When the Los Angeles Lakers were involved in a blockbuster trade sending Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance, Jr. to Cleveland, the immediate reaction was that this was step two in the master plan of creating cap space for this summer. Despite recent reports and statements that the team is no longer entirely focused on signing star free agents this summer, it’s clear that that is still the primary goal of the new regime led by Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka.
Despite the cap implications, however, the trade brought more than saved money to LA as Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye were shipped out of Cleveland to Southern California.
Thomas, a self-proclaimed lifelong Lakers fan, has had an eventful past year falling from grace after an MVP-caliber season in 2016-17 as his 15 games with the Cavaliers fell wildly short of his and fans’ expectations. Thomas’ play on the court was manifested by drama off the court as the Cavaliers locker room became a toxic environment that led to more losing in a wild “chicken or egg” scenario.
In the end, the Cavs sold low on Thomas whom they traded for over the summer by moving Kyrie Irving after he requested a trade. It allowed the Lakers to save cap space, acquire a first-round pick and take a risk with a player who had one of the most efficient high-volume scoring seasons of all time just one year ago.
So what can the Lakers expect from Thomas, now?
In his first game in the purple and gold, IT showed why he has been a special player in this league, exploding for 22 points and six assists while hitting four of eight threes in a loss to the Dallas Mavericks. It was a glimpse of the Isaiah Thomas that played in Boston and led the Celtics to an Eastern Conference Finals appearance last year.
Thomas’ start with the Lakers was far from indicative of his play as a Cavalier. Playing in a new system after offseason hip injury while, by his own recollection, never practicing with the Cavs this season clearly impacted Thomas on the court as he averaged only 14.7 points and 4.5 assists per game while shooting 36.1 percent from the field and 25.3 percent from three.
In reality, Thomas’ hot shooting against Dallas is probably not completely indicative of his potential production the rest of this season. But then again, the 15 games he played on the Cavaliers probably was not, either.
One game is not enough of a sample size to show if Thomas has finally turned a corner in his rehabilitation from injury. But it does give a slight glimpse at how the Lakers might use the diminutive point guard and how that may differ from his time as a Cavalier.
The Lakers, by virtue of playing him off the bench, are effectively asking Thomas to play Clarkson’s role: bring instant offense with the ball in his hands and add some playmaking so that the bench units do not remain stagnant and give up leads or fall into large deficits.
As a Cavalier, Thomas often shared the floor with LeBron James, making him more of a spectator and spot-up shooter than the offensive hub he is accustomed to being. Thomas did not seem to have many plays run for him in Clevland with only seven shot attempts from off-ball screen actions in his entire tenure with the Cavs.
In one game with the Lakers, he’s already attempted two such shots, hitting one of his threes from that play type.
The Lakers actually are a below average team on off-ball actions as it makes up only 5.1 percent of their offense while producing only 0.909 points per possession, according to Synergy. The majority of those possessions have gone to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope who has accounted for 111 of the Lakers’ 318 possessions on off-ball actions.
Caldwell-Pope has actually been good on those plays, producing 1.027 points per possession. But it’s easy to see how the Lakers can benefit from providing Thomas with the same green light. Despite his struggles this season, Thomas is a career 36.3 percent shooter (and he shot 37.9 percent from three on 8.5 attempts per game in his last season as a Celtic) and has more off-the-dribble game that can keep defenses unbalanced.
The Lakers only have four players – Caldwell-Pope, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma – shooting anywhere near Thomas’ career mark. His shooting prowess, if it jumps back up, will be a huge addition to the worst shooting team in the league.
That’s not to mention Thomas’ ability as a pick-and-roll ball handler and the dynamic play he can bring as a shooter, driver and passer. Thomas ran nine such possessions on Sunday, scoring 12 points for 1.3 points per possession. Compare that to the Lakers’ abysmal mark of 0.737 points per possession for the pick-and-roll ball-handler and it’s easy to see where Thomas can most impact the team.
Defense will always be an issue for Thomas as his small frame will limit him in every situation. Despite doing a decent job of switching on bigger players against Dallas, continually doing that put the Lakers in bad positions as his teammates helped and did not rotate back.
That will be an ongoing issue that will have to be fixed by Luke Walton and his staff. Thomas can’t switch on every possession and he’s going to have to be hidden as much as possible. Fortunately, the Lakers have been able to bounce back from poor defensive showings before and they’re still in the top half of the league on that side of the ball. They will have to adjust with Thomas being in the rotation and Clarkson and Nance being out of it but it shouldn’t be impossible to figure out.
There’s a lot of questions when it comes to Thomas and his role on the Lakers. Thomas was adamant that he wanted to start immediately after the trade but seems at peace with the decision to be the team’s super sixth man for now. Still, if he keeps playing like he did against the Mavericks, it’s going to be difficult for Walton not to start him alongside his rookie point guard.
Thomas was perhaps the biggest scapegoat for the Cavaliers’ struggles this season and much of it was warranted. He’s a prideful player who has made his mark in the league as one of its star players despite his size by always having a chip on his shoulder. That can be a difficult personality to mesh with.
But everything Thomas says is about winning basketball and we’ve seen how much that means to him as he caught the attention and love of basketball fans everywhere by playing for the Celtics in the playoffs despite the tragic death of his sister.
There will be bumps in the road but the Lakers made a low-risk, high-reward move to acquire Thomas. Even if his future in Los Angeles beyond this season is murky, Thomas should be able to help the Lakers win this season. That alone could make him an important piece to the Lakers’ future.