Isaiah Thomas has spent his entire career under the radar. Standing at 5’9”, he has been viewed as too small to be a star, but underestimating him just adds fuel to the fire. The most recent underrating of Thomas was last week, when Sports Illustrated revealed their NBA player rankings for the 2016-17 season.
Isaiah Thomas Sports Illustrated Player Ranking is Ridiculous
Some of the rankings were controversial, including Thomas at 45th, which is just ridiculous. Both Thomas’ drive to improve and his impact on the game are among the best in the NBA.
Thomas’ Continuous Improvement
The point guard has progressed each season. It started in 2011, when he was drafted 60th overall – with the very last pick in the draft – by the Sacramento Kings. Over three seasons in Sacramento, he went from being best known as the last pick in the draft to being a starter in the NBA. His points and minutes per game, as well as usage rate, increased in each season with the Kings. Thomas then signed with the Phoenix Suns, spending just 46 games with them before they traded him to the Boston Celtics. After a successful half-season in Boston, Sports Illustrated ranked Thomas 88th in their rankings before the 2015-16 season, to which he expressed his disappointment:
Sports illustrated Rankings are a JOKE lol. Feels like back in HS when those POLITICAL rankings would come out & we would just laugh it off
— Isaiah Thomas (@Isaiah_Thomas) August 31, 2015
Instead of letting that drag him down, the Washington native just used it as motivation. He turned around and put up a career-high 22.2 points per game while dishing out 6.2 assists. He was one of seven players in the league to average 22 and 6 (the others being Stephen Curry, James Harden, Damian Lillard, Kyle Lowry, Chris Paul, and Russell Westbrook).
Thomas was also a first-time All-Star last year. He didn’t win the popularity vote from the fans, but he won the more meaningful vote from the coaches. Instead of watching on T.V. like the fans do, coaches see up close how dangerous Thomas is.
Not only did the coaches believe that Thomas deserved to be an All-Star, but players did too. “Isaiah is an unbelievable competitor,” All-NBA point guard Chris Paul said. “I thought he was going to be an All-Star last year, but I’m happy that now the rest of the league and the world gets to see how good he is.” [NBA.com]
Thomas deserves a higher ranking based on his All-Star appearance. Only 24 players make the game, and everyone involved in the game thought he deserved it. Due to Thomas’ continuous improvement, it is unlikely that 2016 will be his sole appearance at All-Star weekend.
Thomas’ Tremendous Impact
In addition to his improvement, Thomas is one of the most impactful players in the league. He has been one of the main factors in Boston’s climb back to relevance. When the Celtics traded for Thomas at the 2015 trade deadline, their record was 20-32. They had their sights set on the draft lottery, not the playoffs. However, Thomas propelled his team to a 14-7 post-deadline record in games in which he played, leading to a playoff appearance. The Celtics were the No. 7 seed but were swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Thomas has been the most effective player on a playoff team for two seasons. When he was on the court with the Celtics in 2014-15, their offensive rating was 111.8, which would’ve been top five in the whole league. In the 2015 playoffs, Thomas was the sole reason that his team didn’t lose by thirty in every game. LeBron James and company outscored Boston by just 3.3 points per 100 possessions when Thomas was on the court, compared to 21.4 when he was off the court.
Fast-forward a year. Thomas led the Celtics to the playoffs as the No. 4 seed, with a win-loss record of 48-34 (tied for third) – a big improvement, despite not many roster changes. In the regular season, the Celtics had an offensive rating of 109.4 with Thomas on the court, an elite number. However, their offensive rating was just 100.9 with him on the bench, which would’ve been the second-worst rating in the NBA.
The Celtics are 68-44 in the regular season since trading for Thomas. Just six teams have been better over that time span: the Warriors at 97-15, the Spurs at 88-21, the Cavs at 76-32, the Clippers at 73-36, the Thunder at 71-39, and the Raptors at 68-42. Isaiah Thomas’ performance results in wins; his stats aren’t empty.
The Celtics would be a mediocre team without Thomas, so it’s a good thing that they don’t know what that’s like. He was one of just 18 players in the league to appear in all 82 games last year, and one of five who averaged over 30 minutes in those 82 games.
Sports Illustrated’s Unfair Reasons for Knocking Thomas
The best player on a playoff team deserves more respect. There aren’t 44 players in the league with Thomas’ talent and effect on his team. In fact, SI’s only basis for Thomas’ low ranking was his 2016 playoff performance.
Because of that, it’s ridiculous to rank complimentary players or players who have never been to the postseason above Thomas. That group includes players such as Khris Middleton, Rudy Gobert, and Derrick Favors. Kevin Love couldn’t lead the Minnesota Timberwolves to the playoffs when he was their main player; Nicolas Batum and Serge Ibaka have been solid over their careers, but they’ve also been compliments to all-stars. If they had lead roles, they wouldn’t be as effective as Thomas is. All of these players were unjustly ranked above Thomas.
The reasoning behind those players’ rankings is their likely improvements. However, as mentioned above, Thomas has proven himself as a top talent while progressing and winning more throughout his career.
That’s not to say that the electrifying guard is without flaws. As SI stated, Thomas did have a weak playoff performance. His overall efficiency went down as the Atlanta Hawks ousted the Celtics in six games. He scored 24.2 points per game, but on just 39.5 percent shooting from the field and 28.3% from the three-point line.
Thomas Was a One-Man Team in the Playoffs
Although Thomas’ individual performance in the most recent playoffs was lackluster, SI failed to acknowledge the reasons behind his struggles. Injuries were undoubtedly a factor.
Avery Bradley was out for most of the series with a hamstring injury. Bradley emerged as a secondary scorer for the Celtics last season; he averaged a career-high 15.2 points per game on 44.7 percent from the field, shooting 36.1% from deep.
Jae Crowder was another scoring option. He had a career year in which he scored 14.2 points per game on 44.3 percent shooting. However, an ankle injury that he suffered in late March restricted Crowder’s effectiveness in the playoffs. He was nonexistent, averaging just 9.5 points on an abysmal 27.8 percent from the field during the series.
Kelly Olynyk was another missing weapon. In the regular season, he averaged 10 points per game. He finished in the top 20 in three-point percentage at 40.5 percent, the only center to make the top 20. The two-man combo of Thomas and Olynyk outscored opponents by 7.4 points per 100 possessions when on the floor together, the most of any Celtics duo throughout the season. Olynyk tweaked a shoulder injury in the first game of the series, playing in just four of the remaining games. Like Crowder, he provided essentially nothing for the team. In 32 minutes over four games, Olynyk scored just two points and shot 1/9 from the field.
The lack of help around Thomas allowed the top five Hawks defense to shift all of its attention to him; he was the only player who could create offense and score effectively. Had just one or two of those injuries not happened, Thomas could’ve operated without facing double teams outside and big men inside. Bradley and Crowder command attention from their respective defenders, and Olynyk’s shooting provides spacing. Their absences made Atlanta’s task to lock down Thomas much easier.
Thomas’ Defense is Underrated
Another knock on Thomas is his defense. Due to his small frame, he gets a reputation as a bad defender. Thomas isn’t an All-NBA defender, but he’s a better defender than he gets credit for. ESPN’s Chris Forsberg broke down Thomas’ individual and team defense in-depth; Thomas’ defense used to be a negative, but now it’s becoming positive, or at least neutral, for his team.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens praised Thomas’ defense in December of last season: “We need [Thomas] to continue to defend at the level he’s capable of because he’s really had an impact on that end, too,” Stevens said. [Sacramento Bee]
Look around the league and try to find 44 players who deserve a higher ranking than Thomas. His improvement each year and his impact on the game are both terrific. All factors considered, SI’s ranking confused everyone, including Thomas himself:
45? SI rankings are a JOKE!!
— Isaiah Thomas (@Isaiah_Thomas) September 16, 2016
Being overlooked is nothing new for Thomas, though. Just like always, he is going to use this as motivation to make his doubters eat their words. Sports Illustrated can underrate Thomas all it wants, but that’s just the way he likes it.