Breaking Down What Isaiah Thomas Brings to Phoenix Suns

Jared DubinFeatured ColumnistAugust 5, 2014

The Phoenix Suns new players Isaiah Thomas, left, and Anthony Tolliver speak as the two basketball players are introduced by the team on Monday, July 21, 2014, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Immediate reaction to the Phoenix Suns' signing of Isaiah Thomas was extraordinarily polarized. 

On the one hand, you had the people who recognized the incredible value of the four-year, $27 million deal for a player of Thomas' caliber. (Value that was made even more apparent due to the unusual structure of the deal, in which Thomas' salary declines, rather than increases, by 4.5 percent per year.)

On the other hand, you had the people who saw a team that already had $7.5 million a year committed to Goran Dragic and retained free agent matching rights to Eric Bledsoe, rights that Yahoo!'s Adrian Wojnarowski's sources insisted they'd use no matter what and wondered why they'd commit even more money to a third point guard. 

Here's the thing, though. When you know you're going to play two point guards most, if not all of the time, as Jeff Hornacek did last season when both Dragic and Bledsoe were healthy, having three good point guards is not a problem—it's basically a necessity. 

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

So long as the Suns actually do retain Bledsoe, as is widely expected, they now have three starting-caliber point guards to rotate through those two backcourt spots. If he wants, Hornacek can chop up those 96 backcourt minutes by giving each player 32 minutes a night, mixing and matching combinations of the three throughout the game. 

Some of those combinations make more sense than others—both Dragic and Thomas are better fits next to Bledsoe than they are with each other due to size and defensive abilities—but all will place a huge amount of pressure on defenses through a combination of speed, shooting and ability to get into the paint. 

According to SportVU player tracking data released by the NBA in conjunction with STATS LLC, all three of Dragic, Bledsoe and Thomas ranked in the top 10 in drives per game last season. Among the 49 players that averaged at least 5.0 drives per game, they ranked fifth (Bledsoe), eighth (Dragic) and 10th (Thomas) in field-goal percentage on drives. 

Thomas, little water bug that he is, has shown a consistent ability to get into the paint in his career. According to Basketball-Reference's shooting splits, over 40 percent of his shots have come inside of 10 feet throughout his career, and he has done a better job finishing close to the basket with each passing season. 

Thomas can turn the corner and get to the rim with relative ease due to his speedhe's one of the quickest players in the league—and his ability to use change-of-pace dribbles to get by both his man and the player guarding a screener in the pick-and-roll. 

Though he has shown the ability to get all the way to the rim and finish there, what Thomas really loves to do is get into the back half of the paint and launch a floater or a runner over the trees. He's only 5'9", so he's had to perfect lofting that shot over the much taller players he encounters as he makes his way through the paint. 

The ability to turn the corner will be even more important for the Suns guards than it was last year. Dragic and Bledsoe were undoubtedly aided in their pursuit of the paint by the presence of jump-shooting big men, with one in particular playing a vital role.

As I detailed in this space early last season: 

One of the reasons both [Dragic] and Bledsoe have been able to be so successful driving to the rim off screens is because of the tendencies of the Phoenix screeners. While Miles Plumlee likes to roll directly to the rim after setting a pick, the rest of the Phoenix big men prefer to pop out toward the perimeter for a jumper, which helps clear the lane.

Of the 127 shots Phoenix screeners have taken this season, 79 of them have been jumpers, according to Synergy. Of the 85 shots taken by non-Plumlee bigs, 71 of those have been jumpers. Channing Frye, in particular, is able to clear space for Bledsoe and Dragic by drawing stay-attached coverage on pick-and-pops due to his long-range shooting prowess. 

Those numbers obviously changed between December and the end of the season, but the percentages held true, with Frye as the biggest factor. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), he was the 17th most efficient roll man in pick-and-rolls last season, averaging 1.17 points per play and shooting 46.1 percent from three-point range. 

According to's John Schuhmann, the Suns were the league's most efficient pick-and-roll team, with the Dragic-Frye pick-and-pop combination leading the league in points per pick-and-roll possession. 

The problem: Frye is now plying his trade for the Orlando Magic, robbing the Suns of their most gravitational pick-and-pop big man. Plumlee is an effective dive man, but a big rolling through the paint doesn't clear space for drives the way Frye popping out to the three-point line does. It could suck in a defender from the wing to clear room for the P.J. Tuckers and Gerald Greens to launch from outside, but it doesn't do as good a job making space for the ball-handler to maneuver his way to the rim. 

The Morris twins and Anthony Tolliver could be somewhat effective substitutes for Frye—and they will surely be counted on to do so—but none has quite the range or consistency from beyond the arc to perfectly mimic what the sharpshooting big man brought to the table. 

Because of that, the ability to change directions, vary speed and use change-of-pace dribbles to turn the corner and slither into the paint will be paramount. Using a variety of runners, floaters, pull-ups and passes to keep the defense on its heels will be even more of a necessity without that second big man being pulled consistently out to the three-point line. 

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Luckily for Thomas, this might be the area where he excels most. Though he can get a little dribble-happy—pulling the ball back out again and again to run another screen-and-roll—that is somewhat in keeping with the Suns' offensive philosophy, and once he does get going, few are better at jetting around the corner and into the lane. 

He'll have to learn to play off the ball a bit more as he shares time in the backcourt with Dragic and Bledsoe, but both of those players have developed a variety of off-ball cutting, shooting and secondary ball-handling skills already, which will help ease Thomas' transition. 

If Hornacek showed anything last year, it was the ability to get more out of his team than one might expect, and if he can do that with Thomas, the Suns will get far more than their money's worth.