Isaiah Thomas had a breakout season in 2015-16, here’s how he can compete for the League MVP this year
Isaiah Thomas has defied odds his entire basketball career. After being the lowest-ranked player in Washington’s 2008 recruiting class, Thomas became the team’s best player as a junior – nailing a buzzer beating game winner in overtime to win the Pac-10 Conference Tournament. Then, after being drafted with the final pick in the 2011 NBA Draft and having people questioning whether a 5-9 guard could last in the NBA, Thomas put together a couple of solid seasons with the Sacramento Kings – earning himself a four-year, $27 million contract with the Phoenix Suns just a few years later.
At the trade deadline during his first year with Phoenix, the Suns traded Thomas to the Boston Celtics – where he backed up Marcus Smart for the final 21 games of the season. With Smart clearly being viewed as the team’s franchise point guard at the time, an injury that sidelined Smart was the only window of opportunity given to Thomas to prove that he could lead the Celtics now and in the future.
And he ran with it.
After coming off the bench for the first three games of the 2015-16 campaign, Thomas put together a season that Danny Ainge could only have dreamed of when trading for him less than a year prior. He contributed 22.2 points, 6.2 assists and 1.1 steals per game as he quickly became the team’s best player and go-to-scorer. On the way to leading the Celtics to 48 wins and a playoff berth, Thomas tied Calvin Murphy as the shortest All-Star in NBA history – putting the idea that he couldn’t be a contributor on a winning team to rest.
From every wizard-like pass to every circus shot that somehow went in, Isaiah Thomas has simply left everyone in the NBA community speechless. There’s no words to describe the sudden rise to stardom that he’s experienced over the past year, and even when considering the continuous odds he’s faced his entire basketball career starting in high school.
Basketball is considered a game for tall people, yet a 5-9 guard has taken the league by storm and isn’t satisfied just yet. The feistiness that Thomas shows on the court and on Twitter only exemplifies the confidence he has in his game and in the Celtics. It may seem crazy to think that Isaiah Thomas, a 5-9 point guard who wasn’t even the starter on the Celtics at this point last year, could actually compete for the League MVP. Although, when considering he has run through every road block, continuing to look for more, it may not be that crazy.
By no means will it be an easy task for Isaiah Thomas to be a finalist for League MVP, let alone win it. He and the Celtics will have to have much better seasons, but it’s also not completely out of his reach.
As much as personal statistics are looked at when deciding the NBA MVP, the Celtics as a team need to win games. In the long history of the MVP award, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the only player in NBA history to win the award while being on a team who missed the playoffs. The Los Angeles Lakers missed the playoffs in 1975-76 with a 40-42 record, but Abdul-Jabbar’s 27.7 points, 16.9 rebounds, 4.1 blocks and 1.5 rebounds per game was enough to garner enough votes.
While missing the playoffs isn’t even on the Celtics radar heading into the 2016-17 season, it does show that the MVP usually comes from a team near the top of the standings. Besides, when Abdul-Jabbar took home the award it was in a different era, nowadays voters are looking at players who elevate their team to championship heights.
This type of thinking has become evident over the past four MVP winners. Since the NBA lockout that shortened the 2010-11 season to just 62 games, the previous four MVP’s teams have won an average of 65.75 games. In fact, Kevin Durant in 2013-14 was the only one in the group to win less than 60 games during his MVP season – Oklahoma City won 59 games.
Even though the NBA Finals may be out of the Celtics reach this season, finishing atop of the Eastern Conference is not. There is no denying that the Cleveland Cavaliers are easily the best team in the East, but that doesn’t always equate to a regular season conference title.
LeBron James led teams have widely been considered the best team in the East since he joined the Miami Heat in 2010-11. Despite the notion that the Heat, and eventually the Cavaliers, are second to no one in the East, James’ teams have only clinched the top seed in the Eastern Conference twice in six years. It doesn’t mean they weren’t the best team, rather the urgency isn’t there because of the star power that those teams held and knowing that sacrificing health isn’t worth an extra win or two in the regular season.
The same will be true in 2016-17. Cleveland is coming off their first title in franchise history, therefore getting back to the Finals is more important than finishing atop the East in the regular season. Sure, the top seed in the East would give them an easier path, although the notion that the road to the Finals in the East goes through Cleveland no matter what is alive and well.
As a result, a young team like the Celtics, who experienced first hand how important playoff seeding can be for a team who doesn’t have a bonafide superstar on their team, will have significantly more urgency to win as many games as possible in the regular season than the Cavaliers. Even more so this season as there are multiple teams who will be competing with the Celtics for the top-three seeds in the East, giving them more motivation not to fall down the standings and face a tougher first round opponent like last season.
As the Celtics witnessed last year, the playoffs are a completely different game. At the same time they don’t have a LeBron James leading them or the players around Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford to sacrifice seeding in the playoffs.
Besides, after Boston surprised everyone and tied for the third best record in the East last season, the only way they can exceed expectations this year is by winning the East. While it would be a testament to Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens, more importantly for Isaiah Thomas, it would put the Celtics in the national spotlight even more and exemplify his strong performances.
Simply helping a team achieve a great record isn’t enough, though. That could be done with great team play from a team owning a couple of All-Stars but not an MVP candidate. Thomas has to stand out statistically to have a shot. The San Antonio Spurs level of consistency is a perfect example of how their great team play has made their best players get overlooked in the past.
Granted Kawhi Leonard did finish second in MVP voting last year, since Tim Duncan won the award in back-to-back seasons (2001-02, 2002-03) the Spurs have failed to have another MVP on their team. While their passing and team play should be accredited a great deal for their success over the past decade, it has caused them to be overlooked at times for major individual awards – making Leonard’s near-MVP season that much more impressive.
Either way, Thomas has to continue to take his game to the next level in 2016-17. As promising of a season as 2015-16 was, he was a borderline All-Star selection, missed out on being named to an All-NBA Team and wasn’t close to finishing top-10 in MVP voting. It was a very good season but a far cry from MVP numbers.
With that being said, he has the players around him to become a more complete player. Aside from Horford’s swiss army knife arsenal that will be a perfect pick-and-pop option for Thomas, Gerald Green‘s three-point shooting and Jaylen Brown‘s athleticism will help the Celtics play faster and create more assist opportunities for Thomas. Because, in the end, Thomas can be a finalist on a team that finishes second or third in the conference, although he has no shot unless he impacts the game in every facet.
When looking at the top-10 MVP vote getters from a season ago, every player had a statistic that stood out but the level of consistency throughout all ten players was eye-opening. Damian Lillard was the lone player not to average at least one block or steal per game, and he was the only player who failed to account for at least 10 win shares in 2015-16 – 9.2 win shares.
Even though Isaiah Thomas owned 9.7 win shares last season, Lillard’s 25.1 points and 6.8 assists per game, along with being the star player on arguably the most surprising team of the season, was enough to gain votes. Lillard’s season is a perfect example of how Isaiah Thomas can get himself in the conversation. Just like Thomas, Lillard seems to be overlooked every year, yet he continues to dominate – finishing eighth in MVP voting despite not making the All-Star team.
Thomas is never going to be a factor on the glass or a great defender, but neither was Lillard and he was able to catch people’s eye. His pure scoring ability, playmaking, leadership and the fact that he was the best player on a team who jumped into the national spotlight was enough to catapult him onto the national stage. Despite not being on a team who was a legitimate title contender, he helped a team exceed every expectation. If Lillard put up the same numbers but the Trail Blazers missed the playoffs then Lillard wouldn’t have sniffed the MVP – once again showing the importance of exceeding expectations.
Damian Lillard was able to bring Portland to unexpected heights by owning some of his best performances of the season in the biggest games.
In four games against the Golden State Warriors, Lillard averaged 36.5 points and 6.5 assists per game. During his lone meeting with the Cavaliers, Lillard posted 33 points, six rebounds and six assists. It may only be five games of an entire season, however he had some of his best performances of the season against the top teams in the league on the biggest stage with everyone watching.
Padding your stats in a blowout win over the Brooklyn Nets will boost your averages, but being the best player on the floor when taking on the two teams who met in the NBA Finals speaks loudly of Lillard as a player and as a leader.
With 22 nationally televised games this season for the Celtics, Thomas will have plenty of opportunities to showcase his game while everyone is watching. That’s an area where Isaiah Thomas will need to step up as he averaged a measly 20.2 points and 5.6 assists per game over five meetings with Cleveland and Golden State in the regular season.
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Plus, while Boston was the only team in the NBA last season to beat both Cleveland and Golden State on their home courts, they only went 2-3 against them on the year and better performances from their star player could have changed the outcome. Whether Thomas is in the MVP conversation or not, performing well against the top teams in the league is how Boston will take the next step.
No matter how you slice it, it seems like a near impossible task for Isaiah Thomas to win the League MVP. His stat line dwindles in comparison to Stephen Curry‘s 30.1 points, 6.7 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game last season. Also, with Al Horford adding a reliable scorer in their front court, Thomas could see his scoring production decrease.
Although, like I said at the beginning of the article, Isaiah Thomas has continued to defy odds his whole career. Is 28 points, eight assist and 1.3 steals per game possible? Yes. Will it happen? Probably not. But that would at least get Thomas in the conversation as a legitimate contender to the award.
Still, after watching Thomas develop as a playmaker, seemingly getting better every game, there’s no doubt that his assist numbers should skyrocket with a better supporting cast around him. He’s much more than a scorer but continuing to build on his solid multi-dimensional game will make him a perennial All-Star and seen as more than just a one-dimensional player.
The Celtics have the team to surprise a lot of people this season, and Isaiah Thomas will be in the middle of it. Boosting his stats to heights that were unheard of when talking about the 5-9 guard just a couple of seasons ago may not happen all at once, however he’s on the national spot light heading into the season and significant growth would warrant voters to at least consider him in the top-10.
A lot would have to go right for Isaiah Thomas to even creep into the top-five, let alone take home the hardware, but proving people who count him out wrong is what he does best.