Why Do the Kings Hate Isaiah Thomas?

IT2 has proven to the Kings every single year that he deserves to be the starting point guard, but they keep trying to replace him. What gives?

Isaiah Thomas (IT2) put up huge numbers last year, starting the final 54 games in which he played. In those starts, Thomas averaged 21.2 points, 3.1 rebounds, 6.8 assists, and 1.2 steals per game, while shooting 45.1% from the field and chipping in 1.9 three-pointers per contest at a 33.7% clip. For the record, those numbers are practically identical to the ones put up by one Kyrie Irving last season, who just agreed to a five-year, $90-million extension with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

So, what did the Kings do? They went out and got Darren Collison - Chris Paul’s backup on the Los Angeles Clippers last season - and apparently promised him the starting point guard job.

Wait, what?

Collison and the Kings have indeed agreed on a three-year, $16-million contract that can be signed after the NBA’s moratorium period ends on Thursday, leaving Thomas - a restricted free agent - in an unfortunately familiar position. The rolling disagreements with the move among many NBA pundits and fans didn’t have as much to do with Collison or the contract (a decent value, given the market), but more with the way the Kings keep refusing to believe that Isaiah Thomas is actually really good at basketball.

Let’s review.

Rookie Season: 2011-12

IT2, a small, left-handed point guard measuring 5’9” and weighing a mere 185 pounds, was the very last pick (60th) in the 2011 NBA Draft. He and 10th overall pick Jimmer Fredette were the only two point guards on the roster for the Kings at the start of the 2011-12 season, but neither of them had earned the starting job by opening night.

For the better part of the first 29 games of the season, the Kings went with a combination of Marcus Thornton at the point and Tyreke Evans as the shooting guard to form their backcourt. They eventually realized that they would need a natural point guard in the lineup and the occasional experiment of forcing Fredette into that role didn’t pay dividends.

On the 30th game of that lockout-shortened season, Keith Smart gave the role to Thomas and he ran away with it. He put up the best season of anyone who played the point guard position for the Kings that year and started the team’s final 37 games.

Year 1 (2011-12)GPGS at PGPTSASTnERDPER
Isaiah Thomas653714.85.41.517.6
Marcus Thornton513818.71.90.517.4
Jimmer Fredette61710.92.1-5.110.8

Note: points and assists per game are based on games in which the player started, nERD and PER on the season as a whole.

Thornton scored more than Thomas that year as a starter, but IT2 was tops in assists, our all-encompassing nERD metric (that estimates the wins a player would contribute if starting on a league-average team), and player efficiency rating (PER). The Kings never got what they expected from Fredette, but it looked as though they had found a diamond in the rough in Thomas and their starter for the next season.

Sophomore Swagger: 2012-13

Thomas was indeed the starting point guard for the Kings at the beginning of the 2012-13 season, but Keith Smart pulled him in favor of Aaron Brooks after the team’s 2-7 start.

Regardless of the reasoning, it simply never made all that much sense to start Brooks over the young and quickly developing Thomas. The Brooks experiment only lasted 19 games (plus one as an injury fill-in for IT2 prior to the initial switch) and Isaiah eventually won the job back at the end of December and held it the rest of the season. Brooks was later waived by the team.

Year 2 (2012-13)GPGS at PGPTSASTnERDPER
Isaiah Thomas796215.
Aaron Brooks462010.03.0-2.412.1

Yet again, once all was said and done, Thomas had been the most effective point guard for the Kings for the second year in a row. So, what did the Kings do? They traded for Greivis Vasquez, the starting point guard for the New Orleans Hornets the year prior, and gave him the job that IT2 had already earned twice previously.

Noticing a trend?

Breakout Season: 2013-14

For the first 18 games of the season, Greivis Vasquez started for the Kings. Thomas responded to yet another benching by averaging 17.8 points, 4.9 assists, and 1.4 steals per game, while shooting 45.8% from the floor and 40.3% from long range over those 18 games off the pine, thoroughly outplaying Vasquez.

IT2 was in the early running for Sixth Man of the Year until the Kings pulled off a blockbuster trade with the Toronto Raptors to land Rudy Gay. In the deal, the Kings sent Vasquez out, once again giving the starting job back to Thomas (seemingly for good).

He responded with inspired play the rest of the way, putting up numbers that rivalled the likes of Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, and Kyrie Irving in the process. Along with that trio of All-Star talent, Thomas was the only other point guard in the association that averaged more than 20 points and 6 assists last season and was even second among the group in both effective field goal percentage (51.0%) and win shares (7.7), trailing only Curry in both.

Year 3 (2013-14)GPGS at PGPTSASTnERDPER
Isaiah Thomas725421.26.84.720.5
Greivis Vasquez18189.85.3-0.714.1
Ray McCallum451013.87.3-3.19.7

There was a period at the end of the season where IT2 missed 10 games due to a quad injury and rookie Ray McCallum got the starts. He played relatively well, putting up 13.8 points and 7.3 assists per contest as a starter, but shot an abysmal 36.5% from the floor and put up a defensive rating of 110.0 (compared to Thomas’ 104.8).

Thomas got the job back for the final two games of the season upon his return, but actually played fewer total minutes than McCallum over those last two contests. Yet again, Thomas’ role seemed uncertain going forward.

Now, that IT2 is due for a decent payday and Collison and McCallum are on the roster, the Kings seem to be saying their perfectly fine with letting Thomas walk.


Moving On

Thomas has had to prove himself to the Kings and win the starting job in each of the three seasons that he has been with the club. In that time, he has posted the highest nERD and PER of anyone that has played his position year in and year out and rendered each of them expendable. Vasquez was traded to the Raptors. Thornton was traded to the Nets. Fredette and Brooks were both waived. McCallum’s not quite starting material yet and may never be..

So, why Darren Collison?

Because Thomas is too short at 5’9”? Collison is only 6’0”. Because Collison is more of a “pass first” point guard? Thomas’ assist percentage (estimated percentage of teammate field goals a player assisted while he was on the floor) of 32.2% last year was far superior to Collison’s 21.9%.

It’s certainly not for scoring or efficiency (Thomas was 15th in the league in offensive win shares with 6.4), so is it for defense? The Kings had a defensive rating of 104.8 when Thomas was on the floor, 109.0 when he was off; a full 4.2 points per 100 possessions better. The Clippers had a defensive rating of 103.2 when Collison was on the floor, 100.9 when he was off; a notable 2.3 points worse. Overall, Collison’s nERD of 3.1 and PER of 16.2 paled in comparison to Thomas’ 4.7 and 20.5 (20th in the entire NBA).

In the end, it likely comes down to two things: dollars and cents.

Thomas has simply played himself into a good pay day and the Kings aren’t prepared to pony up after having him for chump change (just over $2 million total) over the last three seasons. The Kings have never seemed to stand behind Thomas, but there are plenty of teams lining up to do just that, with the Pistons, Lakers, Mavericks, Heat, and Suns all reportedly showing interest in the young guard.

Regardless of which team wins his services, Isaiah Thomas’ days of being criminally underrated and having to jump through hoops for affection like he did in Sacramento seem to be mercifully coming to an end.