It has been a roller coaster ride of a season so far for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
They had quite the rocky start. The Cavs won their first two games, then proceeded to lose seven out of their next 10. Things started to get better though as they went on a 13-game winning streak, with LeBron James showing playoff-like form and Dwyane Wade settling beautifully into their second unit.
Then the whole Derrick Rose debacle came and left them far from the well-oiled machine that they were expecting to be. They have been slumping again after the impressive string of victories, but it’s still enough for them to sit on third place in the eastern conference.
We shouldn’t forget though, that they are doing all of this without one of their key additions. One small man that’s nearing his return may change the fortunes of Cleveland. That man is the little engine that could, Isaiah Thomas.
In case you need a refresher course, Thomas was involved in the biggest blockbuster deal of this year’s offseason as he was traded to the Cavs along with Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, the 2018 1st round Brooklyn pick and a 2020 2nd round pick from the Miami Heat in exchange for superstar point guard Kyrie Irving.
Thomas is coming off his best season as he averaged 28.9 points and 5.9 assists per game last year and is looking to bring the same tenacity to his new home. However, before we get too excited about his hyped return, we must first examine what Thomas brings to the already stacked Cavaliers.
First of all, this guy is an explosive offensive specimen. He’s like a Swiss army knife when it comes to scoring the ball. He can shoot from downtown, he can slash through the toughest of defenses and he can facilitate and operate an offensive set for his team. It’s a wonder how he manages to get his shots off with his size, as he leaves defenders dazed and confused. With his lightning quick speed, the last thing they see is the ball going through the nylon, and IT running back on defense.
With the Celtics, Thomas was effectively scoring through the double staggered screen plays of Brad Stevens. As the name suggests, he runs full speed to the top of the key aided by two picks. As he receives the ball, he then has enough momentum giving him a step ahead of his opponents and has now a multitude of options to choose from. He can either shoot it, pass it to whoever’s open (usually in the corners or the big rolling to the basket) or slash all the way to the paint and lay it in.
Meanwhile, the Cavaliers offense is heavily reliant on the pick and roll and several variations of it. One variation they have effectively used to their advantage is similar to the play utilized for Thomas in Boston. A play called the “AI Chase,” aptly named after Allen Iverson.
The guard would run to the other side, aided by two staggered screens. As the guard receives the ball, the big who set the initial screen dashes to the ball handler to initiate a pick and roll. This would be a switching nightmare for the opposition. This has been done countless times with Irving to their success and now, they would be trying to replicate that with Thomas.
With Thomas in their lineup, they now have an almost mirrored offensive threat in their pick and roll. Cleveland certainly considered that the two are similar players to an extent, and the infusion of IT into the system would be more of a re-alignment rather than an overhaul of their offense, and having somewhat similar plays for their guards won’t hurt them either.
One thing we should also be aware of is the fact that Thomas is a ball dominant type of player who thrives in the clutch. He wasn’t named “King of the Fourth” for nothing. One dilemma that faces this team is one that’s all too familiar with LeBron. (The “clutch” issues with Wade during their time in Miami) Who will take the last shot? All things considered in the grand scheme of things, he will understand his role and slide to the second scoring option on the team and let LeBron James be LeBron James.
Compared to his Celtics days though, Thomas’ work would be lighter as he would not be shouldering majority of the offensive load. This can give him more energy to give out more on his weakest link, defense. It’s not about his lack of effort though as he exerts the best effort to defend, but due to his size, most of the people he’s trying to defend are just too big for him. This poses a problem for Cleveland as they are 28th in defensive efficiency in the league, and 23rd in opponent’s points per game.
With all those mentioned, Thomas has always been able to compensate the missing part of his game with thunderous hustle, effort, and will. This guy scored 53 points in a playoff game a few days after his sister passed away, showing the character of a truly competitive player.
His comeback is set, but there are still a number of questions surrounding his return. Can he still show the same level of play? Did the hip injury take too much out of him? Will he be a defensive liability? Can he help Cleveland win another one?
All of these have answers, but only time will tell. Whatever happens though, Isaiah Thomas will be there again as always, doing his best to defy all expectations.
[IT thumbnail from NBA.com; videos from YouTube]