Isaiah Thomas returned to the court on February 13, following 11 months away from basketball recovering from hip surgery. This was a moment of personal triumph for Thomas. For fans of his new team, the Denver Nuggets, on the other hand, this was a moment of dread; Thomas was horrendous last season for the Cavs, while also recovering from hip surgery, and his prickly discontent in LeBron’s orbit torpedoed that team’s chemistry. Now, one month and just nine appearances later, the question has been settled. Thomas has reportedly been yanked from head coach Mike Malone’s rotation, indefinitely.
Malone tried to put a positive spin on this, saying the decision is “never about Isaiah,” and that this was simply about tightening up the rotation to eight men as the team heads toward the playoffs. But that’s a rationale that would only apply if the three reserves that round out that eight-man rotation didn’t include anyone at Thomas’s position, which they do. Second-year point guard Monte Morris is playing more than 24 minutes a night in Malone’s rotation; in Tuesday night’s 26-point demolition of the Timberwolves, Morris played 27 minutes, while Thomas received his first DNP-Coach’s Decision of the season. Thomas apparently knew what was coming before the game:
Malone said he plans on keeping the rotation smaller down the final few weeks of the regular season, and had explained the rotation to Thomas, whom he’d previously coached in Sacramento, before the game.
“Oh, you definitely talk to him (about the decision), and I’ll keep that conversation between IT and myself,” Malone said. “(It’s) not an easy conversation, but that’s my job.”
The fact that Morris is having a really good sophomore season—10 points and 4 assists a night on 49/43/79 shooting splits, and a 5.2 net rating—gives a kind of cover to Malone’s decision that, frankly, it doesn’t need. Thomas has mostly been terrible. He’s shooting 37 percent from the floor, and 27 percent from three-point distance, and just 63 percent from the line. He’s produced more turnovers than assists, and is turning the ball over at a career-high clip, and is using an ambitious 26.5 percent of Nuggets possessions when he’s on the floor. Since his debut, the Nuggets are an insane, mind-boggling 15.5 points per hundred possessions worse during his minutes; Denver’s offense scores nearly 20 points more per hundred possessions when he’s off the court. Paolo Uggetti of The Ringer dug into some of the more specific reasons why their offense sucks so much reeking ass when Thomas is on the court:
Before Denver’s game against the Lakers, Malone talked about how unless the team completes 300 passes in a game, it’s not playing “Nuggets basketball.” Before Thomas made his way back onto the court, Denver averaged 308 passes a game, good for a top-10 mark in the league. Afterward, that number dipped to 283, a bottom-10 mark. Given Thomas’s low minutes, there isn’t a direct correlation, but when he is on the court, the team’s 27 assists per game plummet to eight.
Part of this is Thomas having played so little basketball, and in such varied systems, over the past two seasons. Last year he missed the first 36 games of the season, then played 15 games for the Cavaliers before being dumped unceremoniously on the Lakers, for whom he played 17 games before being shut down for the remainder of the season. He’s rusty, and is new to Denver’s system, and is trying to play his way into a rhythm. That’s a luxury he probably shouldn’t and can’t be afforded on a team with a very realistic shot at earning the West’s top playoff seed, but it probably accounts for those putrid shooting numbers, anyway.
Another part of this, though, is how poorly he fits into Denver’s system, even in theory, and in ways that go beyond Malone’s Norman Dale-esque pass quota. The other guards on Denver’s roster are versatile and athletic, and big enough to make attractive targets running around handoffs and cutting on the baseline and in all other ways orbiting around the playmaking of Nikola Jokic. The interior threat in Denver’s offense isn’t their big guys, it’s their little guys cutting inside and scoring off the sweet dimes of their big guys. Morris is listed at 6-foot-3; Gary Harris and Jamal Murray are 6-foot-4; Malik Beasley is 6-foot-5; Will Barton is 6-foot-6. Even if that overlapping size and athleticism started off as a coincidence, it is now a feature of how the Nuggets play—the threat of Jokic floating a touch pass over the top to a sturdy guard knifing down the paint gives those guards a kind of off-ball gravity that they wouldn’t normally enjoy anywhere inside the arc. Isaiah Thomas, generously listed at 5-foot-9, is a different kind of player altogether, and in a way that causes the Nuggets to contort themselves out of their preferred groove in order to accommodate his appetite for possessions.
The Nuggets are currently just one game back of the Golden State Warriors for the number one seed in a tough-as-hell playoff field. Their next six games include tilts against a foundering Mavericks team, the shitty and fading Wizards, and the long-dead Knicks. Meanwhile, the Warriors kick off a four-game road trip tonight that will take them to Houston, Oklahoma City, and San Antonio. There’s a very real chance that, if the Nuggets hold to their non-Thomas form, they will find themselves a game or two up for the top spot by the time they next face another Western Conference contender. It’s a good time for Malone to shrink his rotation, but even if he decided not to, it would still be an excellent time to nail Thomas to the bench.