Last year, the Nuggets narrowly missed out on the playoffs following a deflating overtime loss in a do-or-die game to end the regular season, and Thomas rushed back a bit too soon from a hip injury, eventually being traded for the second time in six months. This year, both IT and the Mile High Crew seek some form of redemption — one in a return to the playoffs after a five-year hiatus; the other in regaining his ability to play at a high level.
“I just wanted to be wanted,” Thomas told Nuggets.com’s Christopher Dempsey. “Being wanted is half the battle. When somebody wants you as bad as you want that opportunity, it sort of always works out.”
And the Nuggets clearly want Thomas and think he can add to an already solid roster. Thomas, on the other hand, gets the opportunity to rehab his image by helping the Nuggets back to the postseason. Let’s take a look at how IT will fit on Denver’s roster.
One key perk of bringing the veteran in, Thomas appears to be well aware of his role as a reserve on Denver’s roster. Per Adrian Wojnarowski’s recent ESPN article:
“Eventually, (Nuggets head coach Michael) Malone made a call to Thomas, and it started this way, the coach says: “I want you know that Jamal Murray is our starting point guard now, and in the future, and if you’re looking to go somewhere to fight for starting minutes, that’s not going to happen here.”
IT won’t be asked to lead the team in scoring every night, but I’d be surprised if Thomas didn’t ultimately lead the Nuggets’ bench unit in scoring. Thomas will absolutely be asked to provide some instant offense off of the bench — something he did pretty well early on in his career — especially on nights when the starters stumble out of the gates.
Following Will Barton’s move from the bench to the starting unit, Denver was in need of a bench scorer as well as a player who can handle primary playmaking duties off the bench. Enter Thomas, a 5-foot-9 point guard who should thrive as the sixth man on this Nuggets’ squad.
Without Thomas, the Nuggets bench would likely have relied heavily on a Monte Morris–Mason Plumlee pick-and-roll game with shooters spread around — not a terrible option, but certainly not a consistent threat to score. With Thomas, however, the Nuggets bench can rely on a dynamic pick-and-roll scorer and someone adept at creating their own shot when the offense breaks down.
For the Nuggets’ bench unit, I envision Thomas running a lot of high pick-and-roll actions with Plumlee setting screens at the top of the key and shooters spacing the floor around the action. Consequently, I could see Trey Lyles or any of the other shooters off the bench having a monster season knocking down open jumpers. Similarly, I can also imagine a deadly Thomas-Lyles pick-and-pop game punishing second units around the league.
Like much of the rest of the Nuggets’ roster, Thomas certainly won’t scare anyone on the defensive end of the floor. With his diminutive stature and apparent struggles with remaining in front of opponents, Thomas certainly lacks defensive prowess. Fortunately for Thomas, as long as he helps Denver outgun its opponents, it won’t matter.
The Nuggets’ 26th-ranked defense is not set to improve much without significant internal growth, but the addition of Thomas could add a wrinkle to the league’s fifth-ranked offense that it lacked last season. In a reserve role with the Lakers last season, a banged-up Thomas still managed 15.6 points and 5.0 assists in about 27 minutes per game.
If Thomas can propel the Nuggets’ offense into top-three status, his acquisition could go down as the steal of the summer.
Under young guards Murray and Gary Harris, the Nuggets backcourt is cemented well into the future. But assuming a return to full health, the 29-year-old Thomas should find success in the Mile High City.
As noted above, Thomas is not set to enter a position battle with incumbent starter Murray, nor do I envision a scenario in which a healthy Harris is benched in favor of Thomas. As a result, Thomas is, at best, Denver’s third guard — a role he’s filled in the past.
In 2014-15, as Phoenix’s third guard alongside the dual-point guard starters Goran Dragić and Eric Bledsoe, Thomas averaged 15.2 points and 3.7 assists over 25.7 minutes per game. While I don’t expect to see a lot of it, I could see Malone tinkering with a three-guard lineup featuring Murray, Harris and Thomas.
While neither is particularly large, the Nuggets could counter smaller lineups with Murray at the two and Harris playing small forward while Thomas runs point. In fact, a lineup featuring these three guards, a shooter at the four (say Lyles or Juan Hernangomez) and the Joker is incredibly intriguing on the offensive end.
Injuries aside, Thomas’ status as the Nuggets third guard for the 2018-19 season is all but assured.
Following Mike Miller’s retirement and the uneventful (save for the wonderful series of Road Trippin’ podcasts) Richard Jefferson era in Denver coupled with Darrell Arthur’s departure via trade to Brooklyn, the Nuggets’ roster severely lacks a veteran leader.
The Nuggets most senior player is 12-year veteran Paul Millsap, and the player that has now been with the franchise the longest is Harris. A young team without a go-to option, the Nuggets occasionally struggled to close games out last season, repeatedly giving up sizable leads down the stretch. During the 2016-17 season, Thomas earned the moniker “Mr. Fourth Quarter” as he averaged 10.6 points in the final quarter, the highest in the NBA. In their pursuit of the playoffs, the Nuggets now have the luxury to rely deeply on Thomas’ significant experience and winning mentality.
Thomas thrived in Celtics coach Brad Stevens’ guard-focused offense as well as in Lakers coach Luke Walton’s free, ball-moving style. Fortunately, the Nuggets’ Jokić-ball offense (as in Nuggets center Nikola Jokić) should appeal to Thomas and accentuate his skill set, as well.
“I think it fits my style perfectly. It’s a fast-paced offense, spread the floor; you’ve got one of the best big men in the NBA that can pass and make plays for others. And it’s all about space and opportunity,” Thomas said in an interview with Nuggets.com’s Christopher Dempsey. “I’ve played in Mike Malone systems so I know what he wants from his players and I know what he expects. It was just a perfect fit from all angles and I’m just excited to be here and excited to help. That’s what I’m here to do.”
In Boston and L.A., systems that emphasize ball movement and improvisation, Thomas thrived, and I anticipate him doing the same in Denver. Thomas is a dynamic pick-and-roll scorer who can hit threes and draw fouls, and I am fascinated by his fit with the rest of Denver’s roster — especially on offense.
As the Nuggets endeavor to end their five-year playoff drought, the addition of Isaiah Thomas — and his ideal fit on the team —could be the difference between playing games in May and yet another brutal ninth-place finish, one game out of the playoffs.