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Evaluating Isaiah Thomas’ new role with the Lakers

Isaiah Thomas Lakers

On Feb. 7, Isaiah Thomas said in a postgame interview with ESPN that he was “tired of being traded.” Hopefully he wasn’t too tired of it, because one day later, the Cleveland Cavaliers shipped him off to Los Angeles.

In the most surprising trade of the deadline, Cleveland sent Thomas and Channing Frye to the Lakers. In return, they received dunk contest participant Larry Nance Jr. and expensive point guard Jordan Clarkson. Cleveland also traded away its first-round pick (not the Brooklyn pick), which should be relatively low.

Thomas has been underperforming in his contract year, coming off of a hip injury. It is now the Lakers’ job to figure out the best way to utilize him.

Bench player

Thomas began his Lakers tenure coming off of the bench against the Mavericks. Los Angeles utilized a backcourt made up of Brandon Ingram and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, two players familiar with the system, instead of starting Thomas.

Thomas’ agent vehemently stated that he will not be a bench player for the Lakers. He even went as far as to say that Thomas would “demand” a buyout if Los Angeles made him a bench player for a significant amount of time.

All of this is understandable for a player who is trying to get paid in the offseason. Of course he wants to be seen as a franchise player, rather than a bench scoring option.

But considering his lack of production since his injury, it’s also understandable that the Lakers want to hedge their bets. In his 15-game sample size as a Cavalier, he averaged 14.7 points and 4.5 assists. That’s a huge drop-off from the 28.9 points and 5.9 assists per game he contributed last season in Boston. It’s reasonable to question whether he’ll ever be the same player as he was in the 2016-17 campaign.

Defense

In his career year last year, Brad Stevens and the Celtics successfully hid Isaiah Thomas’ defensive shortcomings. This was due to the coaching and the overall defensive talent and commitment in Boston.

The Cavaliers, however, could not. In his time with Cleveland he posted the worst defensive rating for any player in the last 25 years. Being historically bad at defense is not a good look, even in a league that doesn’t put a premium on defense.

Isaiah Thomas Lakers
Darren Collison blows by Isaiah Thomas during his time with the Cavaliers. (Photo by Ken Blaze/USA TODAY Sports)

Whether or not he can improve this area of his game will have massive impact on Thomas’ new role. The Lakers are not in contention for a playoff berth, and it’s unlikely that they would sign him after the seasons’ end. Dumping Clarkson’s salary and receiving a pick positions Los Angeles to get two stars in the upcoming offseasons. Signing Thomas to the rich contract he’d likely ask for would work directly against that plan.

However, if he can somehow return to last year’s form and improve his awful defense, the Lakers’ focus could shift slightly. He could even be seen as a piece of their future. It’s all very doubtful, though.

Crowded backcourt

Although Lonzo Ball is currently out with an MCL sprain, the Lakers have all but committed to him as their point guard of the future. That doesn’t bode well for Thomas’ starting point guard aspirations.

Isaiah Thomas Lakers
Lonzo Ball and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope during a game against the Wizards. (Photo by Nick Wass/Associated Press)

Los Angeles also has Tyler Ennis, Gary Payton II and Brandon Ingram, who can play the position. Couple that with the three shooting guards on the roster, and that makes for a very crowded field. Thomas will very much have to win his starting spot.

Thomas does have his potential going for him though. And the Lakers have enough young talent to mask his struggles somewhat. He also has veteran status, which is invaluable on such a young team.

Again, though, since the Lakers are not in playoff contention, they will be doing their best to give their young players time on the court.

Prediction

Thomas will probably be a spot-starter for the Lakers moving forward. Walton will throw him in the starting rotation in games where offense will be the order of the night.

It makes perfect sense to bring him off of the bench for his first game as a Laker. He’s unfamiliar with the system, and will need an adjustment period before starting him is justified.

Thomas obviously needs more games removed from the hip injury before NBA teams and fans can judge him fairly. But during a contract year on a team where he is a luxury, Los Angeles can do whatever they want regarding his playing time.

Magic Johnson is a former point guard that has a reputation of building relationships with his players. That alone means Thomas will get some starts so he can try to improve his value as he attempts to lock up a new contract.

 

Featured image by Brad Rempel/USA TODAY Sports

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