Doubting Thomas - an exercise in futility

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Isaiah Thomas celebrated his 50th game as a starter under coach Michael Malone Tuesday night versus Washington. This seems like an arbitrary the perfect time to reflect on Thomas' season as a starter, as well as ponder what the future may hold.

Let's look at numbers first, because, well, everybody loves numbers! Thomas is averaging 21.6ppg as a starter (which ranks 2nd among starting point guards, behind only Steph Curry), with a points per shot average of 1.32 (tied for 5th with Kyle Lowry). He has averaged 6.9 assists (tied for 10th with Jameer Nelson) versus 3.1 turnovers (tied for 6th worst) for a 2.23/1 ratio (23rd), and he chips in 3.2 boards (12th) and 1.3 steals (11th).

Basically, the numbers show Thomas to be elite as a scoring point guard in both volume and efficiency. He cracks the top third in assists, but he turns the ball over too much and is in the lower half in ratio. He is a slightly better than average rebounder (5-9!!!) and pilferer.

At first blush, it would appear that a reduction in turnovers would be the first thing to address in Thomas' offensive game. There are those that call for a reduction in his shooting volume, but one could question why you would want to reduce the number of shots for a guy averaging 1.32 points every time he shoots, which ranks tied for 27th in the entire league and comes in at tied for 9th among players that shoot at least 15 times a game. DeMarcus Cousins is 7th on that 15+ shot list, by the way, and Rudy Gay would rank just behind Thomas if you only considered his time in Sacramento, so one could counter-argue that an extra Thomas to Cousins or Gay assist would be at least a wee bit better overall.

Thomas averages 16.4 field goal attempts per game, which would rank 6th among starting point guards, in between John Wall and Damian Lillard. That's high. But this does not take pace into account, nor does it account for the quantity and quality of alternative shooters. Let's look at the list of starting point guards in the league, and where they rank on their respective teams for shots taken per game, as well as their standing from an assist stand point:

Player-Team

FGA

Team Rank

Pct. Team FGA

APG

Team Ast. Rank

Pct. Ast. Baskets

Notes

Teague-Atl

13.3

3

16.2

7.0

1

27.7

2nd while Horford has been out

Rondo - Bos

12.3

3

14.6

8.8

1

42.7

21 starts for Rondo (35 for Crawford)

Williams-Bkn

11.1

3

14.2

6.3

1

30.6

Walker-Cha

15.4

2

18.9

5.8

1

27.4

Hinrich-Chi

8.4

7

10.4

4.0

3

17.9

Rank does not include Rose or Deng

Irving-Cle

17.8

1

20.9

6.2

1

30.4

Calderon-Dal

9.4

4

11.3

4.9

2

20.9

Shares ball handling duties with Monta Ellis

Lawson-Den

13.5

1

15.8

8.8

1

40.7

Jennings-Det

14.8

2

17.1

7.9

1

38.0

Curry-GS

17.7

1

20.8

8.7

1

37.2

Beverly-Hou

8.5

6

10.7

2.7

4

13.0

Harden is primary ball handler

Hill-Ind

8.5

7

10.5

3.5

3

17.2

Stephenson/George 1/2 in assists

Paul-LAC

14.0

3

17.0

10.9

1

44.7

Marshall-LAL

9.8

10

11.7

9.5

1

40.3

Conley-Mem

14.2

2

17.4

6.0

1

27.6

Chalmers-Mia

7.3

4

9.5

4.9

2

21.2

James is primary ball handler

Knight-Mil

14.8

1

17.9

4.9

1

23.0

Rubio-Min

7.7

6

8.8

8.5

1

36.5

Holiday-NO

13.4

3

16.2

7.9

1

37.3

Felton-NY

9.5

4

11.4

5.7

1

28.1

Westbrook-OKC

17.0

2

20.6

7.2

1

33.2

Nelson-Orl

11.2

5

13.4

6.9

1

32.9

Carter-Williams-Phl

15.4

2

17.5

6.2

1

28.3

Dragic-Phx

14.2

1

16.9

6.0

1

31.1

Bledose injury had some impact

Lillard-Por

16.1

2

18.4

5.6

1

24.1

Parker-SA

13.8

1

16.7

6.2

1

24.6

Lowry-Tor

13.0

2

15.9

7.9

1

36.9

Rank does not include Gay

Burke-Ut

12.6

2

15.6

5.3

1

26.5

Wall-Was

16.5

1

19.5

8.7

1

37.5

Thomas-Sac (Tot)

16.3

3

19.9

6.8

1

35.8

Average

12.9

3

15.5

6.7

1

30.4

Thomas-Sac (a)

15.5

3

18.7

7.5

1

39.5

Thomas-Sac (b)

17.3

1

21.0

6.1

1

32.1

Thomas (Tot) denotes his total number of games as a starter

Thomas (a) denotes games where Thomas, Gay and Cousins all log at least 30 minutes (Thomas as starter)

Thomas (b) denotes games where Thomas, Gay and Cousins did not all log at least 30 minutes (Thomas as starter)

A couple of things that jump out at me here. 21 of the 30 point guards are among the top three shooting options for their team). Seven point guards lead their teams in shots, while only nine rank fourth or lower. There are various reasons. Ty Lawson, for example, leads his team in shots taken, but his volume of shots is close to the overall average. This is due to the shots really being spread around in Denver, which is in part a credit due to Lawson himself. "Pass-first" Chris Paul is actually above the shot volume average, but he is such a prolific passer that he is rarely thought of as one that shoots much. John Wall and Kyle Lowry account for a similar number of their team's assists, even though Wall is thought of as shoot-first and Lowry more as pass-first.

More than half of the point guards account for 30% or more of their team's assists, with eleven eclipsing 35% and four eclipsing 40%. On the other hand, eight make up less than one-quarter of their team's assists. Again, there can be myriad reasons for this. Some guys, like Patrick Beverly George Hill and Mario Chalmers just aren't primary ball handlers (surprise, surprise, all of you Jose Calderon fans). Tony Parker, who falls just below the 25% line, is on a team of ultimate ball movement.

One of the biggest discoveries is that the "average" NBA starting point guard takes 13 shots per game, takes the 3rd most shots for their team, and takes almost 16% of their team's shots. What was to be expected is that they collectively lead their teams in assists, and account for about 30% of their team's total assists.

But once you get done acknowledging that there are going to be aberrations and exceptions (in other words, the numbers here are more of a guide than a hard and fast rule), it certainly appears that the following could be said as it pertains to Isaiah Thomas: His field goals per game and percentage of his team's shots as a starter seem too high, and his assist numbers look to be OK (the previously noted turnovers notwithstanding).

Let's dig a little deeper. The Kings are 15-12 when Thomas, Cousins and Gay all play at least 30 minutes each. In these games Thomas averages 15.5 shots a game to 16.5 for Cousins and 16.4 for Gay. His 7.5 assists in these games versus 3.3 turnovers equates to a 2.31/1 ratio. So Thomas basically takes two fewer shots while doling out almost one and a half more assists than when Cousins and/or Gay don't log at least 30 minutes. The assist numbers would move him up to 9th in assists among starting point guards, 19th in ratio. He would be 6th in FGA among point guards, 3rd on the team in shots per game (as opposed to the leading shot taker when Cousins and/or Gay fall below the 30 minute mark). Oh, and he is slightly more efficient as a shooter in these games, too.

The numbers would seem to indicate that Thomas is at his very best when Cousins and Gay play, and less effective when either one of them have their minutes limited. We can only guess whether or not Cousins and/or Gay would be more/less effective without Thomas, as Isaiah hasn't missed a game. But a reasonable assumption is that Cousins and Gay would suffer at least in efficiency if the team's leading assist man (and best assist/to man unless you include small sample size Ray McCallum) didn't play. In a nutshell, whenever one of the "big three" goes missing, the other two suffer.

Again, this analysis is not perfect. It does not take pace into play, and it does not denote for a team's style of play. But as a broad overview, it does a reasonable job of slotting Thomas as a higher volume shooter, as well as a good volume assist, bad volume turnover guy. When focusing on the 27 games where the big three have all played 30+ minutes, Thomas is a reasonable volume shooter and a good assist man that still turns the ball over just a bit too much.

The other thing that is not taken into account here is that this is only Thomas' third season, and his first with this coach and this offense. It is highly likely that we have not yet seen the arc of Thomas' career. Anyone betting against his ability to become less turnover-prone is not taking into account what Thomas has overcome throughout his career as a basketball player, and it's a safe bet that if the Kings gave him a back court partner that could consistently hit open shots, Thomas would shoot at least slightly less and his assist numbers would flourish.

All of this needs to be taken into account when determining what the Kings are going to do about Thomas, his contract and the point guard position next year. Kyle Lowry, Mario Chalmers, and Kirk Hinrich are the only players on the above list that are unrestricted free agents, (Eric Bledsoe is not on the list, but could be the most well-compensated RFA point guard of the offseason, surpassing Thomas). Add reserves like D.J. Augustin, Darren Collison and Ramon Sessions as you so desire. One can assume that Lowry will command a contract beyond the Kings' cap limit (unless Gay opts out), and Chalmers, Augustin, Collison and Hinrich are simply not in Thomas' league. And before you commence with the Chalmers or Hinrich chants and promises of defense, let me remind you that Mario's trifecta of all-star teammates or Hinrich's coach Thibs will not make the trek to Sacramento with him.

There will probably be around a half dozen teams or so that will be able to afford to make Thomas an offer beyond the mid-level exception, which would start at about $5.3m and go up to around $5.8m by year four of the contract. This is worth considering, inasmuch as if Thomas receives offer in the $5-6M per year range, he could certainly consider an MLE offer by a contender, especially the few that are concerned about luxury tax dollars. Remember, Thomas will have appeal not only as a starting point guard, but also as a super 6th man. Under the right circumstances (lack of significantly better dollars, MLE offer by well-run and competitive organization), I could see Thomas at least considering an MLE offer.

The more likely scenario is that at least one team offers Thomas $7-9m annually for 3-4 years, at which time the Kings will need to match or consider alternatives. Short of Lowry or Bledsoe, there is not a free agent out there that will fill the point guard position better next year for the Kings than Isaiah Thomas. There is no guard in the draft that is likely to be better than Thomas next year. The only other alternative would be a trade, and it would be difficult to craft a trade that would improve point guard play for the Kings while not sacrificing other assets...and there still aren't a ton of assets.

Remember, if the Kings let Thomas goes and Gay stays, the Kings cannot afford to make an offer to the likes of Lowry or Bledsoe. Losing Thomas for (say) Augustin or Ramon Sessions or whoever would be a huge net loss, no matter how you slice it. Now, if Gay leaves as well, the Kings would have somewhere in the neighborhood of $12m in cap room (including draft pick), but would now have to fill both the small forward and point guard positions. Would Kyle Lowry and Derrick Williams at small forward make you happier than Thomas and Gay? Or the likes of Al-Farouq Aminu?

If the Kings can retain Thomas for under $10m annually, they can lock him up for the same run as Cousins' contract, and still have enough money left over (come years 2-4 of Cousins' contract) to pay out for a stud...or retain Rudy Gay. The Kings have shown that they could be a 45-46 win club right now if they could keep the big three on the floor. Once Terry, Williams and Outlaw come of the books (one more year!), the Kings would have a little more room to go out and get these guys the needed support. A defensive presence next to Cousins and a shooting guard that can convert the open shot while not needing volume shots per game and presto! - you have yourself a contender...maybe.

The alternative is that you determine that it just won't work, you let Thomas go, you bite the bullet on an offense that is going to get substantially worse for a season, and then you go after Rajon Rondo in 2015 (warning: Monta Ellis is a free agent in 2015, too!). Marc Gasol will also be an unrestricted free agent in 2015, Arron Afflalo has a player option, as does Kevin Love and Goran Dragic. Would free agent Tyson Chandler have anything left in the tank?  Would Amir Johnson be a good fit next to Cousins? And there are other high profile names as well. Would the Kings be better off sacrificing a bit next year for the greater good of 2015?

In the end, it will all come down to the price valuation that Pete D'Alessandro and company place on Thomas, much in the same way that they price-valuated Tyreke Evans. If someone offers Thomas more than what the Kings are willing to comfortably pay, he's likely gone, as you don't overpay for your third piece.

There are a lot of mitigating factors to whether Isaiah Thomas will or won't be in a Sacramento Kings uniform next year. Ultimately, the determining factor may be as much about timing as it will be about talent. But if the next 16 games are to be Thomas' last 16 games in Sacramento, I'm going to take these moments to recognize that he has been the best point guard to grace this team since Mike Bibby, and probably the best facilitator since Jason Williams. For what he's given the team during his three year, $2.1m contract, it would be hard to argue that there has been a player that has brought better value to contract in Sacramento Kings history. And he has been an oasis of entertainment in the desert that has been this Kings franchise over the past few years.

The future is unknown. However it plays out, I say "Thanks, Isaiah! Thanks for the past three years."

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