Isaiah Thomas in Denver: Pizza Guy or King of the Fourth?

Basketball Reference notes Isaiah’s nicknames as either the King in the Fourth or Pizza Guy, a homage to one of the most awkward ads ever… but which guy will be on the Nuggets roster this season?

The Denver Nuggets have gotten off to as great a start as they possibly can this year with big wins over the reigning champion Golden State Warriors and a potentially crucial win for playoff seeding against the Clippers (and a potentially crucial loss against the Lakers).

They’ve won these games without their biggest offseason acquisition, Isaiah Thomas who was signed with the understanding that he wouldn’t play at the beginning of the year. It was reported by Harrison Wind of BSNDenver that Thomas has no timetable for return but “everything is [moving] in the right direction,” per Coach Malone.

Frankly, there is no rush to bring him back in any way. Jamal Murray will remain the starter at the point guard when Thomas is in the rotation and Monte Morris has played very well as the backup there.

While a small sample size, Morris is averaging 9.4 points and 4.4 assists while shooting 50% on two three-point attempts a game. What is most remarkable is he has only recorded five turnovers to 31 assists on the season (as of November the 5th). His scouting reporting coming into the draft was that he was a super low-turnover player and it’s a great sign to see his strengths translating into the NBA.

Morris had 20 points in the first loss of the season against the Lakers and hit a three to give the Nuggets the biggest lead of the night:

It was poetic that the backup point guard playing in Isaiah’s spot almost closed the game in the fourth. Following that shot, the Lakers went on a 23-8 run and won the game handily.

Imagine if the ‘king of the fourth’ was playing the first half of the fourth quarter with the reserves. Do the Nuggets maintain their scoring advantage and go for the kill, closing the game as Thomas did so many times with Boston?

Per stats, in his 2016/17 season, his last with Boston, in what they define as “clutch” situations (with less than five minutes to go and the score within five points or less) he had a plus/minus of +2.3 and shot 50/38.5/90.

Extrapolating those numbers out to 36 minutes, as if those clutch minutes were for a starters load, he’d average 48.8 points and a +37.7. For reference, that season Stephen Curry in the same situation per 36 had 20.9 points and a +33.5, while LeBron had 29.5 points and a +32.1.

He can close games. Would he have made the difference in the Lakers loss? Who knows?

But imagine if the ‘pizza guy’ Isaiah showed up instead? After playing in the 2017 playoffs following the death of his sister, bringing a scrappy Boston team to the Eastern Conference Finals he was infamously dealt to Cleveland for Kyrie Irving.

Most notable about the trade was that it was delayed due to the Cleveland medical team finding that Thomas’s hip was injured worse than initially thought. Cleveland had the right to veto the trade but instead asked for more assets to compensate. Their relationship with Kyrie had already deteriorated beyond repair after he had signaled his desire to leave.

After only appearing in 28 games for the Cavs and averaging nearly half as many points as he did in Boston, he was traded at the deadline to the Lakers. A Lakers team that wasn’t sure what they were playing for, whether their jobs were safe at the end of the season and had no draft picks or incentive to tank.

Here, he was able to recuperate his value as a scorer off the bench. He wasn’t the ‘king of the fourth’ as he was in Boston, but he put together 15.6 points and five assists in 17 games and finished the season playing for a team that eventually underwent drastic roster turnover when LeBron announced he was bringing his talents to the Lakers.

The Nuggets signed Isaiah to a low-risk, high-reward minimum contract, which meant there wouldn’t be much downside if he never touched the court this year. His best-case scenario is if he can come back from this hip injury and play fifty games or more.

But the initial question still stands: what Isaiah Thomas will the Nuggets be getting?

If the Lakers version of Isaiah is on the court, the Nuggets will have a reliable scorer off the bench when he is healthy. The Nuggets ranked 25th in the league in bench points a game last season per and this season are ranked exactly the same at 25th.

But if it’s the Cleveland Isaiah, there might be a better argument for Monte Morris as the point guard off the bench. In a Cavs jersey, he shot just over 25% from three-point range and couldn’t find his rhythm alongside a ball-dominant player in Lebron.

Hopefully, that won’t be an issue next to the Nuggets star, Nikola Jokic. While still ball-dominant, he carved a spot for himself in the league as the nifty passer who can find guards cutting all around him.

There are common wrinkles in a Jokic handoff. While the best passing center in the league can do almost anything at the top of the key, he excels with these kinds of plays:

Here Jamal Murray is able to find enough space behind the three-point arc after his defender falls a step behind. What made his defender unsure of where to go is the range of cuts players can go around Jokic.

And in this play, it is Jokic with a dribble hand-off to the cutting Gary Harris who can immediately curl and have a completely wide-open lane to attack.

It’s not unreasonable to think Isaiah could cut just as other guards on the roster do. If any NBA-caliber guard is able to get wide open threes and layups off a Jokic pass they would be hard pressed to not be efficient.

He may have traditionally only scored in isolation, per, Thomas, in his final Boston season, dribbled the ball seven or more times a quarter of all his possessions. For reference, Jamal Murray only dribbles this much on 15% of his possessions.

Comparing him again with Murray, Thomas only shot what the NBA refers to as a “wide open” shot (with a defender six feet or further away) 12% of the time. Murray had over a third of his shots be “wide open”. Thomas may be getting some of the most open layups and catch-and-shoot threes of his career next to Jokic. Maybe even his life.

A line-up of Thomas, Murray, Harris, Millsap, and Jokic would be a nightmare for other teams to defend if they all cut off the ball surrounding a Jokic post-up.

What's even more exciting is that if Thomas can still finish some isolations, as he has done, those plays won't have to be the focus of his offense, it can strictly be a late-clock shot where he can bail out the offense.

If (big if) Isaiah can stay healthy, he can flourish in the Nuggets passing system. He may not be the ‘king of the fourth’ he made himself known for in Boston, but he might not have to be. What’s promising is that if Jokic is throwing the passes, he won’t be an awkward ‘pizza guy’, because he’ll be too busy cutting.

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