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If you pin the laundry list of reasons why the Nuggets missed the playoffs for a fifth consecutive year at the entrance to Pepsi Center’s practice court as motivation for this upcoming season, their lack of depth at point guard comes in quite a few notches below Paul Millsap’s injury and Denver’s inability to beat lottery teams like the Hawks and Suns at home.
Still, the Nuggets’ dearth of lead ball handlers, which forced sixth man Will Barton into an unfamiliar role at backup point guard last season behind Jamal Murray, wasn’t what Denver higher-ups imagined when forecasting their upcoming season at training camp six months earlier.
To quell any possibility of that issue resurfacing this upcoming season Denver inked Isaiah Thomas, one of the top point guards on the free agent market this summer, to a one-year veteran’s minimum contract to be its primary ball handler off the bench. And to hopefully be the missing piece in the Nuggets’ pursuit of an elusive postseason berth.
Exactly what version of Thomas Denver is getting remains a mystery. Its been just over 15 months since he exited Game 2 of the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals with a right hip strain. The next day the Celtics said Thomas’ playoffs were over after further examination revealed that the All-Star point guard reaggravated a hip injury that he initially suffered in March. He was blindsided by a trade a few months later to Cleveland in exchange for Kyrie Irving, didn’t make his Cavs’ debut until Jan. 2 and later admitted to ESPN that coming back too soon from his hip injury was a mistake.
Thomas departed a toxic Cleveland locker room at last season’s trade deadline and appeared in 17 games for the Lakers before his year ended in late-March after he eventually decided to go under the knife. His final 2017-18 line read 15.2 points on 37.3 percent shooting from the field, 29.3 percent from three, 2.1 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game. Thomas was still able to score the ball effectively as the backup with the Cavs and Lakers, but the offensive efficiency which he played with in Boston dissipated.
The Thomas that fans saw last season in the 32 games he appeared in last season was a far cry from the player who finished fifth in Most Valuable Player voting two years ago. In 2017, Thomas averaged 28.9 points per game, good for third-most in the league behind Russell Westbrook, who took home the MVP hardware that season and James Harden.
He was second in the league in both offensive win shares and offensive box score plus-minus that year. Outside of Westbrook’s quest to average a triple-double, Thomas was the lead NBA story on Sports Center throughout the regular season. Before his year ended in the Conference Finals against Cleveland, Thomas stole the hearts of NBA fans around the world when he scored 53 points against the Wizards on what would have been his late sister Chyna’s 23rd birthday. Chyna tragically lost her life in a car accident less than a month prior.
In Denver, Thomas will attempt to rehab his basketball image under Michael Malone, who coached Thomas in Sacramento early in the point guard’s NBA career. A strong relationship between the two helped pushed Thomas towards the Nuggets in free agency.
“I say this with all sincerity: I love the kid,” Malone said of Thomas in 2017. “We hit it off, and what I learned from those relationships is that if you are honest and you are real then it will go a long way. I remember sitting down with him and telling him, ‘Listen, I am going to start Greivis Vasquez. You are going to come off of the bench.’ It’s not what is best for Isaiah, but it is what I think is best for the team and with that, Isaiah, you are going to close a lot of games and play together.
“The bigger picture was that we had a lot of people around the organization trying to get him to be something that he wasn’t. If you know Isaiah Thomas’ history, he was a scorer in high school. He was a prolific scorer in college, and he has been a scorer in the NBA. I didn’t want him to be John Stockton because that is not who he is, and that would be unfair of me to ask him to change. I think he respected and admired that because I wanted him to be the best Isaiah Thomas. Stay true to yourself but also let us look to work on other areas he can work to improve upon.”
The hierarchy and role Thomas found himself in with the Kings when Malone arrived are similar to the situation he’ll be thrust into in Denver.
Murray is the Nuggets’ unquestioned starter at point guard. The 21-year-old established himself as one of Denver’s franchise cornerstones in 2017 when his scoring average jumped from 9.9 points per game during his rookie season to 16.7 last year. His All-Star potential and superstar gravitas have Denver set at the point guard position for the next decade.
Thomas will play a leading role this season as the Nuggets’ sixth man and primary scorer off the bench. The 29-year-old will have the opportunity to lead Denver’s bench unit, which struggled at times last season.
During the 2016-17 season in Boston, Thomas ran a league-high 216 dribble hand-offs — three more DHOs than the entire Thunder team tallied last year, per NBA.com. He was potent in those situations too, scoring 1.06 points per possession. That mark put him in the 80th percentile league-wide. Denver has run the third-most DHOs in the league over the past two seasons, according to NBA.com/stats, and scored 0.97 points per possessions when it executed the action last season — the seventh-highest mark in the league.
If healthy, the offensive firepower that Denver’s top six of Thomas, Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic provides is nearly unmatched across the league. The 25 postseason games and countless high-pressure possessions that Thomas has under his belt will also help what is still a relatively inexperienced Nuggets’ rotation late in the season and potentially in the playoffs. The “King of the Fourth could also get the chance to close games for Denver.
Will those attributes help set the Nuggets on a course towards their first playoff appearance since 2013?
They’ll have to wait until April to find out.