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Isaiah Thomas’ Return: The good, the bad and the ugly

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Taking stock of the Cavs offense since Isaiah Thomas returned and why blaming him for their struggles is too simplistic.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Sacramento Kings Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Nobody is going to say Isaiah Thomas has been great since returning to the lineup for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

He is shooting 39 percent from the field and 29 three from three. He is shooting just 53 percent at the rim and taking a career-low 19 percent of his shots there after attempting 39 percent of his shots at the rim last season).

As a result, Thomas is drawing shooting fouls at his lowest rate since 2013 and hasn’t been great once he gets to the line — only 76 percent in a limited sample for the career 87% free throw shooter.

On the surface, his seven games since returning look fairly ugly (the Cavs have a -19.2 net rating with him on the floor). But dig deeper and you can find some encouraging tidbits on the offensive end.

Let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly for Thomas and Cleveland as a whole since his return.

The Good

Tyronn Lue is an effective offensive coach and his scheming to get Thomas involved in the offense has been excellent from a process standpoint.

The Cavs have made a concerted effort to run Thomas in the pick and roll with an empty ball-side corner, making it harder for defenses to cover both Thomas handling and the roll man.

As you can see in the Thomas/Crowder pick-and-roll above, Thomas just isn’t fully comfortable yet. Whether due to injury, rust, comfort, or something else, he has tended to pick up his dribble one beat too early on a lot of these plays. He doesn’t get Anthony to fully commit to stopping him, allowing the defender to rotate back to Crowder on the pass and ultimately force a turnover.

Watch as he does the same thing against the Magic, picking up his dribble one beat too early and allowing Aaron Gordon to recover to LeBron James:

As a note—the action above, called “Hawk” is one the Cavs have specifically implemented for Thomas. It is one Ben Falk has highlighted the Thunder running in crunch time at Cleaning the Glass. (Here’s a thread of the Cavs running “Hawk” quite a few times over the last few games).

But when Thomas has attacked out of these pick and roll actions, the Cavs have gotten positive results.

His hard drive to the baseline forces both Draymond Green and Jordan Bell to collapse, freeing Kevin Love for the wing three

Perhaps the best example of how this play can function came against the Warriors on Martin Luther King Day.

All the elements of success are present: no player in the ball-side corner, Thomas attacks hard and forces the roll man’s defender to cover him, James rolls hard into space as opposed to popping.

Lue has also implemented pre-screen actions to move the defense before ultimately executing an empty corner pick and roll.

Watch two things here: first, Thomas makes a simple Iverson Cut to put his defender in a trail position. Second, Kyle Korver sets a cross-screen for Tristan Thompson, using Korver’s gravity to befuddle David West and Klay Thompson and ultimately free Thomas off the pick.

Overall, the process has been positive for how the Cavs have deployed Thomas so far. While he has not been able to convert at a high rate, especially on dribble threes where he’s just 6-22, the makings of an elite offense are there.

An actualized version of Thomas might look something like this — from his best game of the season offensively Saturday vs. Oklahoma City.

Thomas zooms into a pick and roll, forcing a switch. He then beats the switch defender, collapsing the defense into the paint. After he makes the pass to Smith in the corner, he shimmies out to the right wing, ultimately freeing himself for a wide open three.

Plays like this one are why Isaiah Thomas can add another dimension to the Cavs offense and why Cavs fans should be patient with him despite his early struggles.

The Bad

Thomas returned to the lineup in the midst of an unbelievably bad team-wide shooting slump. In January, the Cavs are shooting 34.6 percent from midrange (29th in the NBA) and 28.5 percent from three (dead last).

Some of the low-lights:

  • The Cavs are shooting 37.8% overall and 19.4% from 3 off Thomas’ passes.
  • Overall, Cleveland players not named Isaiah Thomas are just 20-79 from 3 (25.3%) when they share the floor with Thomas (171 minutes).
  • As a result, Thomas is averaging 8.3 potential assists per game, but only 3.6 assists per game. The 43% conversion rate is about 7% below average for high-volume passers.
  • The once-reliable Jeff Green has yet to make a single jump shot with Isaiah Thomas on the floor. He is 0-5 from 3 and 0-3 on mid-range shots.

Isaiah Thomas can’t force his teammates to hit shots. He is not the reason LeBron James is 7-34 (20.6%) from three in January.

James is 0-8 from three and 2-6 from midrange with Thomas on the floor:

Nor is he the reason that Jae Crowder (29.7 percent), JR Smith (26.5 percent), Jeff Green (19 percent) and Dwyane Wade (10 percent) are all shooting below 30 percent fromthree in January.

Thomas, Kevin Love, and LeBron James have played 101 minutes together thus far. JR Smith has shared the floor with the trio for 97 of those minutes (as the Cavs seem to revert to a hockey-style 5-in, 5-out substitution pattern that has problems of its own). Smith has a 31.5 percent True Shooting percentage in those minutes. Overall, he has a 37.2 percent TS% in 122 minutes with Thomas. (A reminder that league-average is up over 55%).

Thomas can create wide-open corner threes for Smith, but he can’t be the one to put them through the hoop.

Note this play is another where Thomas attacks hard off the pick and roll and draws 3 defenders into the paint for his efforts.

The bottom line is that Thomas returned to the lineup in the midst of what is maybe Cleveland’s worst prolonged shooting slump since LeBron returned.

Over their last 12 games, the Cavs are 203-642 (31.6 percent) outside of the restricted area. League average for three-point shooting alone is 36 percent. It’s been bad.

The Ugly

And yet, it hasn’t been the ugliest thing. Cleveland will regress to the mean from a shooting standpoint.

But the largest potential long-term impact of Thomas’ return is the way in which it has altered the Cavs’ usage of Kevin Love. And. to a lesser extent, LeBron.

When Love, James and Thomas share the floor, Thomas leads the trio in usage percentage at 29.4%. James is second at 25.7 percent and Love is a distant third at 20.4 percent/

For comparison, when James and Love share the floor without Thomas, LeBron has a 30.5 usage rate and Love has a 26.4 usage rate.

But it’s also how Love is being used that is concerning. Gone are the early first quarter post-ups that have been a staple of Love’s Cleveland tenure.

Love’s first quarter usage percentage has dropped from 30.1 percent without Thomas to 18.3 percent with Thomas.

In fact, he is taking 10 fewer shots from the paint non-restricted area (usually the post-up zone for bigs) per 36 minutes when he shares the floor with Thomas. He is 0-2 on these shots.

Here was the only Cavs possession that ended with a Love post-up touch of the entire game vs. Orlando:

Overall, Love is ending about one fewer possession per game with a post-up (pass, turnover or shot) in games Thomas plays. He is also taking about 12 fewer restricted area shots per 36 minutes when he shares the floor with Thomas and shooting only 42 percent on these shots (compared to 64% without Thomas).

Obviously, the sample is small and when you combine it with just 31.8 percent shooting from three, the results look ugly for Kevin Love.

Love and Thomas have demonstrated some pick and roll chemistry — especially against immobile centers:

The most positive reading of the situation is that the Cavs are doing everything they can to make Thomas feel comfortable and will revert to a more balanced offense once he’s firmly back in the flow of things.

The most negative reading is that Thomas’ return makes Love a third banana once again, pushing him back to a supplemental player in the midst of his best season in a Cavalier uniform.

The ultimate answer can only be answered with time. But Kevin Love is a dependent player who is reliant on others to get him touches. This is not a bad thing by any means, rather it is a way of life for most big men.

The Cavs have to make an effort to get Love the ball, whether through post-ups, pick and roll touches, or some other set actions.

As for James, his drop in usage percentage can probably be more directly tied to his drop in efficiency. He is undoubtedly deferring to Thomas a bit more, but his jumper has also abandoned him. The Cavs have scored just 54 points on his 83 isolation possessions (0.65 ppp) since Christmas after scoring 1.15 ppp on these possessions prior to Christmas.

Ultimately, the Cavs need him to rediscover his jumper to get where they want to go—perhaps even more than they need other players to shoot better. The difference between LeBron James the 40 percent three-point shooter and LeBron James the 20 percent three-point shooter is just too large to overcome.

Conclusion

Isaiah Thomas has certainly struggled since he returned. There is no denying the fact that he looks less explosive and his confidence in his jumper is not where it was last season.

But placing the blame solely on Thomas’ shoulders would be a mistake. The Cavs are shooting terribly right now and this — more than anything else — is the reason for their recent struggles.

Offensively, there has been a significant amount of encouraging process when Thomas is on the floor. From the empty ball-side corner pick and rolls to the “Hawk” sets, the Cavs are clearly instituting actions to specifically highlight Thomas’ strengths. If he returns to even close to what he was last year, they should serve as the basis for an elite offense.

Stats accurate as of Jan. 23, 2018