Isaiah Thomas wasn't the glitziest free agent this summer, but that doesn't mean he's not a hidden gem. In terms of performance, fit and value Thomas promises to coruscate for the Phoenix Suns.
The first time that Thomas really caught my attention was back in January when I noticed that he was having a quietly spectacular season while writing about Goran Dragic's chances of being selected as an All-Star. At that point I slated Thomas as the seventh most deserving guard in the Western Conference behind Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Tony Parker, Damian Lillard and Dragic. If he would have been performing at that level for a more competitive team instead of the hapless Kings I thought he would have received more attention.
Even noticing him there I mostly ignored him going into free agency.
I'll admit that Thomas wasn't really on my radar going into the free agency period. It wasn't a situation where I was dubious of his talent, but more that I was expecting the Suns to focus on different areas of need as the backcourt was already the team's greatest strength. It turns out that Phoenix seized an opportunity to bulwark it even further.
We spent a lot of time on this site last season discussing the historical significance of Dragic's stupefying volume efficiency, which culminated in him becoming just the fourth player in NBA history to average at least 20 points and five assists per game while shooting over 50% from the field and 40% from three point range. Goran absolutely earned the plaudits he received, and his selection to the third team All-NBA, but you might be surprised to see exactly how lofty of company Thomas found himself in the midst of.
This table is a list of the players that scored at least 20 points and dished out at least six assists per game last season. If the criteria was limited to players who averaged more points and assists than Thomas it would shrink to LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook.
This is the type of offensive threat Thomas represents. Although he may give some back on the defensive end, not everyone on this list is known as a formidable defender.
Want some more evidence of what type of player the Suns are getting? In the history of the NBA the only other players under 6' tall to put up 20/6 are Calvin Murphy, Dana Barros, Damon Stoudamire and Michael Adams. Only Murphy did it twice. The Suns are getting a very unique talent that has the potential to thrive in their system.
Last season backup point guard wasn't an area of great strength... and by that I mean it was a crippling weakness. This deficiency was exacerbated by injuries to Bledsoe (mostly) and Dragic. Past those two there was no scoring threat.
Ish Smith (bless his heart) played 1,006 minutes for the Suns last season and made one three point shot (out of 23 attempts). Prorated across the same number of minutes Thomas would have made 50. The Suns were fourth in the NBA in three point attempts last season and emphasized that as part of their arsenal. With Frye leaving the fold Thomas can help replace those attempts, even though it doesn't provide the same spacing advantages. After the impressive shooting improvements several players on the Suns made last season Thomas may very well be able to improve upon his percentage under new guidance.
With Thomas in the fold the team should have much more even guard play. In fact, despite the distinct stylistic differences, the offensive numbers for Thomas, Dragic and Bledsoe were strikingly similar. All three guards can penetrate and create free throw attempts. While Dragic and Bledsoe were both successful at getting to the line last season, only Markieff Morris averaged more than 3.6 attempts per 36 minutes among the other seven regular rotation players. That's not to imply that the team was bad at generating free throw attempts, though, because the Suns finished ninth in the league. The presence of Thomas should only improve another strength here.
The Suns wanted to push the tempo last season and were somewhat successful, finishing eighth in the league in pace. Thomas should also help the team improve in this facet since he excels in transition. The Suns second unit (with the current roster) will likely feature a lineup that includes Thomas, Dragic or Bledsoe, Gerald Green and Marcus or Markieff. That combination should have no problem playing breakneck basketball and scoring in bunches.
Thomas, Dragic and Bledsoe all averaged between 33-35 minutes per game last season. There is no reason to think this workload shouldn't be mollified... since with only 96 minutes per game to split at the two guard spots coach Hornacek's mission will be able to appropriate enough minutes to his guards instead of limiting them. Instead of trying to eke out a few minutes to get Goran a breather Thomas will play well enough at times that it will be hard to substitute him back out of the game. The Suns new depth at point guard also gives them insurance against injuries. Not just major injuries that cause a player to miss extended time, but nagging injuries that could be palliated by a night off. Having Bledsoe or Dragic out of the lineup wouldn't feel like a death sentence going into a game.
Contract information courtesy of Mike Prada with SBNation.
This is a list of free agents who have signed more lucrative deals than Thomas this summer. Not all of them are worth more total, but all are more money per year. I think you could make a case that Thomas outplayed all of them last season with the exception of Kyle Lowry.
Thomas actually has something going for him that not all of these other players do. He has an elite talent. Thomas is an elite scorer. Only 21 players in the NBA were able to score at least 20 points a game last season and only nine of those did so more efficiently than Thomas. This isn't a mirage, either, as his TS% has been .574 in each of his first three seasons. Isaiah Thomas is a firecracker.
Players like Gordon Hayward and Chandler Parsons are being paid based on hopeful future production rather than previous performance. It's hard to imagine Marcin Gortat being worth anywhere near the money he's getting paid in the last two years of his contract. Jordan Hill is getting $9 million to get a team 10 and seven. Avery Bradley is more limited offensively than Thomas is defensively, but still getting paid more.
The four year contract Thomas signed will take him right into his prime and should be easily movable over its duration. This gives the team flexibility to move him in a package deal or even keep him and move other players in the backcourt.
A short term solution like Pau Gasol doesn't really fit the vision of a young team growing together. Based on money and performance Thomas may be the best fit for the Suns of anybody on this list. Does the shift of point guard minutes from Ish to Thomas outweigh the shift of minutes from Frye to Marcus Morris? I'd say very possibly...
Isaiah Thomas has ascended all the way from being the last player selected in the 2011 draft by the Sacramento Kings to becoming a quality NBA player. He even managed this feat despite being drafted by a hellish, career-killing team. The fact that they let him go in favor of Darren Collison gives me even more confidence this was a win for the Suns.
I think Thomas will succeed in Phoenix... because apparently he doesn't know how to fail.