Cavs fans have (had?) a thing for Kyrie Irving, and rightfully so. Irving was the perfect fit for a Cavalier offense heavily predicated on generating mismatches and isolation scoring. He was a great second fiddle to LeBron James, and one that seemed to show up whenever it mattered.
But that time is over. Enter Isaiah Thomas, two time All Star, “King of the Fourth,” and also apparently known as “Pizza Guy,” according to his Basketball Reference profile.
We can speculate on Thomas’ health, but I don’t have much value to add in that discussion. Where I do think an intelligent conversation can be had is looking at how each player will fit in on their new team. Today, we’ll start with Thomas in Cleveland. So how do Kyrie and Isaiah compare, and how well does Thomas fill the void created by Irving on the Cavs?
Despite Irving being more of a second option than Thomas was for the Celtics, the usage of each player didn’t differ too significantly. Thomas had more touches per minute than Irving (2.51 to 2.25) during the regular season, which is an 11% touch difference over the course of a 35 minute game for both players. During the playoffs that 11% grew to 14%, but that’s still not an otherworldly difference. Thomas should expect to do about as much as he did in Boston in his time with the Cavs. But what will those touches look like?
Fit with Scheme
Even though Thomas and Irving are two stud isolation scorers, they’re still pretty different players. 56 other total players and 16 starting points guards have closer offensive style similarity scores to Isaiah Thomas than Kyrie in my player comp machine, which operates using frequencies of nine of those play types from the graphic that will be pictured later. If you’d like to play around with those and see which NBA player YOU play most like, check out my Pickup Basketball Comp Machine.
The largest differences between the two are Thomas’ increased frequency to spot up, run off of screens, and attack off of handoffs. Can we expect Thomas to be utilized in similar ways, or have his frequencies matched what we saw from Kyrie this year?
Here’s how I think Thomas fits in with Cleveland’s offense at each of these key play types.
To fit with Cleveland’s scheme, Isaiah will need to be an adept isolation scorer. Luckily for the Cavs, he is. Of the NBA players with more than 100 isolation possessions, Kyrie Irving was second most efficient, scoring 1.124 points per possession. Kyrie benefited from Cleveland’s offensive scheme generating mismatches for him to attack. I go over how Cleveland did that in a tweet thread here.
The rest of Thomas’ game is solid as well. He’s great everywhere offensively except for driving and cutting, where he’s in the 34th percentile and 9th percentile, respectively. That means that he’s only more efficient than 34% of the NBA on his drives and 9% of the league on his cuts (although on a small sample). Here is how both players compared last regular season in their points per possession efficiency percentiles.
If you need clarification on any of these play types, check out my reference document here that explains each of them.
As you can see, these guys are both studs. Thomas edges out or ties Irving in efficiency is every area other than cutting, but he’s moving to the team in Cleveland that cuts fourth least of any team in the league.
Even when we move away from play types and look at more granular data, both players stand out and stand pretty close together.
The one clear downgrade here is Thomas’ driving ability. When we compare him to Irving with team context, it looks even worse. In Isaiah Thomas’ 10 most used lineups on the court, his team’s weighted average spacing rating, according to Nick Scaria’s awesome Spacing Rating tool, was 85.83%. For Kyrie’s top 10 most used lineups, 77.7%. So Boston had the floor very spaced for Thomas’ drives, more so than Kyrie had in Cleveland, and he still graded out below average in driving efficiency.
The Cavs are even slightly upgrading from Kyrie to Thomas in passing, where Isaiah is in the 97th percentile of all players in the league by my Passer Rating, which is a passing efficiency metric. Irving isn’t far behind though, in the 94th percentile, so the difference will be fairly negligible.
It should be noted that Thomas’ pass out creation from isolation grades out poorly, but I don’t believe this will carry over to his time in Cleveland. In fact, every Boston player’s isolation pass out PPP creation was worse than every Cav player (minimum 10 possessions). Cleveland just does a better job during iso of giving that player options to pass out, and I believe Thomas will do fine in that regard.
Thomas is a killer spot up shooter ranking 14th in the league of 232 players who had 100+ spot up possessions last season. His 1.222 points per possession spotting up are better than every Cav other than Channing Frye (who ranked 7th/232).
Despite this strength, Isaiah’s spot up attempts will completely depend on his role within the Cavalier offense. The Kyrie/LeBron isolation creation roles resulted in low spot up numbers from them, 10.29% and 8.54% respectively. But the rest of the team (other than Tristan Thompson, obviously), primarily functioned as floor spacing 3-point shooters that would spot up after the mismatch was created and Kyrie/Bron went to work.
Here are some of their spotting up frequencies:
Thomas’ frequency this past season was 17.63%, but I can see it dropping to around 10% if he’s able to fill the isolation role (as I think he will if he’s completely healthy). It could also raise substantially if he can’t be that iso scorer. For reference, the average NBA point guard spots up 18.78% of their possessions. That number is 34.34% for shooting guards.
Another area of strength for Isaiah is scoring off of screens. Thomas was the third most efficient scorer off of screens of players who had 100+ this past season. The only two better were Steph Curry and Mike Conley. Yes, Isaiah was more efficient running off of screens than Kyle Korver, JR Smith, and Kyrie Irving.
Kyrie only ran off of screens for 4.1% of his possessions last season. Using Thomas the same wouldn’t be the smart move with a guy who’s among the best in the game at it. Korver (45.37% of his possessions) and Smith (20.48%) were both utilized off of screens much more than Thomas (10.69%) last season, but I see Thomas’ usage here bumping up (and especially eating at his handoff possessions).
If there’s one certainty, it’ll be that Thomas won’t be attacking off of handoffs nearly as much. Boston uses them more than any team in the league (and you can see the breakdown of each team’s offensive play type frequencies here). The Cavs, on the other hand, used handoffs the second least of any team. Thomas himself had more handoff possessions than the entire Cavs starting lineup combined. Isaiah is great attacking off of handoffs, in the 81st percentile (higher than any Cav player from last season), but we shouldn’t expect that usage in Cleveland.
Thomas’ Style Projection
I’ve projected Thomas’ ’17-’18 play type frequencies based off of the Cavs scheme, Thomas’ own strengths and previous playing style, and how Kyrie was used this past season.
When I plug those numbers into my NBA player comparison machine, the similarity scores weren’t too shocking. The Thomas projection’s top player comp was Kyrie Irving. Devin Booker and CJ McCollum were numbers two and three. Old Thomas was New Thomas’ 8th best comp, which makes sense.
Overall, Isaiah isn’t too different from how Kyrie functioned. Thomas is so effective all around that no matter how his play type frequencies fluctuate, he’ll be a stud player.
Isaiah isn’t going to somehow get much worse as an iso scorer. He was already the best, and is now going into a system where he’ll have mismatches quite frequently. He’ll benefit from being in Cleveland’s great mismatch exploiting system and continue his reign as the game’s best iso scorer.
Barring Thomas post-injury being a shell of himself, he should be fine. I don’t see any other potential pitfalls with Isaiah filling Kyrie’s role. He is a solid addition by Cleveland and should fit well in a similar role Kyrie had last season.
If Thomas returns healthy, there’s no reason to believe he’ll be any less effective than Kyrie was with this roster and in this offense.
Next Up: Kyrie’s fit in Boston