This summer's biggest on-court move for Sacramento was easily the decision to not re-sign Tyreke Evans. The Kings were able to nab a nice asset from New Orleans in Greivis Vasquez in return, and as such, many fans view Vasquez as Sacramento's starting PG already. It's easy to see why. When you trade a player of Evans quality, you're hoping to get a starter in return. Vasquez also led the league in total assists last year, a skill that is much needed on a Kings team that is oft-labeled as selfish and rightly so.
But there's a 5'9, 185 lb. problem with simply penciling in Vasquez as the starter. Isaiah Thomas is the incumbent and will be working hard to stay that way.
Thomas has already blown by any and all expectations that were set for him in the NBA. Last picks in the draft aren't usually expected to even make a team, let alone start. But Isaiah Thomas was able to do that and more. In his career-to-date he's proven that he's an exceedingly talented scorer, a good passer, and a capable defender. More so than probably any other player in the last two years, Thomas has single-handedly kept Sacramento in games that they shouldn't have been in. He's also been very consistent despite changing circumstances. Last year, Thomas had a bit of a rough start due to a new offense that Keith Smart tried to install that was soon scrapped. He ended up losing his starting role to Aaron Brooks for a while because of his troubles in that offense. That proved to be a mistake. Brooks was a better shooter than Thomas, but a much worse passer and defender. Thomas eventually re-joined the starting lineup while Brooks was waived midway through the season.
That brings us to this year, where Thomas again seemingly faces an uphill battle to retain his spot in the starting lineup. The Kings have brought in two new Point Guards in Vasquez and rookie Ray McCallum. Both Vasquez and Thomas will be playing for new contracts this season. McCallum had a nice summer league, but until he proves himself in the NBA, he'll be on the sideline, or more likely, in Reno.
Thomas and Vasquez bring different sets of skills to the table. Vasquez is a much better passer. Thomas is a much better scorer. Vasquez is much taller. Thomas is much quicker.
What will likely determine which of Thomas or Vasquez starts is defense. Michael Malone is a defensive minded coach and has been adamant about making the Kings better on that front (they were last in the league in opponent points per game and 29th in Defensive Rating last season). Thomas, as of now, is the better defender. Despite his short stature, Thomas is able to stay in front of his man thanks to his low center of gravity and quickness. He's also very strong for his size. According to MySynergySports, Thomas does very well in two specific areas of defense: Isolation and Post-up. In Isolation, he allowed just 0.7 points per possession and 33.3% shooting. His post-up numbers are even more impressive, given that he's a player that seemingly should be taken advantage of in the post. Yet he allows just 0.69 points per possession and 34.8% shooting on Post-Ups.
(Insert obligatory Javale McGee Post-Up Fail GIF here)
Vasquez on the other hand doesn't do particularly well in any defensive category. He's got good size, but he's very slow, particularly laterally. The advantage seems to tilt towards Thomas here.
Now, even if Vasquez does start, Isaiah can still be incredibly useful off the bench as a sparkplug scorer, much like his friend Nate Robinson and former mentor Bobby Jackson. Thomas will simply need a clearly defined role, something that was not the case for him (or much of the team) last year.
If Thomas does start, he'll need to improve his passing game. He doesn't need to be as good as Vasquez, but he should be better than where he is at now. With Evans gone from the team, Thomas will get more opportunities to run the team by himself, as well as play with more shooters.
I'm also of the belief that we will see significant stints this year where the Kings will run both Isaiah Thomas and Greivis Vasquez at the same time. Malone's former team in Golden State employed this dual Point Guard tactic to great effect with Steph Curry and Jarrett Jack. New GM Pete D'Alessandro also comes from a Denver team that featured two starting Point Guards in Andre Miller and Ty Lawson. I don't think Sacramento will go so far as to start both of them though, not with Ben McLemore and Marcus Thornton aboard.
I'm an unabashed Isaiah Thomas fan and in my two years of watching him, one thing I've learned is to not doubt his capabilities. I wouldn't count him out as a starter just yet.
(H/T to HeuristicLineup for linking to this video on Twitter this morning)