Since trading Sacramento Kings legend Mike Bibby in 2008, there has been great uncertainty regarding the team’s point guard position. Realistically, nobody expected Beno Udrih to be a longterm answer (regardless of his ridiculous 5-year contract extension). Tyreke Evans had his miraculous “20-5-5″ rookie season playing mostly point guard, but fate unfortunately had other plans for him, never returning to “ROY” form and being shuffled around multiple positions. Bobby Brown and Eugene Jeter were simply cheap, Maloof bench-warmers. Jimmer Fredette? Maybe if defense didn’t exist? Aaron Brooks? Just no. Greivis Vasquez? Better, and he seemed to enjoy his brief stay in Sac, but honestly, who leaves their passport behind at the airport?
Rather, the “Mr. Irrelevant” of the 2011 NBA Draft, Isaiah Thomas is the team’s long-awaited answer at point guard. His increase of minutes plus organizational and coaching stability gave Isaiah his time to shine in 2013-14; and, he brought it. In 72 games this past season (including his time coming off the bench relieving Vasquez), he averaged career highs with 20.3 ppg (4th amongst PG’s), 6.3 apg (on a losing team and still 10th amongst PG’s ), and shot 45.3% from the field (8th). These numbers included elite company: amongst point guards, only Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, and Goran Dragic had a better PER (Player Efficiency Rating) than Thomas, all of whom have been in the NBA longer and were full-season starters.
Numbers aren’t everything. But what’s impressive and admittedly subjective is his drive, hustle, and heart. Isaiah has embraced his underdog role by diving after loose balls and wearing his never-quit-attitude on his sleeve, constantly a catalyst in Kings comeback attempts. This past season was not about wins and losses, but rather establishing structure and giving GM Pete D’Alessandro a chance to see what he had. Along with Demarcus Cousins’ rise to NBA stardom, “Mr. Irrelevant’s” play was a pleasant surprise for the organization and league.
Lets also not forget his play given post-Maloof reconstruction of the team, with his third head coach in as many seasons in the league, and constant player turnover. With what seemed like new teammates every 4.3 seconds, “Mr. Irrelevant” overcame previous Coach Smart’s bizarre rotations while gaining current Coach Malone’s trust. One should not overlook Thomas’ meshing with Cousins and Rudy Gay, as the trio formed Sac’s own version of a “Big 3″ in 2014. Again, even with a losing season that lead to another lottery year for Sacramento, establishment of a talented core was a much-needed success.
However, Isaiah Thomas detractors bring up his size (or lack of), defense (also or lack of), and perceptions of not being a “pass-first” 1. I’ll briefly address and refute each.
- Size: Who cares? While you can’t teach height, Thomas’ value, intangibles, and overall potential make up for it. He’ll be victim to mismatches, but he also causes mismatches himself due to his speed and attack.
- Defense: I see most of Thomas’ defensive lapses resulting from the Kings team as a whole. This year was meant for Coach Malone to teach defense to a Kings team that was indifferent to it in years past. I thought Isaiah improved as the season went on and should improve with time. At the end, as long as Thomas is scoring more points than he’s giving up is what really matters.
- Not “pass-first:” Well, which elite 1 in today’s NBA really is? Chris Paul possibly, but he also can score in bunches. The only somewhat-elite 1 that comes to mind is Ricky Rubio, but that’s mostly due to his inept shooting capabilities period. Think of every top NBA point guard: the vast majority of them are also scorers. That’s just the makeup of the modern NBA. Don’t hate the player (in this case Thomas), hate the game.
“Mr. Irrelevant” is currently a Restricted Free Agent. Who knows what offer sheets will be thrown his way or how much the Kings will be willing to pay him. Other curveballs could include valued PG’s falling in the draft (assuming the Kings even keep their pick) and Rudy Gay‘s looming player-option decision. But given his growth and stature as a top young point guard in the league, letting him walk would be a risky mistake. If the team were to sign-and-trade him or let him go, the question becomes who they can get to start at PG who is better? Nobody on the current roster, that’s for sure (even though I’m a huge Ray McCallum fan, he’s not ready). As for free agents, the only top PG available is Kyle Lowry. Would Lowry even be much of an improvement? That’s up for debate, but with Thomas the Kings know what they’re getting and have a guy who has been on the team for three years, rather than adding yet another new player.
The Kings are in a tricky salary cap spot riding on many factors, but regardless, keeping Isaiah on a $6-$8 mil/year deal would still be a steal. At only 25 years-old, he still has plenty of room to grow and has yet to reach his prime. His value on the Kings is extraordinarily high for what hopefully will be future playoff runs when the new Downtown arena opens. Does Isaiah Thomas have areas in which to improve? Obviously, but with the exception of Lebron which player doesn’t? After years of turmoil at the position and lack of success, the Kings need look no further for their point guard of the future, as he’s already on the team of the present. I’ll finish with “Mr. Irrelevant’s” triple double highlights from March 18 against the Wizards: