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The Early Returns on Isaiah Thomas's Return

Few ball-dominant players have made working alongside LeBron James look so easy so quickly. Isaiah Thomas is wasting no time finding his footing in the Cavaliers' offense.

For seven months, Isaiah Thomas waited. He was forced to watch as his Celtics were eliminated from the playoffs, rendered powerless by a nasty hip injury. He had no choice but to later accept Boston's cold, shrewd calculus in trading him to a conference rival for another high-level guard. It was then that Thomas, who famously carries every slight with him, bided his time. 

The wait must have been excruciating. Thomas is a baller in the Jamal Crawford tradition, and for seven months he was denied both his joy and his primary mode of self-expression. Basketball is Thomas's means to send messages and settle scores. For seven months it wasn't, leaving the All-NBA guard to opine when he would rather fire back with pull-up jumpers. The calendar year would turn over before Thomas, who last saw game action in mid-May, would again have the chance to prove himself.

Every game that Thomas plays comes loaded with baggage (those slights, it turns out, pile up), but every game he plays for the Cavaliers especially so. That's what makes his fast start in Cleveland so encouraging. Ejection against the Timberwolves aside, Thomas has played about as well as could be reasonably expected his his first three games back from a major hip injury. He is, by most accounts, well ahead of schedule—not only in the timing of his return, but in his demonstration of the quickness and body control that make Thomas such a spectacular player.

At the same time, it's clear that Thomas doesn't yet have complete control of his usual faculties. Occasionally you'll see him hung up on a defender he would otherwise blow by. Thomas compensates with hand-to-hand combat—little pushes and holds that give the 5'9" guard some functional separation. It was easy to forget in Thomas's seven months away just how much his game is defined by physical strength. When speed alone won't do, it affords Thomas the means to manipulate the world around him.


This is an exciting proposition in Cleveland, where most lineups feature all the spacing Thomas could ever need. This is an offense that creates pure one-on-one scenarios as a natural byproduct. LeBron James snacks on them, chewing up undersized defenders en route to easy scores. Thomas can, too. Even relatively static possessions can turn up points in his hands. Create any momentary advantage—a screen to work off of, a closeout to attack—and the balance tips even further in Cleveland's favor.

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Limited minutes make it difficult to fully gauge where Thomas might come and go within the rotation, though it seems clear that Cavs coach Tyronn Lue intends to stagger his minutes with James. An impressive second unit adds another sharp angle: an explosive scoring guard who can complement Dwyane Wade without denying any of what Wade does best. The two already enjoy an emerging chemistry. Wade is as intuitive as basketball players get; provided he has room to work and the right teammates to play off of, the future Hall-of-Famer will counter drive and back-cut teams to death. Thomas is the perimeter shooter Wade isn't and Wade the complementary creator Thomas needs.

Defense will naturally be a bit of a problem, as is so often the case with Thomas. Cleveland's new starting point guard is undersized and eminently screenable—a combination that puts many defensive possessions behind the eight ball before they even begin to develop. That Thomas is surrounded by what has been one of the worst defensive teams in the league this season amounts to a dead end. Any hope of compensating abates in sloppy, disinterested rotations.

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Damning as that might be against the very best teams, most opponents won't have the means to keep up with the Thomas-injected Cavs. A scorer of this magnitude brings serious juice, especially when playing this hard. Thomas brought bits of Boston with him; when he isn't attacking directly, Thomas is cutting, screening, and keeping active to engage the defense. Few ball-dominant players have made working alongside James look so easy so quickly. Dropping 17 points against Portland and 19 points against Orlando felt like a reflex.

Even while reorienting himself, Thomas is taking smooth, confident shots. The ability to rise and fire is a big part of what separates him. His first step puts a defender on their heels and his second sets up a jumper to punish those who drifted too far. These shots are already at his fingertips, even as his broader game coalesces. Some of Thomas's drives have met strange ends, the result of the right move made just a step out of phase with a developing play. There will be times to come, too, when Thomas isn't exactly where his teammates might expect, bringing the offense to hiccup. Most of those issues will resolve themselves in time. Even those that don't are likely to be outweighed by the threats Thomas poses and the realities he pays off.