New Year, New Cavalier
It's finally that time! Isaiah Thomas will be making his debut for his new team on Tuesday night at Quicken Loans Arena when the Cleveland Cavaliers host the Portland Trail Blazers. Thomas was the headlining piece coming over from the Boston Celtics in the deal that shipped Kyrie Irving out of town. Thomas joined the Cavaliers along with Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the Brooklyn Nets 2018 1st round pick. While the Nets draft pick may carry the most value in the long run, it's Isaiah Thomas that should provide the biggest boost for the Cavaliers as they will try to make it to the NBA Finals for the 4th consecutive season.
Thomas' return may be able to give the Cavaliers a bit of spark, as the team is coming off an 0-3 west coast road trip that includes a Christmas day loss to the Golden State Warriors. After such a long lay-off though, Thomas will be eased back into the rotation. Thomas will be coming off the bench in his first game back, and will have his minutes limited. Thomas will also sit out the 2nd half of back-to-back games including Wednesday's game against his former team, the Boston Celtics. Over the next few weeks Coach Lue and the Cavaliers training staff will slowly and cautiously monitor Thomas' minutes in hopes of getting him back to full strength. This of course is the smart play because the Cavaliers will need Thomas in the playoffs more than they will need him in the regular season.
Incorporating a player of Thomas' caliber on to the team will require a bit of an adjustment period, similar to what we have seen when the Cavaliers got off to a rocky start to the season. Thomas is coming off a career season prior to the hip injury. Thomas averaged a career high 28.9 points per game as well as a respectable 5.9 assists per game. Quite possibly the biggest difference for Thomas this season will be adjusting to not being the focal point of the offense. When leading the Celtics, Thomas was often the go-to-guy, especially in the 4th quarter of close games. Thomas will no longer be the closer in the 4th quarter on the Cavaliers thanks to LeBron James, but Thomas will still receive a lot of crunch time minutes when he gets up to full speed.
One of Thomas' biggest contributions to his new team may be what he's able to do when LeBron James is off the court. During the NBA finals last season, the Warriors repeatedly went on runs when James received brief rests on the bench. Through the first four games of the NBA finals the Warriors outscored the Cavaliers by 31 points in the 26 minutes LeBron was on the bench. However, for the 166 minutes that LeBron James was on the court for the Cavaliers, the Cavs outscored the Warriors by 6 points. In game 5 of the series the Cavaliers were outscored by 13 points with LeBron on the court, but the Cavaliers struggles earlier in the series with LeBron off the court really put the Cavaliers behind the eight ball in multiple games. This is where Isaiah Thomas comes into play. If Thomas can steady the ship with LeBron off the court the Cavaliers would stand a much better chance in the playoffs not only due to the increased production, but it would also allow for a little more rest for LeBron James.
Thomas' return will also have a trickle down effect for the rest of the roster. Jose Calderon, who has been one of the pleasant surprises for the Cavaliers this season, will likely lose his spot in the starting lineup and maybe his spot in the rotation as well. Fan favorite Cedi Osman appears likely to fall out of the rotation simply because the Cavaliers will look to lean on their veterans in anticipation of a deep postseason run. Let's not forget about Derrick Rose (at least not yet). Rose is still on the roster after contemplating retirement. Rose is also rehabbing from an ankle injury, but his chances of contributing to the team look slim considering the solid play of Calderon paired with the return of Thomas.
All in all, the diminutive point guard will be a welcomed addition to the Cavaliers back-court. Patience will be key for Thomas and the Cavaliers. While racking up a lot of wins in the regular season is nice, winning in the playoffs is better. With Thomas now in the fold, it will take time for Lue to mix-and-match rotations to find successful combinations while also managing Thomas' workload until all restrictions are lifted. It may not necessarily be pretty at times as the team develops chemistry, but adding a player like Thomas increases the Cavaliers odds of playing (and hopefully winning) basketball games in June.