The Cleveland Cavaliers have tried to take their divorce from Kyrie Irving in stride, and have stayed near the top of the standings without their longtime point guard. The team has had its share of hiccups but will finally get a chance to move on when Isaiah Thomas, the guard who headlined the trade for Irving this offseason, makes his season debut this week in Cleveland.
Thomas, who has endured a lengthy rehabilitation from a hip injury that nearly scuttled the blockbuster trade with the Boston Celtics, participated in a full-court scrimmage Friday against his teammates and will play against the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday, Cleveland’s coach, Tyronn Lue, said Monday. Thomas will not, however, face his former teammates in Boston on Wednesday, as it will be a while before he is allowed to participate in back-to-back games.
A frequent user of social media, Thomas had been hinting heavily that a return was imminent, and on Monday he seemed enthusiastic for what was before him.
The excitement for Thomas’ return, both from players and fans, is palpable, especially after he finished last season with a career-high average of 28.9 points a game. But it will be an even bigger lift for the Cavaliers as a whole, as they have thus far been forced to use a rotating cast of players at point guard, including diminished veterans like Jose Calderon and Derrick Rose.
LeBron James handles the ball a great deal, but play-by-play data compiled by Basketball-Reference.com does not have him logging any minutes at guard this season. Instead it has been Dwyane Wade, at 36, playing primarily at point guard for the first time since his rookie season — a significant downgrade from Irving last season.
There is no doubt that Thomas, once he gets back to full speed, will be a tremendous upgrade on offense from any of those options, but there is at least some ambiguity as to how much he can help the team because, to put it bluntly, the offense is not the problem in Cleveland.
Losers of three consecutive games, the Cavaliers have allowed 108.7 points per 100 possessions this season, tied for the second-worst mark in the league, according to NBA.com. Their offense, the third-most efficient in the league, has made up for most of that deficiency, and there was even some noise about defensive improvement during a winning streak in November — but that fell apart in December as Cleveland went 9-5 and had their defense to blame.
Thomas, one of the NBA’s most gifted scorers, has historically been a liability on defense. At 5 feet 9 inches, his size puts him at a disadvantage against nearly any opposing player, and at 28 years old it is unlikely that he will change his style any time soon. But as he pointed out after practice Monday, the Cavaliers knew what they were getting when they traded for him.
“I’m a scoring guard, so I know how to put the ball in the basket,” he told reporters. “They traded for me for a reason, and that was to play the game that I know how to play and that’s make plays, try to make the right play each and every time down and score the ball.”
Provided Thomas’ offensive contributions continue to outweigh his defensive shortcomings, he will make the team appreciably better. But if the Cavaliers want to get into the conversation of best team in the NBA alongside the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, and, gulp, Boston, they will need to figure out how to slow their opponents down. And that answer is unlikely to come from Thomas regardless of how excited they all are for his return.