Isaiah Thomas has done a fantastic impression of Carmen Sandiego this season. Just when we think he will finally return to the court, Thomas vanishes again, pushing his activation date further and further into the future. While the Denver Nuggets have succeeded in IT’s absence, some tough decisions will have to be made when he is ready to play.
Thomas had to sign a one year “prove it” deal with Denver in the offseason, the result of an unproductive 2017-18 season split between the Cavaliers and Lakers that was cut short by arthroscopic hip surgery. The upside of this deal for the Nuggets was massive – if IT could even somewhat replicate his All-NBA level of play from just two years ago, then Denver would have one of the top guards in the league – and there was little risk because of Thomas’ league minimum salary.
When Thomas inked his deal with Denver, he was slated to be their main 6th man coming off the bench and running the point. However, as this season has progressed, second-year player Monte Morris has emerged as a rock solid second unit floor general for the Nuggets. In about 25 minutes per game, Morris is averaging 10.7 points on 49.6% shooting from the field and 43.8% from three point range; which is the 7th best mark in the entire NBA. Even more impressive than his shooting is Morris’ mistake-free playmaking, as he averages 3.9 assists per game against a miniscule 0.6 turnovers. Turnover percentage is a stat that estimates the number of TOs a player commits over 100 plays, and Morris’ number is 6.4, which is good for 6th in the NBA.
With Morris’ help, the Nuggets have thrived this season, holding onto the best record in the West for a while before the Warriors got back to being the Warriors. Now Denver is sitting in the second spot in the conference, and you have to wonder where Thomas fits in this squad that already seems to fit together seamlessly. Every team can use more scoring, but if Thomas isn’t impacting the offense significantly when he returns, Nuggets head coach Mike Malone will have to closely consider his playing time because of IT’s defensive deficiencies and Morris’ excellent play.
There are a few ways Thomas can still have a positive impact on the team even if he doesn’t immediately have a large role upon his return. The Nuggets are a young team and, with the exception of Paul Millsap, have very little playoff experience. Anyone who watched Thomas play in the postseason with the Celtics knows he has incredible heart and can motivate his team. Denver is going to need that passion once the playoffs come around and the going gets tough. Another key aspect to keep an eye on is Thomas’ ability to get baskets when the game slows down. He was known as the King of the 4th for a reason, and you know IT wants to reclaim that status.
With Thomas’ return date theoretically getting closer, the Nuggets will soon have to deal with integrating him onto the court. It would be amazing if Thomas came back completely healthy and fit in perfectly with what Denver is already rolling out. However this is far from a perfect world, and the Nugget’s just have to hope that IT is ready to contribute when his abilities are needed the most come playoff time. It’s been quite a roller coaster ride for Thomas since he entered the league, maybe we’ll get to see it go up again by the time this season comes to a close.
(All stats from basketball-reference.com, through Feb. 11)