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Don't Call Isaiah Thomas Anything Other Than 'Superstar'

Michael Pina@@MichaelVPinaFeatured ColumnistNovember 22, 2016

BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 2: Isaiah Thomas #4 of the Boston Celtics looks on during the first quarter against the Chicago Bulls at TD Garden on November 2, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

In today's star-driven NBA, one question has a seemingly endless number of answers: What defines a superstar?

It's subjective, to say the least. But when it comes down to it, on-court performance should play a significant—if not the most significant—role in determining who earns such high praise. In an attempt to let basic statistics reform how we perceive certain players, let’s quickly compare four unknown point guards. All raw stats are per 36 minutes:

2016-17 NBA Point Guard Comparison
PointsAssistsUsage %PERTrue Shooting %
Player A25.55.330.321.456.0
Player B28.14.632.124.360.3
Player C25.29.633.924.954.1
Player D28.86.833.526.359.1
Basketball-Reference

Player A is Kyrie Irving. Player B is Damian Lillard. Player C is John Wall.

Player D is (surprise, surprise!) Isaiah Thomas.

The first three players on this list are unquestionable franchise players. All have max contracts, multiple All-Star appearances and are either the sole face of their organization or an irreplaceable slice of their team’s identity. 

Thomas was, statistically, on this level last year. But he’s elevated his game in the first month of the 2016-17 season, to the point wheredepending on what properties you value in a point guardhe may be the best of the bunch.

“The game is slowing down for me,” Thomas said. “I worked so hard this summer just to continue to get better and not be satisfied. And I’m just reading the game of basketball. I’m reading it at a different level.” 

He's shining as one of the three best offensive players in the entire Eastern Conference, per ESPN's offensive real plus-minus, and his brilliant play continued Monday night with 29 points to help the Celtics escape Minnesota via a thrilling 99-93 victory. Thomas couldn't be stopped, finishing with four secondary assists (as many as the entire Timberwolves team) and a flurry of free throws that gave Boston the offensive firepower it badly needed.

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BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 16: Isaiah Thomas #4 of the Boston Celtics handles the ball against the Dallas Mavericks on November 16, 2016 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and o
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Yet, when it comes to appreciating Thomas’ skill and viewing his production through the same lens as other elite NBA scorers, several understandable and unfair factors outside of his control hold him back. 

The first concern is that the 5’9” point guard is obviously short for a professional basketball player. Then you add where he was drafted (60th overall) and how much money he’s making (four players on the Boston Celtics will earn more this season). The resume doesn’t feel suited for the type of superstar acclaim Thomas deserves. 

But Thomas isn’t a stopgap or one-and-done All-Star. He turns 28 in February, but continues to improve. He now looks like the foundational piece any aspiring title contender would love to have; he's a critical building block who can score in myriad situations while also making life easier for his teammates.

The further we go into the numbers, the more impressive he is. Pick-and-rolls initiated by Thomas generate 17 points per game, according to Synergy. Only seven players have a higher average, and none of them eclipse his 1.105 points per possession. These stats are even more impressive when you consider that Thomas produced them without Al Horford and Jae Crowder (two of Boston’s three best players) by his side in nine of the team’s 14 games.

He reads help defenders as well as anyone, always measuring where opposing bigs are and finding open teammates on the weak side:

NBA.com

NBA.com

Boston’s offense is more egalitarian than most, especially those teams with high-volume shooters at the point (think Oklahoma City Thunder or Washington Wizards). But its pass-happy tendencies fit Thomas' aggressive skill set like a glove: The Celtics move the ball a ton, allowing Thomas to feast as a shifty target who can’t be dealt with head-on (a strategy that his good friend Floyd Mayweather can relate to). 

This may lead some to question whether IT2 is able to score against locked-in defenses during the playoffs. However, he’s dramatically improved his ability to score in isolation this season. According to NBA.com, Thomas is the most efficient player in the entire league in such situations (minimum 30 possessions). 

His blink-and-you're-extinct right-handed hesitation move continues to hypnotize the opponent's first line of defense, and Thomas appears to make even better use of it now that Boston's roster has improved outside shooting:

NBA.com

NBA.com

When asked about Thomas’ incessant attack, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens pointed out two characteristics he believes have allowed his leading scorer to unleash all this carnage. 

“He understands the game, he understands how to get angles, he understands all that,” Stevens said. “But it’s probably a combination of fearlessness and explosiveness. His fearlessness, he’s not scared of doing anything. He has just special explosion. He can go from that burst off the dribble and then just explode up, take a hit and finish, spin it off the glass, and he’s just got a uniqueness to him. It makes him pretty good. It makes him really good.”

Unlike fellow Eastern Conference point guard Kemba Walker of the Charlotte Hornets, (whose hot start is highlighted by unsustainable three-point shooting), Thomas' improvements are a byproduct of sharpened tools already in his back pocket. 

Last month, I asked Thomas how—as someone who led the league in drives last year—Boston’s improved spacing might help his ability to score.

He laughed and said, “I’ll lead the league again.”

Nearly a month into the season, that’s exactly what he’s done. Only now he’s averaging an incredible three more per night (14.4), without having had Horford and Crowder in the lineup for the majority of those contests. It’s more than Russell Westbrook, James Harden and DeMar DeRozan, three stars who all log more minutes with a higher usage percentage.

Those aggressive takes have led to the highest free-throw rate of his career, a figure that’s starting to invoke historical resonance: The only player 5’10” or under to post a free-throw rate higher than .555 is Spud Webb (twice), according to Basketball-Reference. To boot, he's averaging more shots in the restricted area than DeAndre Jordan, LeBron James and Andre Drummond. 

And there are still ways he can get better. Thomas is only shooting 28.3 percent on catch-and-shoot threes and 30.0 percent on threes with no defender within four feet, per NBA.com. These numbers will rise for the career 36 percent three-point shooter. 

He’s hitting 50.0 percent in clutch situations, scoring 64.1 points per 100 possessions during the final five minutes of games when the scoring margin is five points or less (aka "clutch" situations). That leads the league, and just for reference, Stephen Curry averaged 53.1 points and Kevin Durant averaged 48.2 last season.

“Sometimes guys get a little tight at the end, and the pressure gets a little tougher for them,” Thomas recently said after a Celtics win. “I guess I like the pressure.”

Take all this into consideration and it’s no surprise that the Celtics’ offensive rating decreases by 4.0 points per 100 possessions when Thomas hits the bench, or that their pace free-falls from 100.7 to 93.5. 

DETROIT, MI - NOVEMBER 19:  Isaiah Thomas #4 of the Boston Celtics goes for a lay up against the Detroit Pistons during the game on November 19, 2016 at The Palace of Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and ag
Chris Schwegler/Getty Images

Yes, Thomas’ size prevents him from having a positive impact on the glass, and just about every player in the league can get a clean shot off over his fingertips. But so long as he’s surrounded by plus defenders and maintains his physicality at the point of attack—Thomas is good at directing ball-handlers where Stevens wants them to go—it’s fair to suggest his weaknesses are nitpicky. 

The Celtics' desire to acquire more All-Star talent isn’t an indictment on Thomas’ skill set so much as a clear-eyed assessment of what it takes to defeat a team like the Golden State Warriors or Cleveland Cavaliers in a seven-game series.

In the event Boston can’t trade for/sign that missing superstar, surrounding Thomas with an even more complementary supporting cast would be wise. Three-point shooters who can space the floor and versatile wings who can handle more pressing defensive assignments on the perimeter are helpful—it's no accident that the team has already filled most of those roles. 

Due to his age, Thomas' improved play probably doesn't change the Celtics' long-term trajectory. But that doesn't mean it isn't miraculous, or that treating him like a franchise player would be a waste of resources.

Players who can score at will don't grow on trees, and Boston is lucky to have one. 

            

Boston Celtics Insider Notebook

Lineup of death is back...but in progress

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

Saturday night saw the return of Al Horford and Jae Crowder to Boston's starting lineup, which means Stevens has what some believe to be his best five-man unit now healthy and ready to go.

In Boston's win over the Detroit Pistons, Stevens debuted the quintet (Thomas, Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Crowder and Horford) and used it to close the second and fourth quarters. 

Boston outscored the Pistons by four points in seven minutes and shot 63.6 percent from the floor. The unit was again used Monday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves, but struggled to defend and clean up the boards. 

This group is something to keep an eye on (and if you have a nickname better than IT and D, please let me know).

              

Rebounding problem solved?

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 09:  Head coach Brad Stevens of the Boston Celtics talks to his team during a timeout in the game against the Washington Wizards at Verizon Center on November 9, 2016 in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges a
G Fiume/Getty Images

Defensive rebounding was an issue out of the gate. But over Boston's last five games heading into Monday, the Celtics ranked eighth in defensive rebound percentage in that span.

Before the Celtics' loss to the Golden State Warriors, Stevens said you are what you emphasize, referring to his team's subtle improvement on the glass despite injuries to key players.

I just got asked about why we’ve gotten a little bit better defensively and rebounding the last week, he said. It’s been a major—we’ve had to, we’ve had to. Everywhere we turn, we order a coffee and get asked about our defensive rebounding.

This is still a work in progress, however—something the Celtics need to commit to for more than five-game stretches if they’re going to improve over the course of the season.

         

All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Stats updated through Monday, November 21, unless otherwise noted.

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