Does Isaiah Thomas Have a Shot at Being the Best Little Guy Ever to Play the Game of Basketball?
When Sports Illustrated released their list of the Top 100 NBA Players of 2016 last week, the resulting mass disagreement was a given. Those kinds of rankings always draw commentary out of pundits, fans, and players alike, as they all argue for or against where just about every player on (or off) the list should have been placed.
One such argument in this case came from Boston Celtics guard, Isaiah Thomas.
IT2 felt disrespected by his ranking of number 88 among all current NBA players. He's been vowing to prove people wrong about a great number of things since all 5'9" of him was drafted with the last pick (60th overall) in the 2011 NBA Draft, so his dissatisfaction should come as no surprise. Thomas went a little further, however, by saying that he not only wanted to prove the rankings wrong, but that he also wanted to be considered "the best little guy to ever play the game of basketball" by the time all is said and done on his career:
"Allen Iverson. Isiah Thomas -- the older one. Nate 'Tiny' Archibald. There's a lot of them. But I want to be the best guy to ever play under 6-foot. That's a goal of mine and I'm going to try to reach that."
Each of the players he mentioned above are indeed 6'0" or taller, so it seems as though he's not expecting to compete with the careers of those particular legends of the sport. When it comes to guys under 6'0", however, where exactly does Thomas rank so far and is his goal even realistic?
As discussed in last week's piece, "Is James Harden the Best Left-Handed Player in NBA History?", the concept of "best" is incredibly subjective and hard to pinpoint in these arguments (and yes, it's still early September, so these stories constitute news). Since we're primarily a stats-based website, you can guess where our preferences are when it comes to building a case in such debates.
Raw stats like points, rebounds, and assists are typically hard to fit into "best player" arguments because success in those areas is so heavily related to position. In the case of the best players under 6'0", though, the point guard position is basically a given. In which case, things like points, shooting accuracy, and assists do matter.
Thomas has only been in the NBA for four seasons, so his totals don't yet stack up against the greatest little guys in the league's history. In terms of cumulative career averages, however, he is certainly performing well to date:
|Category||Career Average||Rank Among Players < 6'0"|
|Minutes per game||28.3||9th|
|Points per game||15.6||3rd|
|Assists per game||4.7||9th|
|Steals per game||1.0||11th|
|Field goal percentage||44.1%||9th|
Because it's hard to look at those raw averages and determine how Thomas stacks up against other all-time great little dudes in terms of overall value and contributions -- especially with so much of his career left to be played and future roles and minutes undetermined -- let's also consider where he stands in some more advanced statistics so far.
In terms of cumulative metrics like Win Shares (WS) and Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), Thomas is already climbing up the all-time lists. His 23.1 WS places him 19th among players shorter than 6'0", while his 6.7 VORP already ranks him eighth in that category.
Those ranks are particularly impressive, especially when you consider the fact that IT2 has only played 8,001 NBA minutes to date. The seven players that rank above him on both lists have registered between 13,855 (Nate Robinson) and 29,106 (Damon Stoudamire) minutes in their careers.
If you wanted to look at metrics that average contributions by minutes played, Thomas definitely belongs in the upper echelon of "little guys:"
|Category||Career Average||Rank Among Players ≤ 6'0"|
|Player Efficiency Rating||19.1||2nd|
|Win Shares Per 48 Minutes||.139||3rd|
The only player who ranks above him on all three of the above lists is Terrell Brandon -- a 5'11" NBA vet of 11 seasons and two All-Star selections, that split his career between Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Minnesota between 1991 and 2002.
For the record, Thomas' numbers after four seasons are comparable to (and perhaps even better than) what Brandon's were at the same point in his career:
|Terrell Brandon||1991 to 1995||22.2||9.3||4.1||1.2||44.2%||31.7%|
|Isaiah Thomas||2011 to 2015||28.3||15.6||4.7||1.0||44.1%||36.3%|
Other contenders for the title of "best little best little guy ever to play the game of basketball" that come to mind are Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy (all-time leader in WS among players shorter than 6'0" with 84.1) and Muggsy Bogues (the shortest player ever to make the NBA at 5'3" and fifth on the WS list at 54.0). While both rank very high in most cumulative metrics, Thomas is currently ahead of both of them in all three of the aforementioned per-minute ones (Player Efficiency Rating, Win Shares Per 48 Minutes, and Box Plus/Minus).
In total, only 30 players in NBA history that measure under 6'0" have made the league and played over 200 career games. Thomas -- at 5'9" and with 283 games played -- has likely already proven a lot of his doubters wrong by joining that tiny group (pun totally intended).
To be considered in the same class as Brandon, Murphy, and Bogues, though, he'll have to build on the success he's had so far over the span of his whole career. His numbers to date suggest that he's on that path, but continuing to defy the odds as an undersized guy in a game historically dominated by the giants among us over a full decade or more will be no small feat.
Ok, I'll stop.