-percentage looks. Add in the fact that it's a long two-pointer and that he fades, and Thomas probably couldn't have selected a worse shot if he tried.
He hits the shot, but that's not the point. This is the type of shot that disengages teammates in an offense and inspires others to try the same antics.
For a second-year guard that was the last pick in the 2012 NBA draft, Thomas has a lot of promise. There's a lot to work with in terms of raw skill, and it's only a matter of developing an on/off switch for his aggression that will help him take the next step.
For Sacramento, they need to decide whether Thomas is their point guard of the future.
If he is, give him the keys to the offense for more than 35 minutes per game. If they just see him as an off-the-bench scorer, they need to acquire a point guard who is without question a better player. Otherwise, they'll continue to linger in this weird tension area with Thomas and Vasquez.
Thomas will probably be the better player down the line, as Vasquez is more developed and settled into his game. It's probably in the Kings' best interest, then, to give him a heavier-minutes load.