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The Isaiah Thomas mistake could lead the Wizards into an even bigger blunder: letting go of Thomas Bryant prematurely

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New York Knicks v Washington Wizards
The Isaiah Thomas mistake could lead the Wizards into a bigger one with Thomas Bryant.
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

When the Wizards signed Isaiah Thomas last summer it didn’t make a lot of sense but there also didn’t seem much potential for harm. He’d been an All-Star, All-NBA and an MVP candidate and he’s one of the league’s good people. The Wizards would get a chance to see what he had left after a series of injuries and he’d either help them win some games or become trade fodder at the deadline. In a lost season, how much could that hurt?

Turns out, quite a lot, and there’s potential for more.

Adding Thomas to the roster wasn’t the problem. He was good a few years ago, and though the odds were bad that he’d be good again, it was worth a look. The issue: it was clear almost immediately his athleticism was gone. At 5-9 and 160, peak Thomas torched defenses with a combination of creativity, shot-making, ball skills and freakish quickness.

In Washington, the quick burst was gone. That was a sorta-manageable problem on offense and a full-blown crisis on defense. Thomas didn’t have the lateral agility to stay in front of ball handlers, the strength to keep them away from their spots or the anticipation to be disruptive. Worse, his effort and attention on defense could best be described as indifferent.

Worse yet: despite that defensive indifference, the coaching staff kept him in the starting lineup — 37 starts over 40 games with the team. Probably the worst defender in league history got 925 minutes for the Wizards this season.

They eventually traded him for Jerome Robinson in what was purely an accounting for the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers didn’t want Robinson or his salary, and they didn’t want Thomas either. They cut him immediately.

So, what’s the big deal, right? They signed someone who used to be good, gave him some playing time, found out he wasn’t good anymore and then swapped him out for a youngster who may or may not one day be good. Big deal.

Except, Thomas’ didn’t just hurt the Wizards when he was on the floor, he wrecked the team defense, put inexperienced players in difficult situations, and poisoned the data front office executives use to make decisions.

For example, look at Thomas Bryant. The Official 2019-20 Thomas Bryant Narrative™ can be summarized in one word: regression. Terrible defender. Hopeless. Garbage. Got worse.

But did he?

In 2018-19, the Wizards were about the same defensively when Bryant was on the floor. This season, they were 5.7 points per 100 possessions worse. On the surface, the case for regression seems clear. But, all — yes ALL — of that damage came in the 411 minutes Bryant and Thomas played together.

This season, when Bryant and Thomas were both on the floor, the defense allowed a catastrophic 127.7 points per 100 possessions. For context, the worst defensive rating in NBA history (posted by the 2018-19 Cleveland Cavaliers) was 10.1 points better than the Wizards when Bryant and Thomas were on the floor together.

When Bryant was on the floor without Thomas (490 minutes), they allowed 113.3. That’s bad, but “normal” bad, not historically awful.

Bryant wasn’t the only player affected. Here’s how the defense changed for Wizards’ rotation players when they were on the floor without Thomas (+ means the defense improved; numbers are per 100 possessions) :

  • Bryant +14.4
  • Davis Bertans +8.8
  • Rui Hachimura +7.6
  • Isaac Bonga +7.5
  • Troy Brown Jr. +4.3
  • Bradley Beal -0.5
  • Ish Smith -0.7
  • Moritz Wagner -2.9

I’m not here to argue that Bryant is a good defender — he’s not. He’s often out of position, which makes him a half-step slow in rotation and limits him as a rim protector. His recognition isn’t NBA level yet. He struggles in pick and roll, too frequently getting into a no-man’s land between hedging and drop coverage. But even with all that, the team has been about the same defensively whether he’s in the game or not, except when he shared the floor with Thomas.

That would suggest a player who’s not an impact defender and also not an awful one. The data suggests Bryant can hold his own on the defensive end and that he may be able to improve with experience, coaching and improved strength and conditioning.

The Wizards would be wise to discount — and perhaps entirely discard — the data from Thomas’ minutes this season. I’ve been watching and analyzing the NBA for a long time, and he’s the least effective defender I’ve ever seen. What this season showed is that Bryant, Bertans, Hachimura, Bonga and Brown can’t play decent NBA defense with Isaiah Thomas. It doesn’t say a whole lot about whether they can be effective NBA defenders.

Back to the Bryant Narrative™, there really isn’t much to support it. His rebounding and blocks dropped a little and his turnovers ticked up but he also scored efficiently and generated more assists. And he showed true stretch-big potential, hitting 40.7% from three-point range and a solid 42.7% on twos from 10+ feet. All told, he had an effective field goal percentage of 50.7% on jumpers, which is pretty good. And he converted at better than 80% around the rim for a second straight season, which is elite.

Keeping Thomas in the lineup as long as they did was a mistake. If that mistake leads the Wizards to conclude that Bryant isn’t worth investing more time, that fairly small error will have become a blunder.

Bryant is still just 22 years old. The evidence suggests he’s a gifted offensive player who needs time, work and coaching to become a good defender. Considering his age, contract and overall ability, the Wizards would be foolish to give up on him. They should trade him for a clear upgrade, but that’s true of any player. Letting the Isaiah Thomas Experiment™ influence the thinking on Bryant would be #SoWizards.