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Nuggets Film Room: How Isaiah Thomas can take Denver's offense to new heights

Harrison Wind Avatar
July 23, 2018

It’s been just over two years since Isaiah Thomas warned general managers and owners around the league that they “better bring out the Brinks truck” if they wanted to secure his services once he hit the free agent market.

It was a bold proclamation at the time from the ever-confident Thomas, but one that came with merit. Thomas was coming off a breakout season in Boston — his first full year with the Celtics — where he averaged 22.9 points per game. After failing to find a consistent role or the organizational trust that any player craves in either of his first two stops in Sacramento and Phoenix, Thomas was the star player and starting point guard for the Celtics. Boston scored the fifth seed in the East in Thomas’ first year there.

He was in his basketball prime at 27 years old and in the second-to-last season of a four-year, $27 million contract that he signed in 2014. Thomas then doubled down on his bold claim by averaging 28.9 points, finishing fifth in Most Valuable Player voting and leading Boston to the Eastern Conference Finals where they fell in five games to Cleveland. The payday that would set Thomas, his family and his families’ family up for the rest of their lives was coming.

The 5-foot-9 point guard was the NBA’s Mr. Irrelevant in the 2011 draft. Before that, he was a fringe top-100 recruit who had been doubted and knocked throughout the prep ranks because of his height. Thomas led the Huskies to three Pac-10 titles, earning All-League honors each time, but the Kings, who drafted him 60th overall, could never fully commit.

Thomas started 152 of the 216 games he played for Sacramento but had to navigate a constant stream of steadier point guards that Kings’ management paraded through the practice gym door, including Aaron Brooks and Greivis Vasquez. However, in Boston, Thomas was quickly embraced by The Garden faithful for his All-NBA level play, fourth-quarter dramatics and true passion, fervor and love for the game. Just weeks after his sister, Chyna, died in a car accident, Thomas scored 53 points on an injured hip in the 2017 playoffs on what would have been her 23rd birthday. The “King of the Fourth,” as he was known for his late-game heroics, was going to be a Celtic for life.

But Thomas’ bum hip caused him to miss the Celtics finals three games of Boston’s playoff series versus the Cavaliers. A year out from his supposed payday Thomas was abruptly dealt to Cleveland as part of a trade package for Kyrie Irving.

Thomas’ offseason was filled with rumors surrounding the ailing hip and whether or not he’d have to go under the knife that summer or in the future. Then, Thomas made his Cavs’ debut on Jan. 2 after months of grueling rehab. In an impressive opening act, Thomas scored 17 points in 19 minutes, but never found a way to be an efficient scorer and playmaker alongside LeBron James. Thomas was traded to the Lakers at the trade deadline where he appeared in 17 games before undergoing season-ending hip surgery in March with an expected recovery time of four months.

Last season, Thomas wasn’t his pre-injury self. He didn’t have the same burst and quick first step that he did with the Celtics. Thomas showed flashes, but he could never regain his uncanny feel for the game that put him on the national stage two seasons ago.

The Nuggets signed Thomas to a one-year, veteran’s minimum contract hoping he can return to something that resembles his 2016-17 self. Thomas is the ultimate low-risk high reward play for Denver. If he returns to an All-Star level, Thomas will captain a shallow bench unit and become a trusted closer for the Nuggets late in games. If he can’t, Denver can rid themselves of his contract and hand over the backup point guard reigns to Will Barton or Monte Morris.

Then again, the Nuggets won’t require Thomas to be an MVP-level talent. With their top-five players returning from a 46-win team, Denver doesn’t need Thomas in order to break its five-season playoff drought. But a healthy and reliable Thomas would surely help. And there’s reason to think that he fits well in the Nuggets’ backcourt and Denver’s offensive attack.

Experience in dribble hand-offs

The Nuggets’ equal opportunity, read-and-react offense isn’t for everyone. In order for players to excel under Denver’s current offensive system, guards and bigs can’t just have a high basketball IQ. They also must be able to handle the ball effectively and act as capable passers and distributors in the half court.

One of the actions that has become an offensive staple in Denver under the stewardship of Nikola Jokic is the dribble hand-off (DHO). 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.

For the Nuggets, the DHO action puts the ball in the hands of one of their bigs — Jokic, Paul Millsap, Mason Plumlee or Trey Lyles —and allows Barton, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris or another one of their ball-handlers to read the defense and use their big man as a screen or as a shield from the defense.

Harris and Jokic have perfected that action over the past few seasons.

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/stats. He was potent in those situations too, scoring 1.06 points per possession. That mark put him in the 80th percentile league-wide.

When healthy, Thomas was so shifty when circling around his big that once he had his defender on his back hip, he could get almost any look he wanted. As the top scoring option for coach Brad Stevens, Thomas looked to score first but wasn’t afraid to dump it off to one of his bigs or find another shooter spotting up on the opposite wing.

Here, Thomas finds Al Horford on a short roll that ends in a similar mid-range jumper to the one that Jokic has knocked down at an elite level over the past few years.

For much of last season, Thomas was a shell of his former self on the offensive end of the floor. His field goal percentage plummeted from 46.8 percent in his final season with the Celtics to well under 40 percent last year. Thomas only shot 55-108 (29.3 percent) from three-point range between his two stops with the Cavs and Lakers. While playing hurt, Thomas didn’t have the same burst and first-step that he excelled with in Boston.

Thomas also shot only 31-74 (41.9 percent) from the field when involved in DHOs with Los Angeles last season. But his knack and feel within those actions was still there at times, often as a secondary ball-handler next to Lonzo Ball.

DHOs call on not only guards to be intelligent ball-handlers and have the ability to make possession-defining decisions on the fly but also for bigs to know how to play the right angles on the floor and put their guards in the best positions to score.

In Boston, Thomas benefited from the high-IQ offensive play by Horford. With the Nuggets, Thomas will have plenty of opportunities to succeed next to Jokic, who’s cut from a similar cloth and arguably the best big at running the action in the league.

Ability as a pick-and-roll playmaker

When filling out his roster after signing LeBron James — a move that may win him the league’s Executive of the Year award — Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson said he specifically targeted free agents who he had labeled as “playmakers” to flank his marquee free agent signing. Johnson’s thinking in signing the likes of Lance Stephenson and Rajon Rondo was in part to take some of the offensive burden off of James that he carried throughout his last few seasons in Cleveland.

Time will tell if the Lakers’ strategy and eye for talent equals playoff success, but it was clear that James didn’t have enough able playmakers in Cleveland towards the end of his run with the Cavs. At the highest levels of playoff competition, playmakers who can confidently operate with the ball in their hands is a must.

The Nuggets have a developing list of playmakers who line their rotation. Denver’s starting backcourt of Murray and Harris have made notable strides in their abilities as primary ball-handlers and playmakers over the past few seasons. Barton was the ball-handler who the Nuggets relied on often late in games last year.

Depending on his health, Thomas gives Denver another premier ball-handler to pair with Murray, Harris and Barton. The other returning guards on the Nuggets’ roster don’t have a ton of experience operating out of pick-and-rolls.

As a Celtic, Thomas was deadly when given a screen. He ran the eighth-most pick-and-rolls in the league in 2016-17 and the 1.04 points per possession he averaged when put in that action placed Thomas in the 94th percentile league-wide, according to NBA.com/stats. He scored efficiently — with his jumper or by attacking the rim — but could also either find his big on the short roll or another open shooter if the defense keyed in on him.

Last season, Thomas didn’t have near the amount of free reign that he had in Boston. His health, combined with the lack of raw counting stats and data can’t dictate what his future numbers will look like in Denver. But late in the season with the Lakers, Thomas showed flashes of the high-level pick-and-roll player that he was two seasons ago.

At times he still showed off a burst to the rim and the ability to get off his jumper quickly when given space and a ball screen to work with.

Give Thomas the luxury of a drag screen from one of his bigs in transition, and he’s still capable of rising, firing and hitting.

His vision out of the pick-and-roll, which elevated Thomas’ playmaking to an elite level during his career-year in Boston, is still there.

The Nuggets ranked towards the middle or bottom of the league in pick-and-roll frequency in each of the past two seasons. But late in games, when defenses lock in and Denver’s free-flowing style stalls, running simpler sets like high screen-and-rolls is useful. Having a fourth guard like Thomas, who’s fluent in pick-and-roll play, can only help.

Thomas will also log a ton of minutes alongside a bench unit that could include the likes of Malik Beasley, Torrey Craig, Juancho Hernangomez, Trey Lyles and Mason Plumlee. That group lacked playmaking at times last season.

“King of the Fourth”

The Nuggets were one of the league’s best offenses for three quarters last season. Denver was the sixth-most efficient attack in the first and second quarters a year ago and second-best in third quarters. But in the fourth, the Nuggets were the league’s seventh-worst offense. Denver went from scoring an average of 111.2 points per 100 possessions through the first three quarters of games to a sputtering attack that averaged just 104.8 points per 100 possession in fourth quarters last year.

Adding Thomas, who was arguably the league’s best late-game player in 2016-17, could aid Denver’s offense late in games. Of players who logged at least 60 games that season, Thomas led the league in fourth quarter offensive rating. He also averaged 9.8 points per fourth quarter — the second-best mark in the league to Russell Westbrook.

In Denver, Thomas is firmly entrenched as the Nuggets’ backup point guard. Thomas will play a significant amount of minutes alongside Denver’s bench unit but can also play both on and off the ball, meaning he could log time next to Murray, Harris and Barton.

But if the Nuggets offense is struggling late in fourth quarters it wouldn’t be surprising to see Thomas get a chance to close games for Denver at some point next season, as long as he’s proven to be a reliable and somewhat efficient scorer.

He did after all earn his rep and title of “King of the Fourth” because of his late-game heroics in 2017, like this memorable regular season matchup against the Hawks where Thomas scored Boston’s final seven points of the game and tallied 13 points in the fourth quarter alone.

Thomas doesn’t just have the skill-set to operate in isolation (he scored 1.12 points per 100 possessions in ISOs in 2016-17, good for the 95th percentile); he has the mental makeup too. The 29-year-old isn’t afraid to take those big-time shots.

His minutes will likely be fluid at the start of the season. If Thomas really has it going, the Nuggets could look at the point guard for instant offense off the bench and as someone to run a few sets for late in games. If he doesn’t, Denver can fall back on its high-flying offense around Jokic like it still will default to next year.

Thomas is an all-world offensive force when healthy. He showed flashes of that player last season while playing hurt. Whether he’s able to return to his pre-injury form could determine his ultimate ceiling in Denver and if Thomas can finally get the payday he was on track to get at this time two years ago. Maybe that comes a year from now when Thomas can again hit the free agent market.

But even if Thomas never gets back to the All-NBA player he once was, he could still be useful for the Nuggets. His low-risk, high reward outlook combined with the lack of playmaking on the second unit wasn’t something that Denver could pass up.

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