The Whiteboard: Isaiah Thomas, Monta Ellis and the promise of comeback season

Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images
Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images /

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As NBA offseason news slows to a trickle, one of the most fun stories to follow has been the comeback quests of a handful of veteran guards. Darren Collison, who last played in the 2018-19 season with the Indiana Pacers, has been working out with the Warriors and may land the 15th and final roster spot. Isaiah Thomas has never stopped looking for a new home and early this month it was reported that Monta Ellis was training for a comeback. On Thursday, it was reported that Ellis, Thomas and Lance Stephenson had worked out together for the Dallas Mavericks.

All four of these guards were fascinating players to follow on the court but it won’t be easy for them to find their way back in.

Will Isaiah Thomas, Darren Collison, Lance Stephenson or Monta Ellis find a new NBA home?

Collison seems the closest to a roster spot; he’s just 34 years old and retired while he was still fairly productive — he averaged 11.2 points and 6.0 assists per game, shooting 40.7 percent on 3-pointers during his final season. He reportedly retired for religious reasons and also has a serious domestic violence incident on his record but one would assume at this point the Warriors are comfortable enough with his character that they’re making their decision based on basketball reasons.

Ellis is the player who has been out of the NBA the longest, last playing during the 2016-17 season with the Indiana Pacers. His path towards irrelevance seemed obvious — a high-volume, low-efficiency backcourt scorer, Ellis began to struggle more and more as his athleticism began to decline and his inconsistent outside shooting (31.4 percent career 3-point percentage) became more and more glaring. It’s not clear what value he’d provide at this point, about to turn 36, with five years of accumulated rust and with a skill set that was already fairly archaic. There were 22 guards, age-32 or older, who played at least 500 minutes last season and 17 of them shot 36.0 percent or better on 3-pointers. Of the five who didn’t, two (Eric Gordon and Wesley Matthews) were strong shooters by reputation who had down years and two more were strong, versatile defenders (Andre Iguodala and Garrett Temple). The last was Russell Westbrook.

Thomas was, by far, the best of this group at his peak. He was a fringe MVP contender during the 2016-17 season and his combination of scoring volume and efficiency that season was historic. But he’s been healthy and productive enough to appear in just 87 games over the four seasons since, shooting under 40 percent from the field and just 34.3 percent from beyond the arc when he was able to get on the field. Here’s another way of visualizing the arc of his career — a slow start, epic peak and rapid decline — Thomas has produced 44.1 Wins over Replacement Player during his career, by the estimation of Basketball-Reference’s Box Plus-Minus. Sixty percent of that value came during the two full seasons he spent in Boston and he’s been a net negative player in the four seasons since he was traded from Boston.

On paper, Lance Stephenson seems like the player who could still provide the most value. He’s not a great shooter but had value as a creator, he has good size and strength and he relied far less on a quickness advantage than any of these other guards, which means his potential should be less susceptible to the erosion of aging. But the problem is still the same — his value mostly comes with the ball in his hands and he’s not quite efficient enough to justify getting those opportunuties on a large scale. And that was three years ago, who knows what he still has in the tank? And then there is his personality and potential chemistry concerns. If he was someone who could be counted on as a veteran leader he’d probably still be in the league.

Collison seems like he may already have his foot in the door with the Warriors, but the other three are tougher. As veterans, you would expect playoff teams and fringe contenders to be more interested. But they’re not clean, single-skill vets like J.J. Redick or DeAndre Jordan who can be plugged into a specific role. They might have an easier time finding a spot with a fringe playoff team, but most of those squads may be more interested in emphasizing youth.

The league would certainly be more interesting with all four of these guys back in it and playing actual minutes. But most of them are probably going to be left out.

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