Just before Avery Bradley and Russell Westbrook’s trips into the NBA’s health and safety protocols went public, news broke that the Lakers were planning to sign Isaiah Thomas to a 10-day contract via the league’s hardship exception.
The rule permits teams to exceed the 15-player in-season roster cap when a fourth rostered player hits the injured list and all compromised members have missed at least three games or the NBA itself has determined that those players would be unable to play, per the NBA’s Constitution and By-Laws.
Now, as long as four of Talen Horton-Tucker, Dwight Howard, Russell Westbrook, Avery Bradley, Trevor Ariza and Kendrick Nunn miss at least three games with injuries or COVID restrictions, or the NBA deems at least four of them incapable of playing, the Lakers will be clear to use the exception on Thomas. Otherwise, they would have to cut (or just not sign) Thomas, or cut another rostered player to keep him. Given the fact that Ariza and Nunn have yet to play a single game and the Lakers’ additions to the league’s health and safety protocols are ineligible to suit up as of this writing, it seems overwhelmingly likely that one of the two scenarios will enable the Lakers’ use of the exemption.
And with the diminutive former superstar in the fold, the Lakers now combine for 59 total All-Star selections on the squad, and 49 All-NBA honors. Thomas should fit right in among the team’s currently favored archetype: former stars straddling the razor-thin margin between washed-up (DeAndre Jordan) and underratedly cost-effective (Carmelo Anthony). And, like a half-dozen other Lakers, he’s back for at least his second stint with the team.
With the Lakers’ most voluminous offensive producer out for the immediate future, the team will undoubtedly lean on it’s two most important players — LeBron James and Anthony Davis — as hard as it ever has. However, without Westbrook or Horton-Tucker, the Lakers will need someone to pick up the slack in offensive production at least when LeBron exits the game (assuming he’s not available for 48-plus minutes per night moving forwards). Malik Monk and Assistant Coach Rajon Rondo may be asked to stand in ahead of Thomas, but the Lakers could use some playmaking insurance at the back-end of their roster as COVID again takes a toll on just about every team in the league.
Back in his two seasons and change on the Celtics, Thomas employed his lightning quick speed and explosive jumping ability to get just about anywhere he wanted on the court. As an above average 3-point shooter on significant volume, teams had to guard him from deep, opening up lanes for his drives.
Despite his significant height disadvantage against basically every other NBA player, Thomas’ would employ a quick burst of speed to get into the lane and power into the chest of the big, opening up space for him to get off flying flip shots over and around the outstretched arms of defenders typically more than a foot taller than him.
But when he injured his hip at the end of the 2016-17 season — one in which he averaged 28.9 points per game on a 113 TS+ (his overall shot-making efficiency was 13% better than the static league average of 100) — he lost some of that spark that made him special, and has only played in a total of 87 games since.
In those 87 games, Thomas has been unable to get to the free throw line nearly as often as he did in Boston, and has seen his assist rate dwindle into merely passable territory. Given the fact that his physical limitations have always made him an extreme liability on defense, his athletic decline diminished his offensive output, rendering him unplayable more immediately than most players who earn a Second Team All-NBA nod at their peak.
On defense, Thomas could do little to prevent major carnage at the hands of the opponent, unless the team’s whole scheme was built around hiding him on that end, like Boston did during his peak years. Bigger and stronger players (i.e. mostly everyone) could shoot over him or power through him, opening the door to scoring opportunities any time IT was on the ball. As a sub-star offensive player in the years following the Celtics’ discard in the Kyrie Irving trade, those tactics became less and less palatable to teams unwilling to construct their entire scheme on both ends around him.
Less than 24 hours before the Lakers signed him, Isaiah Thomas somehow summoned what appeared to be the 2016-17 version of himself. In his first game as a member of the Nuggets’ G League affiliate, the Grand Rapids Gold, Thomas poured in 42 points, six rebounds, eight assists, and two steals for a stat line that would have compared favorably to almost any of the best ones he posted in the NBA.
However, the gulf in athleticism between the NBA and the G League is as vast as any other major professional sport to its minor league(s). In his onslaught — aided by the playmaking of fellow former Laker Lance Stephenson’s 10 dimes — Thomas put his full bag on display, showing off the nifty shotmaking that made him a two-time NBA All-Star.
However, he did it against the 23rd-ranked defense in the G League, and the 27th-ranked defense at preventing points in the paint. Fortunately for Thomas, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants lack the rim protection or point of attack stopper to handle a professional NBA-level scorer like Thomas, capable of filling it up as long as he could get to his spots.
42 points on 16-30 shooting is monster volume on solid efficiency, an outcome any NBA team would take from their superstar. However, it’s hard to imagine Thomas getting the same quality of looks against a legitimate NBA defense. He won’t have the chance to put up shots at the the same rate on the Lakers (unless, knock on wood, they lose another half-dozen players), and if his efficiency decreases against better defenders, he just won’t be able to contribute to winning basketball in a sustainable way by scoring a handful of points relatively inefficiently. Especially since he was only able to get to the line twice, his wholly reliant upon shotmaking offensive game has a pretty low floor whenever he isn’t in human torch mode.
While the Lakers are missing Westbrook, Thomas could come in handy in a pinch, keeping things rolling offensively, albeit relatively inefficiently. Especially if the coaching staff follows the advice of Lakers assistant coach David Fizdale on a recent episode of Backstage: Lakers, “If a guy’s struggling, pull him. If he’s balling, leave him.”
Beggars can’t be choosers, and if more guys go down with COVID, the Lakers could use someone capable of filling in as an offense unto themselves, something Thomas is clearly capable of, even if it’s at a lesser level of efficiency than his former self (or the team’s other options ahead of him). Semi-seriously, if the virus dilutes the NBA’s talent pool to a level closer to the G League than The Show, maybe Thomas can carry the Lakers’ offense by producing like he did in his one game as a member of the Grand Rapids Gold.
Malik Monk’s surprise return may make IT even more of an afterthought than he already may have been. But something is better than nothing, especially in a bench unit that may struggle mightily to create shots without LeBron James on the floor and Russell Westbrook out.
Last year in New Orleans, Isaiah Thomas played 48 minutes over three games, proving himself capable of falling in line as a valued veteran in a minor role without causing a fuss. Despite the fact that Isaiah Thomas may have taken issue with LeBron James’ leadership style during their brief overlap in Cleveland, it appears as though they’ve since squashed the beef. LeBron and IT worked out together (along with Westbrook) when the Lakers gave Thomas a look this summer. And, as recently as this past August, LeBron voiced his support for Isaiah’s comeback on Twitter after his 81-point onslaught at Jamal Crawford’s Seattle-based pro-am, The Crawsover.
In fact, just like his friend and mentor Jamal Crawford, Isaiah Thomas is still a bucket. However, he’s not the same offensive dynamo he once was, and not nearly enough of one to overcome his inevitable defensive shortcomings. Despite being a decade Jamal’s junior, Isaiah gives up about as many inches as he gains in years, giving him just a tad more in the tank than the guy who dropped a 50-piece in his second-to-last NBA game.
Still, it’s nice that your favorite hooper’s favorite unsigned hooper has a job on the game’s biggest stage, even if it’s a small one that may not last very long.