One of the most refreshing things about Tommy Sheppard becoming the Wizards general manager was the feeling of transparency that had been missing missing under his predecessor, Ernie Grunfeld. Sheppard sat for an array of interviews and could be found articulating his vision for the Wizards on podcasts, radio, and other media sources.
The message was clear. They were no longer interested in the status quo. Retaining all of their free agents, and stretching all of their financial flexibility to make a run for the 8th seed wasn’t the goal. They wanted to re-sign Bradley Beal and have him lead this new group of young players into contention for something more meaningful than scratching into the postseason.
Sheppard’s plan has taken form. They drafted Rui Hachimura in the draft, and he became an instant starter. Troy Brown, after sitting through a virtual red-shirt season is fourth on the team in total minutes played — already with more playing time than he received his entire rookie season.
Thomas Bryant emerged as a starter last season, and remained so this year as he worked to add dimension to his game.
Other younger players including Moritz Wagner, Isaac Bonga, Garrison Matthews, and Admiral Schofield have received opportunities for meaningful NBA minutes.
And, of course, Beal signed a contract extension to remain with the team.
The season is playing out pretty much as close to script as most anticipated. Youngsters have flashed production and talent. The team has provided competitive efforts and surprising wins, most recently the Wizards version of the Capital City Go-Go stunning the Miami Heat on New Year’s Eve. That effort was led by the unlikely trio of Ian Mahinmi, Jordan McRae, and Garrison Matthews. Their offense has been a revelation — the sixth best offensive rating in the NBA heading into Friday night’s game versus Portland.
It hasn’t all been good, of course. The defense was expected to be bad and is just that, currently dead last in the NBA in defensive rating. Beal is putting up big “glory stats” numbers (points, rebounds and assists) but his efficiency continues to plummet without John Wall out there alleviating some of the shot creation responsibility which he is now taking on.
The good and the bad are the point of a developmental year – finding out what they have and charting the course forward. That’s normal and is consistent with the long-term goals Sheppard laid out last summer. Only one thing stands out as a departure from that plan:– Isaiah Thomas.
IT has played 24 games with the Wizards averaging 25 minutes per game. He’s scoring 13.5 points per game on 41.9% from the field. His shooting from three (41.5%) has allowed him to have an impact offensively. And that’s where his positive contributions end.
To say Thomas has been a non-factor on defense would be an understatement. He’s been a negative factor who routinely leaves his teammates — often with their own limitations or still early in the development process — in position to execute their assignments and cover for Thomas. It’s as close to playing 4 vs. 5 as you’ll see in the NBA. This shouldn’t be a shock though from a player who was limited defensively prior to the injuries.
The major contention with Thomas is the fit. He’s not part of their long-term plans; that’s obvious. The off-season flier was fine — it was a veteran minimum contract to fill a position where they had a need and didn’t have resources to spend much more. They also had a lot of unknowns on the roster in the back-court outside of Beal and Ish Smith. It was sensible to bring in someone on a cheap one-year deal who could at least play one side of the floor competently.
This isn’t a veteran on a bad team thing either. Smith has played solid basketball this season and is under contract next season, likely penciled in as the backup point guard. He plays with good tempo and pace and continues to probe the paint which creates opportunities for his teammates as well as himself. Although he isn’t the greatest shooter, the way he plays downhill allows those around him to play a modern game.
Thomas does not add that element. The injuries have zapped him of the quickness which was integral to his game. In his last all-star season in 2016-2017, Thomas averaged 9.1 free throw attempts per 36 minutes. That figure is down to 2.8 this season. His average speed was 4.14 mph in that memorable season for Boston. It’s down to 3.91 mph with the Wizards. To put that into context, he and CJ Miles are the only two players to play for Washington this season with an average speed below four miles per hour.
Leadership was cited by Sheppard as a quality Thomas would bring to this team and unfortunately even that is hard to see from the outside looking in. Thomas was suspended for two games earlier this season after going into the stands to confront fans versus the 76ers and once again was ejected last night for making contact with an official.
You could argue the merit of each ejection and the subsequent suspension, but the fact is Thomas put himself in position where he was not available to his teammates. Considering how shorthanded the team has been, in particular last night versus Portland, it was an incredibly poor and selfish decision on a night where they absolutely needed leadership and minutes at his position.
So if Thomas isn’t part of this team’s future, doesn’t play in a manner that’s consistent with how they want to play moving forward, isn’t making those around him better, and has on more than one occasion made a poor decision leaving him unavailable, then why are his minutes continuing to rise? By month, Thomas’s minutes have increased from 22.0 in October to 24.7 in November to 27.3 in December.
Injuries may be a factor, but we’ve all seen the larger issue. A player, whether it’s McRae or Brown will be playing well and inexplicably Thomas will go back in a game, play poorly, and more importantly take away what could be more meaningful crunch time minutes for a young player. What is the long-term and short term benefit? Is there one?
With the trade deadline and some roster shuffling on the horizon as the team gets healthy, decisions will have to be made. But for now, fans are left in the dark. What are the Wizards trying to accomplish with Thomas? How long will he remain on the roster? It would be a great time for Sheppard to find that trademark transparency of his because what we’re seeing and the lack of clarity surrounding Thomas is inconsistent with what Sheppard preached this past summer.