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The Isaiah Thomas Experiment Begins Now

Which Little Guy will the Cavaliers get? Thomas has defied the odds plenty of times, but overcoming a hip injury and returning to the heights of last season could be his toughest challenge yet.

Isaiah Thomas Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“I’ve been out for so long,” Isaiah Thomas told reporters on Monday, ahead of his season and Cavaliers debut on Tuesday against the Trail Blazers, “it feels like I lost my powers.”

There’s a lot riding on whether Thomas can regain his superhuman scoring ability with Cleveland. Thomas has missed the first 36 games of the season while recovering from a hip injury (a right femoral-acetabular impingement with a labral tear, to be specific) that ended his 2016–17 postseason three games early. Beating the odds is nothing new for the 5-foot-9 former 60th overall pick who was dumped by two teams before breaking through with the Celtics. “My story is my story,” Thomas said in The Players’ Tribune’s “Book of Isaiah II” series. “It always ends up where I get the last laugh.” Still, he has a ways to go to get to that point.

It’ll take weeks, if not months, for Thomas to return to the form we saw prior to the injury. The Cavaliers will take it slow. ESPN’s Dave McMenamin reported Thomas is expected to play only 8 to 12 minutes in his season debut. All that really matters for Cleveland’s title hopes is that Thomas is back to his peak form by April — even May would do — but to what extent his skills are revived remains a mystery. Thomas’s success is largely reliant on skills that heavily tie to athleticism, such as quickness, agility, and explosiveness. He uses hesitations and quick moves to create space off the dribble, actions that require significant hip movement. Take a look at this play:

Every single motion — the initial hesitation, the zero-to-60 acceleration, the long step and sudden stop, the step back — requires the hip to be engaged. Thomas told me last year he’s worked on this Allen Iverson–style shoulder hesitation “thousands of times” to build the muscle memory and timing necessary to get the shot off no matter the situation. When Thomas talks about not having his powers, he means he needs to get back his rhythm and feel. It’s unreasonable to expect moments like this one to return until later in the season. But if Thomas does get to the physical level that he hopes to, he can be LeBron’s top playmaking partner.

Thomas should far exceed what Derrick Rose and Jose Calderon provide, and he can potentially replace what Kyrie Irving brought to the table. Both Irving and Thomas are supremely efficient pick-and-roll and isolation scorers. They were the only two players last season to score over 1.1 points per possession on at least 150 isolation chances, per Synergy. Only 9.7 percent of Thomas’s possessions ended in isolation, while Irving finished with 18.5 percent last season. Cleveland still runs a heavy dose of isos, which means Thomas should now see an uptick in chances. He is fully capable of taking advantage: He can pull up on a dime from 3 or midrange, like in the clip above against Atlanta. He can toss up soft floaters in the paint. He can make passes for teammates. But it’s equally important that Thomas regains the ability to produce inside.

Despite the fact Thomas is the Little Guy, drawing fouls and scoring among the trees is a significant source of his production. About 60 percent of his points came in the paint or at the free throw line, which was similar to Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Thomas was among the league leaders in drives and free throw attempts. He’s a master at using his body to draw or absorb contact and then finish with touch off the backboard. While Thomas has never dunked in his pro career, the body control and elevation necessary for him to finish at the rim require elite athletic ability. Thomas might be 5-foot-9, about the average height of an American man, but he’s an outlier when it comes to athleticism. Just watch these finishes:

Thomas’s interior finishing could perhaps be the last part of his game that he regains. If he lacks the same bounce, it’ll be harder for him to finish against length and draw fouls. If he lacks the same burst off the dribble, it’ll be harder for him to get inside in the first place. The hip issue he has doesn’t just go away. As I reported in the aftermath of his offseason trade from the Celtics, Thomas has dealt with femoral-acetabular impingement for years, yet has still produced at a high level by managing the pain through day-to-day maintenance.

But even at 75 percent, Thomas is still an upgrade over what Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue has been working with. Thomas can run a reliable pick-and-roll, something that can’t be said for Rose, and he can score, something that can’t be said for Calderon. Lue can also plug Thomas into actions once utilized with both LeBron and Irving, like the 3–1 pick-and-roll.

If defenses switch screens, perhaps Thomas will have enough turbo to get by larger defenders into the teeth of the defense, where he can score or kick out passes to teammates. As intriguing as it is to look back at the way Cleveland utilized Irving, it’ll perhaps be more interesting to see if Lue takes a page out of Brad Stevens’s Little Guy playbook.

Thomas is a better off-ball player than Irving is, and a ton of his baskets came from off-ball actions like dribble handoffs and screens. LeBron will possess the ball the majority of the time, so Lue could conceivably use Isaiah similarly to the way he was used in Boston rather than the basic spot-ups he ran with Irving.

Boston ran this play — a screen into a dribble handoff at the top of the key that allowed him to fire off a shot or attack against an off-balance defense — time and time again for Thomas. Thomas shot 41.2 percent on spot-up 3s last season, per NBA.com, with a chunk of the attempts coming off screens; Lue would be wise to use that ability. Imagine spacing-heavy lineups with Kevin Love at the 5, where LeBron hands the ball off then rolls to the rim as Isaiah attacks. Or Love hands it off and pops to space the floor.

With Thomas’s off-ball scoring skills, Lue could even restore some of Love’s playmaking prowess from the high post. Love was one of the league’s best passing power forwards in Minnesota, but he doesn’t get the same opportunities with the Cavs. It’ll be of interest to see the chemistry developed by Thomas and Love. Even if LeBron leaves in free agency next season, Thomas and Love (and the Nets’ 2018 first-round pick) could form a much stronger core than the wreck LeBron left behind last time.

But while LeBron will have his choice of teams this summer, Thomas, who turns 29 next month, won’t have the same luxury. Thomas’s potential contract earnings are relatively unpredictable, according to team front-office executives, because of the unique nature of his hip injury and the uncertainty regarding how he’ll perform. One executive said there are too many variables to consider since some teams might overlook his hip issues, while others could scratch him off their list entirely. Kyle Lowry’s three-year, $100 million contract seems like a realistic best-case scenario, whereas the worst case could be a lucrative one-year deal that allows Thomas to erase fears that he’s damaged goods if he doesn’t do so before free agency.

It’ll take only one team to back up the Brink’s truck, but with the cap likely to rise to just $101 million, there are only so many teams that are projected to have max contract cap space and even fewer teams with money and the need for a point guard. A second executive said Thomas’s best hope to maximize his earnings could come from a team such as the Bulls or Mavericks, who could use Thomas in the short term to bridge the gap until their young point guards hit their primes.

The NBA offseason is six months away. Between now and then, a lot of questions about Thomas’s future — and the Cavaliers’ — will be answered. It’s unknown if he’ll ever reach the heights he did last season with Boston. The track record for tiny point guards finding success into their 30s is slim, never mind if they had an injury concern as severe as Thomas’s hip. Don’t ever doubt the Little Guy, but the odds are stacked against him higher than ever.