Isaiah Thomas is a divisive figure among Celtics fans despite being such a productive player the last couple years. While many fans admire the Celtics’ star for his fourth-quarter heroics, many fans fear the idea of tying up a third max contract in a 5’9″ PG. Thomas doesn’t make this easier on fans with his “Brinks Trunk” comments or sandals. But Isaiah Thomas is worth a max deal, regardless of what you might think. Despite his defense, his age, or his height, Thomas’ production is worth it.
Many critics of Thomas claim he is a one dimensional player. That he is just a scorer, or is too much of a black hole defensively to really become a superstar talent. This isn’t true for two-reasons:
- While defense is definitely not a strength of IT’s, he isn’t nearly as terrible as some would have you believe. More mediocre, or average.
- His overall impact is superstar level regardless.
The table (above) from NBAMath.com shows Thomas’ defensive “value added” compared to Kyrie Irving. As you can see, Thomas adds some value defensively on some play types, performs poorly defending other play types, really neither a plus or a minus on most play types. Defensively, he outplays fellow Eastern Conference Point Guard Kyrie Irving in value added.
Also, the season before last, the Celtics fielded a top-five defense despite playing Isaiah Thomas big minutes at the start and end of games. So what changed last year? It wasn’t that Isaiah was a serviceable defender two years ago, and a terrible defender last year. The Celtics simply played many more three-guard lineups last season. These small-ball lineups were awesome offensively, but terrible defensively. So many plus-minus related, or advanced stats, for any of the three guards BOS played in these lineups skew unfairly. Thomas was almost always one of the three guards on the floor with those groupings.
Supposedly Thomas is too old to get a max deal. At 28 years of age, will he remain a max-level player for three to five years into the future?
Yes, he probably will.
Not many shorter players have made the NBA, never mind played at or near the level of Isaiah Thomas. Many of the few who have played well into their 30’s. Think of guys like Terrell Brandon, Calvin Murphy, and Avery Johnson. Calvin Murphy is a great example, as his lone all-star season was at age 30. His age 31-32 seasons were actually just as productive from an advanced stat, or per 100 possessions standpoint, however he saw a decline in minutes. Thus his counting stats declined.
Sure, you might be able to think of a few names of short guys who flamed out of the league before their 30’s. But was that due to age? Or the fact that they never really had the talent to stick in the league while overcoming their height in the first place?
Thomas has not only proven he has the talent to overcome his height and stick in the league, he might be the greatest “little guy” to grace NBA hardwood — ever. Thomas posted an advanced stat-line last season that had never been achieved, by a player big or little. Thomas achieved a >60.0% True Shooting Percentage, >30% Assist Percentage, >30% Usage Percentage, <11% Turnover Percentage season last year. Literally, that has never been done before. And he did so while producing more than 12 win shares, and while scoring 29 PPG as the only elite scoring threat on his team. (Thus attracting double-teams and extra defensive attention).
So we already know Thomas is great enough to overcome his height. The question shouldn’t be” how well will such a short guy age?” It should be “How well do star/superstar level guards typically age?”
Comparable Players On Max Deals
Isaiah Thomas was a very productive player for the Boston Celtics. Players who produce at similar levels get paid. The way most NBA contract negotiations work, this matters. Rarely does the NBA function like a true open-market economy, where the price is set by competition, or where supply and demand have true and definite impacts on cost. Especially with superstar level players.
Typically with star players agents will sit down with General Managers, and show them similar players and the contracts they received. The General Manager and the agent may go back on forth on how the player is or isn’t similar, or on specific aspects of the deal (number of years), but usually the negotiations are relatively straightforward.
When Ainge sits down with Thomas’ agent, he will see the maximum annual value contracts recently signed by players like Mike Conley and Kyle Lowry. Lowry in particular is a very revealing comp. Lowry, two years older than Thomas, wasn’t as productive offensively as Thomas, will be entering free agency, and still received the max annual value for three seasons. Thomas’ agent can tell Ainge, if Lowry was worth a three-year max at age 31, Thomas is worth a five-year max at age 29.
IT was not drafted by the Celtics, or acquired during his rookie deal. Despite making the All-NBA team last season, Thomas is not eligible for one of the new “super-max” deals. His agent might try to show Ainge how Thomas’ numbers the last two years compare to players like James Harden, Steph Curry, and Russell Westbrook, and convince Ainge that they’re really getting Thomas for a bargain price.
Superstar Level Production
The King of the Fourth had himself a breakout season last year. Despite the fact that he scored at least 20 PPG in his third year in the league in SAC, and again the season before last in Boston, the league didn’t consider him a superstar level player.
To anyone paying attention last year, that should now have changed. IT4 scored 28.9 PPG, and produced 5.9 assists per game. He shot more than 46% from the floor and about 37% from three. He led the NBA in drives-to-the-rim per game and produced 12 win shares, good for 9th in the league in that category. His win shares/48 minutes jumped from .177 to .234, good for 6th in the league. He finished 9th in the league in true shooting percentage, and 2nd in the league in free-throw percentage. Thomas made his second consecutive All Star team and was selected to his first ever All-NBA 2nd Team.
Thomas was not only top five in many offensive categories, and top 10 in many others, he scored very well in some all-inclusive metrics. Like NBAMath’s TPA for example. Thomas was 15th in the NBA in Combined TPA. His Offensive TPA was top three in the league. And despite the negative circumstances skewing many of his defensive metrics, even when DTPA and OTPA are combined, Thomas was in the top 15.
Thomas is also elite in the pick and roll, a bread and butter offensive play type for the Boston Celtics. Per NBA.Com’s Synergy Stats, Thomas was in the 94th percentile for PnR efficiency. NBAMath’s Offensive Value Added Charts show Thomas’ tremendous offensive value.
The X Factor
The only X Factor when it comes to the issue of whether to max Isaiah is his hip. This really shouldn’t enter into the thought process of any arm-chair GM. Thomas is not up for free agency right now. So the uncertainty of the hip doesn’t matter. By the time Thomas IS up for free agency, we will have had a full season to witness how well Thomas was able to rebound.
Thomas has been remarkably durable throughout his career. He played in 65 games in the lockout-shortened 66 game season. And he’s played in at least 72 games in four out of the last five seasons. After rarely missing even more then a small handful of games throughout his career, one injury should be far from a concern. Especially an injury like a partially torn labrum. This isn’t a Bo Jackson style, your career is dead, hip injury. This is one he should be able to come back from.
Thomas has been examined by many medical professionals and the conclusion has been that surgery is not needed. This should also be a relief.
Therefore the correct approach is simply “wait and see” when it comes to the hip. From a contract negotiation standpoint, you don’t have to put pen to paper until more knowledge is available anyway. So unless the hip becomes a reason not to max Thomas, why assume it will?