Isaiah Thomas has an opportunity for redemption with the Denver Nuggets

A look at the opportunity Isaiah Thomas will have with the Denver Nuggets to redeem himself and prove that he is still capable of being a positive offensive contributor.

Isaiah Thomas watched as the clock began to tick away. Time seemingly stood still as Isaiah surveyed the defense -- the lively TD Garden crowd watching patiently with eager anticipation. With each passing second, Thomas orchestrated his every move like a conductor. As he shifted his body towards the top of the key, Thomas pulled up for a jump shot over Markieff Morris, sending the crowd into an emphatic cheer.

In one of the most clutch and memorable playoff performances in recent years, Isaiah Thomas scored 53 points against the Washington Wizards in Game 2 of the 2017 Eastern Conference Semifinals.

The moment felt surreal. His performance was in a way symbolic of his career up to that point since no one saw it coming. This was a player who has faced a disadvantage on the court due to his size, was picked 60th in the 2011 NBA Draft, and was traded away twice.

If faced with similar challenges, not many players would be able to make it as far as Thomas has. Instead, they would be playing basketball in a Chinese league or would have already quit playing and moved on to something else. But Thomas has battled adversity often throughout his career and has never backed down from a challenge.

Today, Thomas is facing a new challenge as he joins the Denver Nuggets on a veteran’s minimum contract.

Not many would have predicted that a player like Thomas would settle for this type of deal, but it does not come as a surprise considering his downward spiral as of late.

In the 2016-2017 season, Thomas was a legitimate candidate to receive a max contract offer from the Celtics after averaging 28.9 PPG and being selected to the All-Star and All-NBA teams. But then he was traded away twice - to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Kyrie Irving trade and then six months later to the Los Angeles Lakers during the trade deadline – and he has continued to be hampered with a nagging hip injury that sidelined him for 50 games last season.

Over the past 11 days of the free agency period, Thomas found it difficult to garner interest even from teams looking for a scoring point guard. The Cavaliers and Lakers showed no interest in a possible reunion. Los Angeles currently holds under $5.5 million in cap space and would prefer to give minutes to some of their young and upcoming talents. Cleveland is settled in on George Hill starting while Collin Sexton slowly transitions into eventually becoming a starter. The Magic reportedly had interest in Thomas, but nothing came of it. 

Now Thomas has a chance to redeem himself and prove that he is still capable of being a dangerous and versatile scorer.

What is unclear is which version of Thomas the Nuggets will get. Will it be the one fans rooted for while he was with Boston, or the one that was a burden on the court for the Cavs and Lakers?

With the Celtics, Thomas thrived under Brad Stevens, especially during the 2016-2017 season. He was the focal point of the offense and, even though he was often faced with a mismatch, Stevens trusted him to lead the team on that side of the ball.

On isolation plays, which became a strength of Thomas’s offensive skill set, he averaged 1.12 points per possession on 2.3 possessions while shooting an effective 45.3%. Even when matched up against a power forwards or centers, Thomas found ways to create space on the floor to get high percentage shots off. 

But this all changed with the Cavs and Lakers. He was unable to shine with either team because of his hip injury and poor fits with the offensive systems.  

The Nuggets are looking for Thomas to play an impactful role and are hopeful that he will thrive in their high-scoring offense.

As a backup for Jamal Murray, Thomas can expect to receive roughly 15-20 minutes per game. Thomas’s play will be suited best in lineups with Nikola Jokic - one of the top passing centers in the NBA today. Jokic’s vision on the floor will enable him to find Thomas either on the wing or driving to the rim, increasing Thomas’s involvement in the game. This is similar to what Thomas was able to do with Al Horford in Boston.

Nuggets head coach Mike Malone will also look to feature Thomas in pick-and-roll sets. During the 2016-2017 with Boston, Thomas averaged a respectable 1.04 points per possession while shooting 44.6% as the ball handler in pick-and-rolls. This time around, Thomas will be expected to excel in this play with Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap in an effort to change up the pace of the game.

Thomas will struggle on defense, but he will not receive enough minutes for this weakness to overburden the team. All of the focus will shift towards getting the best out of Thomas on the offensive side while putting him in lineups and matchups that he will feel most comfortable in.

For Thomas, this is simply a “prove it” type of deal. He must show that he is still capable of being an efficient offensive player again. If his struggles carry over to this upcoming season with injuries and lack of offensive contribution, he could be looking at his last contract in the NBA. But if successful, Thomas will return to the free agency market next year with teams lining up for a potential multi-year deal.

Thomas would like nothing more than to return to the underdog role that he has always embraced. 

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