How Cleveland Cavaliers Can Solve Their Isaiah Thomas Problem
Between his atrocious defense, low shooting numbers and obvious physical disadvantage, Isaiah Thomas is hurting the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Now 13 games into his Cavs tenure, the 29-year-old has done almost nothing to fill the hole left by Kyrie Irving. The two-time All-Star is averaging 15.2 points, 2.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 0.6 steals in 26.5 minutes, shooting a career-low 36.4 percent from the field and 23.7 percent from three.
"I'm used to having the ball every play. I'm used to making most of the plays. So I've got to figure out and this team has to figure out how we can use each other's strengths and use that as a positive. And it's going to work out. It just takes some time. And I'm not back to who I am. I'm trying to figure out how to play with LeBron. I'm trying to figure out how to play with Kevin Love. At the same time, trying to get my rhythm back in real, live action. So that's going to take time. I'm not panicking. I don't think anybody in this locker room is panicking."
The word "panic" should be an understatement.
The Cavs are 5-7 with Thomas as the starting point guard and 26-14 in all other games. They played far better with 36-year-old Jose Calderon running the show (17-8 overall), albeit against an easier schedule.
With the trade deadline on the horizon, Cleveland has to make a difficult decision on Thomas. There's no easy solution, although the best option has slowly become clear.
Solution 1: Keep Thomas, Hope He Acclimates to Roster
There's still hope Thomas can at least come close to the player he was last season with the Celtics, one who put up 28.9 points a night and made the All-NBA second team.
There have been flashes, of course.
Lost in Cleveland's 148-124 beatdown by the Oklahoma City Thunder on Jan. 20, Thomas had his best game of the season against reigning MVP Russell Westbrook. He put up 24 points on 8-of-14 shooting from the field (57.1 percent) and knocked down four of his eight threes.
Thomas struggled shooting the ball against the Golden State Warriors (8-of-21, 38.1 percent), but he showed an ability to draw multiple defenders and threw a couple slick alley-oop passes to LeBron James.
The complete offensive arsenal is impressive when it's activated, taking a tremendous amount of pressure off of James, Kevin Love and company.
Logic would say Thomas will only get better with time. James and Irving went through a nasty few weeks (months?) together when the Cavs began the 2014-15 season just 19-20 overall, and no one was calling to trade Irving then.
With Love sidelined for up to eight weeks with a broken left hand, the Cavs need Thomas' scoring more than ever. Trading him now also represents the selling of a stock at its lowest value, and it puts all the pressure of the Irving trade on the Brooklyn Nets' 2018 first-round pick.
Thomas should only get better, healthier and more acclimated to his teammates as the season goes along. Cleveland can afford to be patient still over two months away from the start of the playoffs and four months from a possible Finals appearance.
Solution 2: Keep Thomas, Tweak the Roster to Fit Him
If the Cavaliers are going to commit to Thomas moving forward, there should probably be some change around him.
The Celtics got by with his poor defense by surrounding him with guys who could more than make up for it. Avery Bradley played elite-level defense for Boston and could cover the opposing point guard any time the Celtics wanted to hide Thomas on a shooting guard or small forward. Jae Crowder and Al Horford were fantastic as well.
Head coach Tyronn Lue appears committed to starting JR Smith at shooting guard, whom he referred to as his best perimeter defender last season.
Smith has all the physical tools to defend, but he often becomes lazy or gets lost on switches. Together, he and Thomas have an abysmal defensive rating of 116.9 and an overall net rating of minus-15.1, per NBA.com. The two-man lineup of Thomas and Bradley posted a defensive rating of 107.9 for the Celtics last season, with a net rating of plus-3.6.
For a backcourt with Thomas to work, a high-level defender needs to be beside him. Smith isn't going to cut it, nor would Kyle Korver, Dwyane Wade or any other shooting guard on the Cavs current roster.
Other options include Danny Green of the San Antonio Spurs and Kent Bazemore of the Atlanta Hawks. Both rank in the top seven among shooting guards in ESPN's defensive real plus-minus (2.06 and 0.91, respectively) and can knock down threes at a high clip.
If the Cavs want to keep Thomas as the starter, some deadline moves to upgrade at shooting guard would certainly help.
Solution 3: Bench Thomas
Would Thomas accept a sixth-man role after spending the past two and a half years as a starter?
For the Cavs to make a deep playoff run, he may have to.
Thomas has the talent to start, but his presence on the court has killed the production of both LeBron James and Kevin Love, Cleveland's only All-Stars.
James is posting 35.9 points, 10.8 rebounds, 12.0 assists and a plus-2.1 rating per 100 possessions this season when he's on the court without Thomas. Add the hobbled point guard, and these numbers drop to 25.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, 7.7 assists and a plus/minus of minus-15.2.
Love suffers a significant production drop-off as well. Per 100 possessions without Thomas, Love gives the Cavs 32.2 points on 47.0 percent shooting from the field and 40.9 from deep with a plus/minus of plus-1.1. With Thomas, Love's numbers fall to 21.6 points on 40.0 percent from the field and 37.1 percent from three. His plus/minus tumbles to minus-11.5.
Thomas' green light on offense has already rubbed teammates the wrong way, notes Jason Lloyd of The Athletic:
"Thomas' decisions on the court, including his shot selection, has become a private topic within the locker room. Players have expressed frustration over the way Thomas plays, the shots he takes and where and when he takes them. Thomas is defiant about his style. He isn't changing for anyone."
Since Thomas isn't changing his style, a move to the bench as the team's sixth man would allow him to be a free shooter in total control of the offense while James and Love rest.
When veteran Jose Calderon started alongside James, Love, Jae Crowder and Smith, the Cavs had a net rating of plus-8.1, their second-highest of any rotation playing 50 minutes or more. Simply swap in Thomas for Calderon, and Cleveland's net rating free-falls to minus-22.3.
The Cavaliers probably can't get by in the playoffs with Calderon or Derrick Rose as a starter, so moving Thomas to the bench would likely spark a trade for a pass-first point guard before the deadline.
Thomas may hate the move, but it's one he'd eventually have to embrace and work to thrive in heading into free agency.
Solution 4: Trade Thomas
This isn't the scenario anyone envisioned when the Cavs traded for Thomas in August, but it may be best for all parties involved.
Thomas has shown no ability to fit in with his teammates, although he has done a bang-up job of calling them out in the locker room already.
Under normal circumstances, the Cavaliers could take their time getting used to Thomas and he to them. But with LeBron James facing free agency this summer, these are not the circumstances to sit back and wait.
Under a best-case scenario, Thomas would magically heal and become a potent scorer next to James, a la Kyrie Irving. Even if this happens, his dreadful defense can't be overlooked.
For comparison, Ish Smith dropped 19 points on Thomas in a Jan. 30 loss to the Detroit Pistons. If Smith has his way with Thomas, imagine what Irving and Curry will do. As it stands, Thomas has the worst defensive rating of any NBA player taking the court 20 minutes or more a night (115.4).
Should the Cavs advance to face the Warriors in the Finals for a fourth straight year, there's no place for Thomas to hide on defense. Guard Curry, a two-time MVP with the ability to score from anywhere? How about 6'7" Klay Thompson? Or 6'9" former MVP Kevin Durant? All three are terrible matchups for Thomas for a variety of reasons and would force the Cavs to adjust their entire defensive schemes.
While he may not carry much trade value given his recent poor play, Thomas does come with an expiring $6.3 million contract that could help match salaries to acquire an upgrade at point guard.
"You can build Charlotte-Cleveland deals in which the Cavs get Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum for Isaiah Thomas, the Brooklyn pick and about $25 million more in outgoing salary. The two sides have talked at least vaguely, league sources say."
Trading Thomas and acquiring another point guard takes the guesswork out of his health, which is clearly far from 100 percent.
Best Option: Trade Thomas
At this point, Cleveland has to cut its losses and move on.
Thomas isn't getting any better, and he's dragging the Cavs down with him.
In his first six games as a starter, Thomas averaged 16.0 points on 38.2 percent from the field and 27.5 percent from three. In his last six games, these numbers have dropped to 14.0 points on 31.9 percent and 14.3 percent shooting marks.
Thomas is clearly still hurt, with one Cavs physical therapist recommending he be out until April (per Jason Lloyd of The Athletic). Thomas made his first appearance on Jan. 2.
If the Cavs go to James this summer with a recruiting pitch headlined by a soon-to-be 30-year-old Love and a hobbled, defensively challenged Thomas (29 on Feb. 7), they can pack his bags for him.
Using Thomas as a starter hasn't worked, and it has only negated the fantastic seasons James and Love were having. Thomas has the worst net rating of any NBA player seeing the court for 15 minutes or more (minus-14.8), and the Cavs improve by 17.5 points per 100 possessions when he sits.
Asking Thomas to come off the bench would likely only create more locker room issues, and trying to build the starting lineup around him seems like a waste of trade assets.
This trade deadline is potentially a last chance to surround James with talent, push for another championship and convince him to re-sign this summer.
Trading Thomas would be a good first step.