Point guard Isaiah Thomas is a highly paid backup point guard, but he's been playing like the starter the Suns knew they signed this summer. Has he earned the starting spot?
Isaiah Thomas signed with the Phoenix Suns this past summer for just under $7 million per year for the next four years. When he signed, he knew he was not going to be a starter at point guard unless negotiations went sour with Eric Bledsoe.
But that doesn't mean he's conceded a starting position and accepted a bench role during the prime of his career. He would really prefer to start.
"That's my plan," said Thomas about starting to USAToday.com's Sam Amick. "Every day that I come in, that's what I want to do. That's been my mindset from Day One, since I was a little boy. I mean, everybody wants to be a starter. I'd be lying to you if I said it doesn't bother me that I don't start, but I'm going to do what's best for this team and continue to work, continue to be me, and hopefully one of these days my name is called and I'll be a starter and that's that. I can only do what I can control, and that's being me and giving it my all and the coach has got to do the rest."
The Thomas interview was part of a larger article emphasizing that players still put a negative stigma on being a bench player. He spoke to Manu Ginobili, who's been a bench player for much of the past decade for the Spurs, and Andre Iguodala, who just got moved to the bench this season starting every game in which he'd played.
"Guys are wired like that from a young age," Iguodala told USA TODAY Sports. "I mean I've been playing basketball since I was five, and you're just so used to just starting the game. Even when you're young, it's 'Starters vs. Scrubs.' That was kind of the (mentality).
"If a guy is in front of you, then it's like, 'Well the guy is in front of me so I've got to go get his job.' Really, in the NBA, it's 'I need to get paid like a starter.' A team is not going to say, 'I'm going to spend $10 million for a guy to come off the bench.' A team is not going to do that. Or it's very, very rare."
Luckily for Thomas, he already HAS been paid. He is being paid like a starter. And even more importantly, he is paid exactly what he was worth in free agency this summer at the time he signed his deal.
Thomas knows that. And he knew he was stepping into a role that had no guarantees.
"It is important to me," Thomas, at his introductory press conference this summer, said of being a starter. "But when it comes down to winning I'll do whatever it takes to win. I want to be on a winning team. I know I have a role. It's a big part of what's going on here. I'm all for it. At the end of the day we're going to play with each other no matter who starts and who comes off the bench it's about winning."
The Suns were candid with Thomas in July when they signed him, and in every conversation since then. Bledsoe and Dragic are still the starters. But Thomas is still a huge part of their plans.
"There's going to be two of those guys (Thomas, Dragic, Bledsoe) on the court at all times," Hornacek said. "When that happens, teams are going to really have to plan for that."
Thomas was still saying all the right things at Media Day, though he admitted he really didn't know how it would work out.
"You never really see three talented guards like us on the same team," he said. "That's Coach's problem. He has to play us. He has to figure out how he's going to play us. I don't (worry about it) because I can play different ways. I can have the ball; I can not have the ball. It doesn't really matter with me. I can play any way I like. I make adjustments (based on) who I'm on the floor with."
Even recently, Thomas said he and the coaching staff got on the same page.
"We had meetings (recently) with the coaches and the general manager, and they even said, 'On 29 other teams, you'd probably be starting, and it takes a lot to put your pride aside and do what's best for the team," Thomas told USA TODAY Sports. "I just know everything is subject to change. I mean, it's a long season. There are highs and lows."
Thomas has definitely made adjustments. While Eric Bledsoe has not shot the ball as well this season, he's got a fire-breathing mini-Dragon behind him trying to earn the starting spot.
- Bledsoe: 13.8 points per game, 4.9 assists, 4.1 rebounds, 46.8% FG, 40% 3P, 104 O-Rtg, 106 D-Rtg, 30 minutes/game
- Thomas: 17.4 points per game, 4.1 assists, 2.3 rebounds, 47% FG, 32% 3P, 122 O-Rtg, 108 D-Rtg, in 24 minutes/game
Thomas has been killing it, for sure. He's scoring like crazy and helping lead the Suns to victories in the last two games.
But has he earned a starting spot over Bledsoe? Not so fast.
Bledsoe provides a more well-rounded game and as soon as his mid-range shooting comes back around (23% from 3-16 feet vs. 40% last year) he will be back to his usual self on offense. He still needs to mature in terms of running a team (3.5 turnovers per game vs. 1.6 per game for Thomas), but his defense can be difference-making.
Until then, though, it's Thomas' show.
In the last two games, Thomas has played the entire fourth quarter of each as the Suns have overcome deficits of 8 points (Golden State) and 6 points (Brooklyn). Thomas' unit has outscored those teams a collective 70-36 score, with Thomas scoring 27 points and dishing 4 assists against 1 turnover. Thomas was particularly effective getting to the line, making 16 of 17 free throws in the two quarters.
Bledsoe has been supportive the entire time. After what looked like a pouting session in the opening week when he didn't get back in to the game during the big minutes, Bledsoe has been a model of support. He's up and cheering on the sideline, rooting his team on the entire time.
"The bench is definitely our key," Bledsoe said after the win over the Nets.
Bledsoe helped start the comeback against the Nets in the third quarter by playing tough D. The Suns began the third on an 18-4 run. Bledsoe scored 9 points (3-3 shooting, 2-2 on threes), grabbed three rebounds and dished one assist in the third. The entire team played solid D in the second half, where they only gave up 41 points on 27.5% shooting to the Nets.
"It all starts from the point guard," he said. "I just try to encourage my teammates to get it going a little bit."
He finished his post game comments with even more praise for Thomas and Gerald Green (who scored 28 points off the bench himself).
"Isaiah and Gerald have been great for us," Bledsoe said. "They've been coming in and finishing out fourth quarters and been doing a great job."