While there are a lot of similarities between Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas stylistically, there is one big difference: Irving scored 21.4 percent of his points in isolation last season compared to only 9.1 percent for Thomas.
Their efficiency in those situations was identical — 1.12 points per isolation possession for the both of them — but the volume is notable. Whereas Irving scored 5.7 points per game in isolation, Thomas only averaged 2.6 points per game. According to NBA.com, the former put Irving in the same category as James Harden and Russell Westbrook at the top of the league and the latter put Thomas in the same category as the likes of Kevin Durant, Jahlil Okafor and Jeff Teague.
Where Thomas makes up the difference is by establishing himself as a scoring threat without the ball in his hands. About a third of his offense came from a combination of spot-ups, handoffs and scoring off of screens last season compared to only 17.6 percent for Irving. Thomas was fantastic in each of those categories, ranking in the 92.4 percentile on spot-ups, 80.8 percentile on handoffs and 85.8 percentile off of screens. Irving was also elite in that regard — he was actually a more accurate shooter than Thomas — but Thomas generated far more of his offense off ball.
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That will inevitably impact how the Cavaliers operate for as long as Thomas is their starting point guard. Their success will continue to revolve around LeBron James, but replacing Irving with a point guard who is more willing to play off ball and less dependent on isolations will change the way they attack. For example, Thomas scores on plays like this (coming off of a screen or spotting-up on the perimeter) almost as frequently as Irving scores in isolation:
Marcus Smart isn’t even a volume scorer in the post — he averaged 1.2 points per game on the block last season. Replace him with James in those situations, and Thomas should see his open looks from the perimeter increase dramatically.
It’s worth noting that Thomas made 38.9 percent of his open 3-point attempts and 52.3 percent of his wide open 3-point attempts last season. (He shot 38.6 percent and 43.6 percent in those situations, respectively, the season prior). He is also a threat off the dribble, converting 50.9 percent of his mid-range pull-ups. Putting him in more of those situations should therefore only lead to good things.
There are a number of ways the Cavaliers can maximize the threat of Thomas’ ability to score off ball in ways they didn’t with Irving. Just imagine James taking the place of Al Horford and Kevin Love taking the place of Jae Crowder in the video below. Rather than screen and cut to the basket like Crowder does, Love can set a screen on James and pop to the 3-point line. James can then turn the corner and attack the basket while Thomas and Love use their gravity to open up a driving lane.
It’s a similar situation on the following possession. Notice how open the right side of the court is for the ball-handler (imagine James in place of Smart this time) to attack. Even if Thomas doesn’t end up with the ball when he cuts, his willingness to move off ball forces the defense to respect him and react accordingly. With at least two other shooters on the floor, it could make the Cavaliers more unpredictable.
That’s not to say one way is necessarily better than the other. The Cavaliers were predictable at times with Irving and James because they relied so heavily on isolation possessions to create scoring opportunities for themselves and others. It’s not a style that works for every team, but Irving and James are some of the best isolation scorers we’ve ever seen. Based on their skill set and the players who surrounded them, it made sense for the Cavaliers to run as many isolations as they did.
That’s not to say Thomas can’t create his own shot, either. He ran pick-and-rolls as frequently as Irving did last season and was a more efficient scorer. The void left by Irving paves the way for Thomas to continue being a volume pick-and-roll scorer, which could help him establish an immediate rapport with both James and Love. (The Cavaliers often used pick-and-rolls with Irving and James last season to create mismatches and Love can pick-and-pop with the best of them).
Thomas can also be the secondary playmaker James needs in the regular season and playoffs to prevent him from having to carry the offense all by himself.
The Cavaliers may even want Thomas to create more in isolation than he did last season. Not only was his efficiency on isolation possessions off the charts, his speed and ability to score at three levels makes him a nightmare for power forwards and centers to match up with him on switches. He might not be as dominant of a 1-on-1 scorer as Irving, but they can certainly use Thomas in similar situations.
Still, in the same way that the Celtics will likely change their system to play to Irving’s strengths, the Cavs will have to change theirs slightly to accommodate Thomas. He generates more of his offense from the perimeter than Irving does and he’s a more dynamic scorer off ball. His willingness to play in that fashion might make him a smoother fit in general next to James — especially after Irving made it clear he wants to be a No. 1 option — because his skill set becomes more valuable as a 1B.
Think of Thomas almost as a smaller version of Irving who relies less on isolations. Irving’s ability to manufacture his shot against the best defenses certainly made him a better option to carry the torch when James is no longer at the top of his game, but Thomas can complement him just as well as Irving did as long as James is still in his prime. Assuming, of course, Thomas can return to last season’s form.