Time flies in the NBA. Case in point, next month will mark the two-year anniversary of Kobe Bryant’s remarkable last game as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers. The fitting conclusion to the Black Mamba’s storied career ended with an image, not of Bryant himself, but of a stirring embrace with what was at the time, the expected future of the Lakers.
After the recent NBA trade deadline, there is currently only one player left on the current roster who was a member of that core, Julius Randle. The fact that Randle, whose name has swirled in and out of trade rumors all season, is now the sole player who has remained on the Lakers since the 2014-15 season, speaks to the amount of roster turnover in the past few years.
The team’s roster has not been the only component that has seen shake up, as the organization’s front-office also saw a change last season with Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka’s arrival. The duo swiftly, and indiscreetly, installed a new young core of talent within their system while shipping off the previous batch in hopes of reeling in max caliber players this summer, or in 2019. Whether or not the team is able to sign the players they have coveted for years is still to be determined, as is the ability of their young players being able to mesh alongside such players. As besides the aforementioned Randle, the rest of the Lakers’ young crop have yet to play with a ball dominant player of Kobe Bryant’s caliber, or of his ilk, until now. Open curtains and enter Isaiah Thomas.
The consensus on the trade was analyzed as a simple salary dump from the Lakers side, with the team being able to get out from underneath Clarkson’s remaining years on his contract, with Nance serving as the sweetener for the Cavs. In return, the Lakers got the much desired flexibility of the expiring deals, and also the first-round asset to play around with.
The fact that Isaiah Thomas is mostly thought around the league as an expiring contract first in this deal speaks to how dreadful his Cavaliers stint truly was. Thomas, who posted career-high numbers last season with the Boston Celtics, has seen career lows across the board in only 17 games this season. The reasons for his poor play as evident as they are, the hip injury, no training camp, the adjustment playing with LeBron James and an entirely new team, have not dissolved Thomas from being seen as another casualty to expected decline.
For the Lakers, as nonsensical as it may sound, whether or not Thomas recoups any of the magic from last season’s remarkable run is not important here. The element of experience he will provide this young core is. The group, who in theory will be playing alongside one, if not two max-caliber players next season if all pans right, will get a sneak preview of what it is like to share the floor with a ball dominant player like IT.
The Lakers did have a resemblance of Thomas’ high-usage rate last season in the form of Lou Williams (30.7% usage rate, his career high up to that point) but have not carried a player with the name weight of Thomas in years.
Thomas posted usage rates of: 33.7, 31.3, and plateaued with his 34.8 percent rate in last season’s MVP caliber season through his two-and-a-half seasons under head coach Brad Stevens,
Despite his poor play this year, Thomas still has the ball in his hands a great deal with a 30.2 percent usage rate (85th percentile among point guards). To put this into context when considering the possible change in the Lakers’ offense, here is a look at the usage rates among the Lakers this season:
As the table reflects, the team’s leader in usage rate had been Jordan Clarkson (28.2%) but with his departure, the next player on the list is Julius Randle’s rate with a noticeable drop off of nearly four percent. It is expected that Thomas will have the ball in his hands a lot as a Laker (33.3% in his first 3 games with the team) and this will serve as an important data point for the young players.
With Lonzo Ball’s absence, Brandon Ingram has been tremendous in creating points for himself and for his teammates with the ball in his hands. With Thomas now on board, Ingram still will be expected to continue his strong play, but can now attempt to polish his off-ball skills. This can be beneficial in helping alleviate the nights in which Ingram tends to press as the team’s facilitator, and when he finds himself in isolation situations at the top of the key. He can also now be the recipient of the pass, catching off of curls or pin downs, and finding himself in more spot-up and finishing opportunities which he was doing well before Ball went down with the injury.
The player who can be the main benefactor of Thomas’ arrival in Los Angeles is Lonzo Ball himself. When the initial news of the trade broke, there arose hoopla among various media outlets on which of the guards would start, or if there would be an issue sharing one ball.
Those who have watched Ball play this season, or last year at UCLA, know he simply does not dominate or clog down an offense. The moment Lonzo receives the ball in his hands, he quickly swings, pitches, or dumps it off for a teammate. The narrative of Ball needing to orchestrate the offense is true to an extent, but more directly correlated to his entry or outlet pass being the hockey assist to the actual ensuing bucket. Which raises the question: How much does he really need to have the ball in his hands? Currently, he is only fifth on the team in usage rate, and is in the mere 30th percentile in usage rate among point guards this season. Lonzo is the definition of ball movement.
It has also been argued that Ball has been put in a role, and scheme this season with the team that is unnatural to his game. At UCLA, Ball ran actions more commonly assigned to team’s shooting guards, coming off screens, cutting, and spotting up. As a Laker, Ball has been the main facilitator of these half-court actions for teammates, which is not a poor concept given his natural passing ability. That’s possibly pigeonholing his overall offensive potential, though. The idea of Thomas playing alongside Ball in theory allows Ball to not only have another playmaker on the court, but one who can primarily take the focus off of him.
There have been multiple instances this season where Ball back-cuts his defender looking, and failing, to receive the lob pass that Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and others have simply missed, or have been too slow to pull the trigger. Whereas with IT, as seen here, has the ability to find Pope with the perfectly timed dime:
Having Thomas with the ball in has hands seemingly creates that look, and more importantly, consistent scoring opportunities Ball has yet to have as a professional.
Ultimately, Thomas’s role on this team’s remaining third of the season is to duplicate, and educate their core on what to expect if the front office can indeed sign multiple max caliber free agents in the upcoming summers. The habits and the abilities learned now in working off a ball-dominant player can play genuine dividends when the expected day comes of a marquee signee, or in simply adding new tools to blossoming repotories. The Lakers have built an exciting, talented, and still learning team, and despite his obvious flaws, Isaiah Thomas has the opportunity to teach them all a pivotal lesson.