The Case for IT4: Russell Westbrook Isn't the Only All-Star Snub in MVP Debate

Michael Pina@@MichaelVPinaFeatured ColumnistJanuary 20, 2017

BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 18: Isaiah Thomas #4 of the Boston Celtics reacts during the fourth quarter against the New York Knicks during the second half at TD Garden on January 18, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Knicks defeat the Celtics 117-106. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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Isaiah Thomas' reaction to not starting in the All-Star Game is solid evidence that he, above everyone else, isn't satisfied with all the wildly impressive performances he's had this year. 

"I mean, you look in the West, [Russell] Westbrook averaged a triple-double and didn't get in, so I'll let everybody else debate for me, argue for me," the 27-year-old said.

"I'll use it as motivation. I'll keep going, and I gotta get better."

That's coming from a guy who has been responsible for one of the most explosive individual offensive stretches in recent NBA history through the first half of the 2016-17 NBA season.

Thomas is averaging 28.7 points (fourth in the league behind Westbrook, James Harden and Anthony Davis) and six assists per game and is shooting 46 percent from the floor, 38.5 percent beyond the arc and 91 percent from the free-throw line. He has the NBA's fifth-highest usage rate (33.8) and its eighth-best PER (27), with a 61.7 true shooting percentage that sits ahead of Giannis Antetokounmpo's and Harden's.

Thomas also holds as many win shares as Westbrook and Stephen Curry (6.4), and he ranks eighth in offensive real plus-minus (plus-5.45), per ESPN.com. He's ridiculously good.     

But he won't start in the All-Star Game despite finishing first among the media vote and second among his fellow players. 

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BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 18:  Isaiah Thomas #4 of the Boston Celtics goes up for a shot during a game against the New York Knicks on January 18, 2017 at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by download
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That shouldn't blemish any of his wildly impressive stats, the positive impact he's had on the Boston Celtics or the fact that his name deserves mention in serious MVP discussions.

The overall numbers seen above cement him in elite company, but when you hone in on the fourth quarter, Thomas' production catapults to a historical echelon. Not only do his 10.1 points lead the league—a number unseen in 20 years—he's somehow upped his efficiency, shooting 48.4 percent from the floor, 44 percent from deep and 90.2 percent from the line. 

"People can say whatever they want, if he's a superstar or not," Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford said. "He's an offensive superstar at the very least. He's as difficult to handle in a pick-and-roll, or to close out, to me as anybody."

Thomas' plus-minus in clutch situations is fifth-highest in the league at plus-44. He's money when the game is on the line and even better than most of his peers.

Through 85 clutch minutes this season (defined by the last five minutes of a game when the margin is five points or fewer), Thomas has scored 118 points. Chicago Bulls forward Jimmy Butler has 23 fewer points in the exact same number of minutes; Washington Wizards point guard John Wall has 17 fewer points in 19 more minutes.

The only player who's scored more is Westbrook, but Thomas has him beat (badly) in the efficiency department. Mr. Triple-Double is posting 39.7/27.3/81.3 splits down the stretch of close games. Thomas is at an incredulous 48.5/45.5/87.5.

"I marvel at him," Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said.

"The thing to me is, two things: One, he plays with a level of confidence and toughness that is unique. That separates him. And then he plays with an urgency and a force. So when he's in the half court, you're constantly having to react to him. The minute you let up for a second—bam—it's like a fighter; if you drop your hands, he's hitting you in the face. That's how I feel when I watch him play."

Boston's overall offense averages 112.9 points per 100 possessions when Thomas is on the floor. That number falls to 101.2 when he sits, a painful drop from third to 27th in offensive rating. He makes life easier for his teammates by drawing a massive amount of attention.

Whether the rock is in his hands, he's setting an off-ball screen or being used as a decoy in one of head coach Brad Stevens' creative sets.

The answer on high screens used to be simple: trap him. Squeeze the ball out and force other Celtics to beat you. But defenses haven’t tried that strategy as often this season, in part because of how dangerous Al Horford can be as a roll man. 

Credit: NBA.com

 

It's also just hard to execute.

"Teams try to trap, but it's very hard to trap him," New York Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek, whom Thomas played for on the Phoenix Suns, said.

"He's got a great basketball mind that way where he knows, he understands, he sees the floor. If a guy is going to jump out, he goes, 'OK, I can just take my one quick dribble, get around him and pass out of there,' and then they have a four on three. ... The more you're in this league, the more you see everything, and then things become slow and easy, and that's where he’s at right now."

The Celtics make 39.2 percent of their threes when Thomas is on the court and just 32.5 percent when he sits, which is the largest disparity on the roster and represents the same gap between the league's second- and 29th-ranked three-point shooting teams.

A major reason why? Thomas regularly draws help without a screen.

According to Synergy Sports data on NBA.com, he's in the 98th percentile as an isolation scorer. Also, he's almost impossible to keep at bay off the bounce, which forces defenders to pinch in off the the three-point line. The best players in the world make this look so easy.

Credit: NBA.com

 

Credit: NBA.com

"He draws much more attention than I ever expected," Horford told Bleacher Report. "He's getting a lot of double-teams. He's getting people's best shots. You have to compare it to the guys who're having successful years this year, like James Harden, Westbrook."

Thomas won't win the MVP this season, of course, but he's shown an ability to produce MVP-caliber numbers for a winning team. His statistics compare favorably to previous winners, and he's in a situation where the window to take it home should be open for at least another year.

"One year, I felt like Derrick Rose played [like Thomas is], like every time he got the ball it was like no one could stop him," Celtics guard Avery Bradley said. "Every shot, he felt like it was going in, and you felt like it was going in."

Other factors beyond a consistent ability to put the ball in the basket matter, and Thomas' size (5'9", 185 lbs) limits him on the defensive end, where he lacks the length and strength to handle multiple positions (let alone his own) against most opponents.

He ranks 86th (out of 86) point guards in defensive real plus-minus (minus-4.42), per ESPN.com, and Boston allows enough points per 100 possessions to rank 28th in the NBA when he's on the court and few enough to be first when he isn't.

TORONTO, ON - JANUARY 10:  DeMar DeRozan #10 of the Toronto Raptors dribbles the ball as Isaiah Thomas #4 of the Boston Celtics defends during the first half of an NBA game at Air Canada Centre on January 10, 2017 in Toronto, Canada.  NOTE TO USER: User e
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But sometimes offensive contributions outweigh defensive liabilities. Thomas does as much with his small frame as he can, and his limitations aren't for lack of effort or intelligence. He also isn't the primary reason the Celtics have struggled to get stops this year, and they had one of the most stout units in the league last season with him in a major role.

He's not great, but it's impossible to quantify 42 games and conclude he's an undeniable liability—at least in the regular season.

That end of the floor is critical and shouldn't be discounted when measuring any player's overall value, but an All-Defensive team member who struggles to score (think Andre Roberson—who may join the ranks this season—or even peak Tony Allen) is far more costly and less influential than an All-NBA scorer who can’t consistently defend.

"I think the biggest thing for Isaiah is he's gotta make sure he stays focused and keeps working," Horford told Bleacher Report.

"I feel like if we're able to win and he's doing what he's doing, he should be in that [MVP] conversation. His biggest thing is keep focusing on us, keep playing like he's playing, and there's definitely an opportunity. But we have to win."

Boston Celtics Insider Notebook

Bradley's Achilles Is a Concern

BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 16:  Avery Bradley #0 of the Boston Celtics drives to the basket against the Charlotte Hornets on January 16, 2017 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading a
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After he missed four straight games with a sore Achilles tendon, Avery Bradley returned last Monday night to chip in five points, three assists and two steals during a 108-98 win against the Charlotte Hornets at TD Garden. He was a late scratch against the New York Knicks 48 hours later, and it's unclear when Bradley will be back to 100 percent. 

"It's structurally fine, but he's got a lot of soreness around it," Stevens said before practice Friday.

"And that's one of those things that I think you have to be ultracareful with. He came back, said he felt a lot better, then he played, then the next day he practiced; and he didn't do anything live, but he did a lot of cutting and didn't feel as good. He will not practice today."

Bradley is a huge puzzle piece in Stevens' system: A reliable shooter who spaces the floor, finishes on timely cuts and even handles the ball a little bit when Thomas and Marcus Smart are on the bench. According to Synergy Sports data on NBA.com, Bradley ranks in the 92nd percentile as a spot-up scorer and the 76th percentile as a pick-and-roll passer. 

The Celtics will miss his impact on both ends, but it's understandable to keep him out as long as it takes. A long-term Achilles injury could have devastating consequences on Bradley's career while lowering Boston's ceiling over the next couple seasons.

To Olynyk or Not?

BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 7: Kelly Olynyk #41 of the Boston Celtics goes for the dunk during the game against the New Orleans Pelicans on January 7, 2017 at TD Garden in Boston, Masschusetts.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downl
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These stats are noisy, for sure, but the Celtics are 14-4 when Kelly Olynyk attempts at least seven shots and 11-2 when he scores in double figures.

The impact is obvious: As a 7'0" three-point shooter who can go off the dribble, then drive and kick, Olynyk has a rare skill set that puts almost every defense in an uncomfortable position.

He and Horford allow the Celtics to go five out, and when those two share the floor, Boston scores 114.3 points per 100 possessions. It's a lethal duo that spreads the defense and creates advantageous opportunities for Boston's various ball-handlers all over the court.

Expect Stevens to play them more and more after the All-Star break (even though it's not an answer to their woes on the defensive glass).

But consistency matters. Two games after he scored a season-high 26 points against the Atlanta Hawks, Olynyk dropped a four-point dud against a New York Knicks front line that didn't have Joakim Noah or Kristaps Porzingis.

If Olynyk isn't in a Celtics uniform next season (more likely than not thanks to his high cap hold), this helps explain why.

All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All statistics via Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com unless otherwise noted and are recent as of Friday.