It still hasn’t completely set in that Kyrie Irving is no longer a Cavalier. It still feels like it’s Game 4 at Quicken Loans Arena and Irving and LeBron James are trying to will Cleveland back into the NBA Finals.
Fast forward as few months, Irving now plays for a rival and the Cavaliers have a new starting point guard in Isaiah Thomas. Looking at 2017-18 in a vacuum, is there going to be a huge difference in having Thomas instead of Irving, provided the former’s hip allows him to be on the court enough?
It depends on the recovery of Thomas’ hip, but if he’s completely healthy, there may not be a huge drop off from Irving to Thomas.
Let’s not get this mixed up: Irving is the better point guard and player and his ceiling is far higher than Thomas’. But given the situation at hand, the GM Koby Altman and the Cavaliers might have replaced their old point guard with a smaller clone.
Irving had his best season as a professional in 2016-17, averaging 25.2 points and 5.8 assists per game on 47 percent shooting from the field and 40 percent shooting from three-point range. On the other hand, Thomas also had his best year, scoring 28.9 points and dishing 5.9 assists per game on 46 percent shooting overall and 38 percent from the three-point line.
Stylistically, both players like the get their shot in isolation situations. 69.6 percent of the shots that Irving attempted were unassisted, while 56.4 percent of the shots that Thomas took came without a pass.
Thomas likes to do most of his damage in the paint — which is ironic considering he’s only 5’9”, but he uses his body to avoid shot blockers pretty well.
Although Irving is one of the best finishers at the rim, he scores a lot from the mid-range as well — a part of Thomas’ game that still eludes him.
In catch-and-shoot situations, Irving has the upper hand. This past season, Irving was a 49 percent spot-up shooter, while Thomas connected on only 40 percent of those type of shots. Playing off the ball, it’ll be critical for Thomas to knock down open jump shots from the space that LeBron James creates on the floor.
Irving is the better three-point shooter — but only by a few percentage points. The decided advantage for Thomas comes at the free-throw line.
Thomas averaged nearly nine attempts per game at the free-throw line and shot 90.9 percent, which was one of the best in the league. On the other hand, the ex-Cavaliers’ star only had 4.5 attempts at the charity stripe.
Another part of both of their games that is really similar is their fourth quarter clutch shot-making ability. Thomas was so effective, he was nicknamed “King of the Fourth,” while everyone in Cleveland knew that closing time meant Irving time.
In the fourth quarter, Thomas came alive scoring 9.8 points on 46.7 percent shooting. Irving was equally effective, connecting on 41 percent of his attempts for 5.6 points in the fourth quarters of games.
Both players don’t have the fear of taking and making a possible game-winning shot. Irving’s done it on the biggest stage in the NBA Finals, while Thomas started to showcase his ability in the 2017 playoffs against the Wizards.
Offensively, Ty Lue will likely continue to use LeBron as the primary ball handler in a lot of situations, with Thomas playing off the ball. The offense won’t look much different, Thomas is still a ball-dominant point guard that likes to create at the rim. He may not have the handles that Irving has, but he can be really nifty in his ability to create in the paint.
On the other end of the floor, it’s a whole another story. Irving has never been known to be a great defender, but he has size. Thomas is limited by his size, but he might try harder than Irving. Opponents often switch bigger players onto Thomas to try and take advantage of the matchup.
It’s something we saw often in the Eastern Conference Finals, as LeBron tried to switch onto Thomas as much as possible. While Irving could “flip the switch” and try on defense, I don’t think Thomas can do the same.
In 2016-17, Irving’s defensive box plus/minus was minus-2.3, while Thomas’ was minus-3.3. Even in Thomas’ best defensive seasons, he tied what Irving does in his worst defensive season.
The Cavaliers’ defensive rating was ranked 21st in the NBA last season, mostly due to Irving and Kevin Love’s defensive shortcomings, along with LeBron’s lack of effort during the regular season.
The addition of Jae Crowder should help, but it’ll be tough to improve that ranking with Thomas at starting point guard. Trading for a player in Thomas that can bring a lot of what Irving does. The hip injury is a big question mark, but if he can return to full health, Thomas can have just as good of a year as last season. The biggest difference between the two players — aside from the name and number on their jerseys — will be their height difference.
Unnoticed, but also important, Thomas is on a contract year, with extra motivation for being traded away from the Celtics. While many fans are loathing the loss of Irving, there should be a lot of excitement for Thomas.