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Isaiah Thomas delivering spark to Suns offense, exactly as designed

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As the 2014-15 season is now past the midway point, it's time to review the impact of the Suns' highest profile summer acquisition. Isaiah Thomas is filling the role envisioned for him by Team President Lon Babby and GM Ryan McDonough, giving the Suns' second unit a major lift.

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The summer of 2014 brought high hopes for the Suns and their fans, coming off a surprisingly strong 2013-14 season, and possessing bushels of assets and cap space. A home run swing to sign LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony predictably failed before the Suns zeroed in on their more realistic target: the undervalued, undersized, but explosive PG Isaiah Thomas.

At first, it seemed to be an odd move that the Suns would add to their seemingly full stable of guards, unless the plan was to sign IT as a precursor to trading then-unsigned restricted free agent Eric Bledsoe. But Babby and McDonough had other ideas. Further bolstering a team strength was at the top of the list, while allowing Bledsoe to leave was never in the plans. They wanted all three of IT, Bledsoe and Goran Dragic on this season's roster.

"Isaiah is one of the most dynamic scorers and playmakers in the NBA," said General Manager Ryan McDonough in the official press release today. "I have always admired his competitive spirit and his love for the game. He will be a great fit for our up-tempo attack and he will help solidify what we believe is the best backcourt in the league."

Bledsoe and Dragic made a fantastic two man combo in the 2013-14 season, but things didn't go as smoothly when either or both of them went to the bench. While the Suns won around 2/3 of their games when both started, they were only 20-19 in the 39 games Bledsoe missed due to injury.

As backup, Ish Smith was a speedy, energetic player, but had plenty of holes in his game, and the Suns offense was far less effective with him on the floor (O-Rating of 104.6 with Smith on the floor, 110.8 with him on the bench).

For a team that relies heavily on guard play, depending upon Ish or a player of similar caliber wouldn't work if they hoped to take their next step forward. In IT, the Suns were able to improve an already strong backcourt by adding a 20PPG scorer. Making the deal even sweeter is his bargain contract, which averages less than $7M/year over four years.

Through 42 games, 34 of which IT has played, the Suns hold the same 24-18 record they did at this time last season. This is after some rough patches early in the season adjusting to the loss of Channing Frye, and  working through regression from a couple of other stalwarts on last season's team.

IT's playing his usual game as a score-first PG, averaging 14.3 points and 3.7 assists in 25.1 minutes per game, while shooting his career average .574 TS%, and leading Suns rotation players (not including Brandan Wright due to tiny sample size) in:

  • Player Efficiency Rating (tied with Bledsoe at 18.7),
  • Win Shares/48 minutes (.149)
  • Free Throw Rate (.444 FT attempts per FG attempt)
I'm not going to break down IT's game in detail here. We all know what he can do, but in case you need to be reminded, let's watch this highlight video Sam Cooper produced when IT was his Player of the Week last month.


In Sacramento, IT was accused of posting "empty stats," that his individual production didn't lead to wins. Of course, the Kings didn't win with him, just as they haven't won in years. When they started out decently this season without IT, it appeared those charges might hold some merit.

However, the inexplicable firing of coach Michael Malone again threw the Kings into chaos, and their current 16-24 record demonstrates that the dysfunction of the franchise runs far deeper than a scoring PG who "didn't move the ball enough." IT wasn't the problem there.

Still, it's fair to question what impact a player is having on his team's fortunes, regardless of individual production. Fortunately for the Suns, IT shines in this area. The team went 3-5 in IT's late November/early December injury absence, including an embarrassing loss to the lowly Magic, and an ugly blowout vs. the mediocre Nuggets.

Since IT's return, the Suns are 12-7, having won 6 of their last 8. Of course, there's more to the wins and losses than whether IT plays. His impact on the Suns bench performance is what's truly impressive. This season's starting unit hasn't been as strong with the decline in production and subsequent benching of Miles Plumlee, and slow start from Dragic.

The bench had to pick up the slack, which IT and Gerald Green have done. Both players are capable of scoring explosions, even with limited minutes, and each has carried the team to wins on more than one occasion. For the season, the Suns O-Rating is 112.4 with IT on the floor, and 107.4 with him off. That's a difference in 5 points per 100 possessions with IT playing vs. when he doesn't.

IT is an impact player on offense, exactly as he was expected to be. He's not a "true" PG who's always looking to set up teammates before himself, but it's his unique skill as a prolific scorer in a small PG's body which has caused him to be overlooked his entire career.

If we see IT for what he is, and the undeniable benefits he brings to the team, it's easy to get past his unconventional methods. As long as he's scoring efficiently, and the team is lighting up the scoreboard when he plays, he's filling his role and helping the Suns win, just as the architects of the team designed it.


All stats quoted are from BasketballReference.com.