King of the Fourth vs. Mr. Fourth Quarter

BOSTON, MA - MAY 25: Isaiah Thomas
BOSTON, MA - MAY 25: Isaiah Thomas /

Isaiah Thomas and Kyrie Irving have had phenomenal careers, but it is too difficult to really compare

Now that Isaiah Thomas is working his way back into form with the Cleveland Cavaliers, I thought it would be a good time to discuss how interesting the storyline of Kyrie Irving vs. Isaiah Thomas will be this season, considering the Boston Celtics will likely face Isaiah twice in the regular season, and a repeat of last years Eastern Conference Finals is looking likely as well.

First, let’s take a look at their career stats against each other from Basketball-Reference.

In the 13 regular season games they’ve played against each other, the two stars have posted nearly identical stat lines. One could even argue that Thomas has won the match-up so far, as he scores, assists, rebounds, and gets to the free throw line at better rates than Irving, all in over 3 fewer minutes per game, and with less turnovers.

Perhaps the most interesting stat to take note of here is that Thomas went to the free throw line at least 11 times in 5 of the 13 games, including a game on Nov. 3 last season where he made all of his 14 attempts. Irving, on the other hand, never managed to get to the line more than 6 times in any of the games. Perhaps Isaiah draws more fouls due to getting the benefit of the doubt at the rim, or maybe Kyrie is just better at avoiding contact on his drives, often finishing his lay-ups off the glass at unusual angles, compared to Isaiah’s style of often barreling into his defender and looking to draw contact on his drives.

When it comes to shooting from the field, Irving is shooting marginally better overall, as well as 7% better on threes, although neither of the two guards are shooting anywhere close to their career averages of 38.6% and 36.7% from the three point line. Kyrie is also posting the better defensive stats in the match-up, likely contributing to Isaiah’s below average shooting numbers.

Taking a look at the six playoff games they have played against one another, Isaiah’s averages take a severe dip. Two of those six games came in last years Eastern Conference Finals, including Game 2 where Thomas was eventually shut down after the first half due to his hip injury, while the other four came in the first round of 2015 playoffs where the Finals-bound Cavaliers steam-rolled an inexperienced Celtics squad in the first round.

If you exclude the game in which Thomas was eventually shut down in the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals, his averages improve slightly, but it is clear that Thomas shoots much worse in the playoff match-ups between the two guards, likely due to improved defensive coverage on him given his status as the Celtics’ clear go-to scorer, and number one option, especially during critical possessions.

Despite the career playoff numbers, if the Celtics and Cavaliers end up meeting in the playoffs this year, I expect the tables to be turned.

While it’s easy to shut Thomas down when you know the offense will be running through him, Kyrie benefitted from the presence of LeBron James, and to a lesser extent Kevin Love, whose gravity as players ensured that Irving couldn’t be swarmed as easily off dribble hand-offs and screens as Isaiah could in Boston, where there were no other offensive threats comparable to himself.

This years Cavaliers team, deep with proven, veteran talent, is unlike any team that Thomas has played on. It will be very interesting to see how he fares if he comes back as the same player he was last season in Boston.

Despite all the numbers, I feel that the most intriguing part of the match-up between Isaiah and Kyrie will by far be the intangibles. I expect any games between Isaiah and Kyrie to be heated, as having watched the way Isaiah operates for the last two and half seasons, there’s almost no way that he’s not looking at those games as the “Isaiah Thomas Revenge Tour.”

Thomas spoke candidly about both his desire to stay in Boston long-term, but also to get paid as a free agent, and Danny Ainge responded clearly to that request by indicating that an injured, soon to be 29 year-old Thomas wasn’t worth the contract that he desired. Despite that, it’s important to note that Isaiah would likely still be a Celtic if Kyrie hadn’t requested a trade this summer.

It’s impossible to say for sure whether Danny Ainge would have re-signed Thomas after this season, but trading away the opportunity to draft Markelle Fultz last summer seemed to indicate Isaiah’s long-term home would be Boston. However, once it became clear that Irving wanted out of Cleveland, the allure of getting a proven offensive superstar just entering his prime and under contract for a below-market deal was too strong for Ainge to ignore, despite Isaiah’s extraordinary run as a Celtic.

After all that Thomas gave the organization the last two and a half seasons, including pulling a well-below .500 squad into the playoff’s after the 2015 trade deadline, recruiting two landmark free agents in Al Horford and Gordon Hayward, and playing through his sister’s death and his hip injury during the 2017 playoffs, I’m sure he feels that he was a bit wronged by Danny Ainge. At the end of the day, he has stated that he knows it was business, and that Danny did what he thought was best for the Celtics, but with a player like Thomas, one whose entire career has been built on his chip-on-the-shoulder mentality, this is the greatest motivation he could have ever been given.

While the statistics and win/loss record indicate that Kyrie has gotten the better of Isaiah when they meet in the playoffs, I worry that Irving and the Celtics may find themselves on the losing end this year. While it will be hard to say just how good this Cavaliers team is until Thomas has a couple of months to integrate himself and get up to speed, it is already obvious that this is the most talented roster he’s played on in his career. Throw in the fact that this is the third time that the All NBA 2nd Team guard has been traded in three years, and I think his motivation to demolish the Celtics, combined with his incredibly talented supporting cast, will be too much for the C’s to overcome this year.  Unless of course Gordon Hayward makes a surprise return…

Overall, I can’t tell you who is the better player.  Their careers have taken them on completely different paths, and they have been given a much different cast of players to work with.  Additionally I cannot tell you whether the Celtics or the Cavaliers won the trade, and it will by hard to say for sure until years down the line.  What I can tell you for sure, is that these two star guards were involved in quite possibly the most unprecedented trade in NBA history when they were swapped for one another, and as each guard logs games for their new teams, it will be a lot of fun to compare them to one another.

When Thomas was here, I always said I wanted him to win a ring in Boston. Now I just hope he doesn’t win a ring at Boston’s expense.

Next: Celtics Can't Pay Attention to Cavs

Oh yeah, and just to top it all off, these are two players who’ve both been given nicknames for their incredible clutch-time performances. Kyrie “Mr. Fourth Quarter” Irving. Isaiah “King of the Fourth” Thomas. Let’s just say I can’t wait for the playoffs.