Isaiah Thomas is one of the NBA's smallest players, but he's set to make a big impact on the Phoenix Suns in 2014-15—big enough, in fact, to get his new club the playoff berth it so narrowly missed out on last season.
There's no shame in Phoenix's failure last year. Though surely disappointed they fell short of the postseason, the Suns earned the distinction as, arguably, the best team to ever sit out the league's spring dance.
Phoenix won 48 games last season, a feat that tied them with the 2007-08 Golden State Warriors for most victories by a non-playoff club, per Basketball-Reference. The Suns' per-game differential of plus-2.6 points was better than Golden State's figure of plus-2.2 six years earlier. That the 40-win Minnesota Timberwolves of 2013-14 posted a differential of plus-2.7 speaks to the absurd difficulty of the West last year.
The Suns don't care about the moral victory of being best team to miss the playoffs, though. What matters to them is avoiding it a second time.
Phoenix wants to win, a goal Thomas shares and is willing to sacrifice to achieve: "I value myself as a starter, but when it comes down to winning, I'll do anything it takes to win," he told The Associated Press (via ESPN). "I want to be on a winning team."
Thomas' willingness to give up his starting status for wins is critical, but his value to the Suns goes way beyond refreshing unselfishness. The most important things about Thomas are the way he perfectly fits into the Suns' offensive philosophy and his ability to get the most out of the pieces Phoenix already has in place.
Known primarily as a scorer, Thomas put up a career-best 20.3 points on 45.3 percent shooting last season for the Sacramento Kings. The diminutive scoring guard has a knack for getting into the lane and finishing over, under and around larger rim protectors. He was a volume shooter (34.9 percent on 5.1 attempts per game) from long distance, but his willingness to fire away forced defenders to honor him well beyond the arc.
Thomas' 20.5 player efficiency rating, per Basketball-Reference, and 6.3 assists per game round out the credentials of a highly effective offensive weapon.
Skeptics will surely couch Thomas' success in his environment. The Kings' broken system was ideal for quick, ball-dominant guards who weren't shy about creating their own offense. And the team's fundamental disdain for defense left Thomas with plenty of energy to hunt points on the other end.
But everything Thomas does well will translate even better to the Suns, who play a free-wheeling style that maximizes drive-and-kick aggression.
In Thomas, Phoenix gets a third point guard and the ability to play every second of every game with two lead ball-handlers on the floor at once. That's a critical tenet of its offensive philosophy, team president Lon Babby told Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic: "What we ultimately decided is: This is the strength of our team. Let's bolster it instead of going in a different direction."
In today's NBA, that approach makes perfect sense.
Thomas will help the Suns take advantage of defenses that overload the strong side (something every team does now, to one degree or another). Having a primary ball-handler on either wing enables weak-side attacks to carve up recovering defenses.
The Suns—with two of Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and Thomas on the court—will be able to run pick-and-rolls from either side of the floor, capitalize on late closeouts and even beef up an already excellent transition game.
Phoenix ranked eighth in the league in offensive efficiency last year, per NBA.com. With the addition of Thomas, there's a great chance they crack the top five in 2014-15.
There's also a hidden benefit to having Thomas in the rotation: He'll hep Phoenix mask one of its most glaring (if little known) weaknesses, per Grantland's Zach Lowe:
The Suns scored 108.4 points per 100 possessions when Dragic and Bledsoe played together, and just 100.7 when Dragic sat—a mark that would have ranked 25th among 30 teams over the full season. The team’s overall turnover rate spiked, and Bledsoe made more mistakes when he had to work as the lead ball handler.
Bledsoe, it turns out, cannot be trusted to run an offense alone. Thomas will make sure he never has to.
And Bledsoe can reciprocate by handling the toughest matchup at either guard position, allowing Thomas to hide on the less-threatening opponent. Defense isn't necessarily Phoenix's bag in the first place, so it probably isn't all that concerned with the potential problems Thomas' lack of size might create on that end.
It's easy to get excited about an acquisition that, in addition to bringing his own scoring skills, makes one of the Suns' best players even better.
Thomas figures to supercharge an already juiced-up offense, and he'll do it at a price that won't hamstring Phoenix's long-term flexibility. At four years and $27 million, the point guard's deal is a flat-out bargain. B/R's Jim Cavan agrees: "In Thomas, the Suns didn’t just get one of the best young point guards in the league—they snagged the steal of the summer."
Saying Thomas will vault the Suns into the playoffs presupposes two things: First, that he'll make his team better by fitting into its style and adding even more punch to an awesome offense. There's little doubt that will come to pass.
The second assumption is trickier. Somebody in the top eight has to fall out of the mix in the West.
The Portland Trail Blazers won't be markedly better, and though they won 54 games a year ago, there are still reasons to believe their lack of depth and shaky defense portend some slippage. And the Houston Rockets have taken a significant step backward this summer, losing Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin.
Those two are candidates for regression, and if the Suns improve to the degree expected, they could overtake either of them.
Remember, it's not like the Suns need major strides to make up the one game that kept them out of the No. 8 spot last season. A small improvement will do.
It's appropriate, then, that the 5'9" Thomas will provide it.