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Preseason Film Study: Isaiah Thomas...without the ball?

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To kick off the Preseason Film Study Series, we take a look at Isaiah the ball.

Atlanta Hawks v Boston Celtics - Game Four
Isaiah Thomas hits the game-clincher in Game 4 vs. Atlanta. We break down the play below.
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Standard NBA logic dictates that the more stars you have, the better you are. It’s an oversimplification that has reared its head for the Clippers and even for the Cavs, who won an incredible title despite Kevin Love still struggling to thrive.

With the Celtics hell-bent on putting another star next to Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford, a crucial question emerges: How does Isaiah Thomas remain a top-level scorer when he is not running the offense?

Thomas gets most of his points with the ball in his hands, using 53.8% of his possessions as a pick-and-roll ball handler or in transition per Synergy. Although Thomas is widely viewed as ball dominant, of all possession categories in which Thomas attempted at least 100 field goals last season, isolation plays brought up the rear. Despite ranking a respectable seventh in the league with 0.97 points per possession in isolation situations, isos accounted for only 8.0% of Thomas’s possessions—second fewest in the league behind Kemba Walker (7.7%).

But in the second half of the season, the offense leaned a bit more toward running Thomas through off-ball screens and using him as a spot-up shooter. Thomas ended up ranking eighth in the league in points per possession (PPP) for off-screen plays, although such plays only accounted for 8.6% of his possessions used.

The Celtics also use the dribble hand-off (DHO) more frequently than any team in the league, with Avery Bradley beating out J.J. Reddick for most shots off a DHO (167) with Thomas ranked fourth with 123 shots off DHOs.

These basic tenets have served Stevens well as his offense matured over the course of last season. He has two effective off-ball shooters in Bradley and Kelly Olynyk, with Thomas showing his potential to play off the ball in limited usage. The Celtics have nailed down the art of the DHO, but they need to space their scorers to both wings to keep the defense spread apart. This lack of spacing is the main reason why the Celtics need to acquire or develop another great player on the perimeter.

Evan Turner was the closest thing resembling a dynamic wing during Thomas’s tenure in Boston. Turner assisted Thomas 28 times last season, predominantly in transition or in broken plays. But there were two sets run to perfection that foreshadow how Thomas can thrive off the ball while a second star draws the defense.

At first we see Jared Sullinger fake a 1-5 high pick-and-pop, with Turner flying in to set the actual screen. Sullinger screens the screener to free up Turner for what would be an ideal look for pretty much every other wing in the league. But instead, Turner drives the lane, which draws both the recovering defender and Sullinger’s man, Enes Kanter, who is lost somewhere between Istanbul and Oklahoma City.

This Thunder defensive unit has plenty of holes, which resulted in Thomas sitting wide open on the weak elbow, but this set can work with a better perimeter scorer than Turner who can draw even a good defense out of position.

But the Celtics showed they can execute pick-and-roll sets with Turner to find Isaiah against the best defenses. In the closing moments of the Celtics’ Game 4 win in April, Turner and Smart ran the perfect pick-and-pop against Al Horford’s Hawks defense.

The open look for IT is set up by Jonas Jerebko’s cut from the corner to draw in Horford. It puts Horford in the middle of the paint, where he is showing onto Turner in no-man’s land. The success of this play relies on Turner’s slippery crossover to get past Millsap icing the screen, the type of move you would expect from “insert star here.”

So when Teague underplays the weak side and Turner draws Horford to the high post, Thomas has room to cut into the passing lane opening in the corner. Turner makes the easy pass, Thomas knocks down the tough shot and the game is over.

This Warriors-esque play illuminates Thomas’s potential to be used more like Steph Curry when a gravitational scorer emerges in Stevens’ offense. Marcus Smart is the next person in line, but that is a huge leap for someone who has struggled to handle the ball—or shoot it—above the break.

Smart was able to run a pair of successful drive-and-kicks to create Thomas threes and one post-up to a Thomas three during the regular season. That is an incredibly small sample size to scale to a go-to play, indicating the need for a major talent upgrade to make Thomas a deadly and frequent off-ball scorer in the near future.

But there are plenty of players who fit the bill, like Jimmy Butler, Gordon Hayward and even Blake Griffin, that could end up on the market in 2017. For now, Thomas will have to hope that Smart, and a little bit of Terry Rozier and Bradley, can fill Turner’s shoes. With Horford operating out of the low post and from the elbow, he can be an even more effective distribution point. It was Sullinger, after all, who assisted Thomas more than anyone last year.

Stevens’s motion four-out system creates a lot of the misdirection and confusion that a second potent scorer provides for most teams. But each time Stevens has made the playoffs, he has faced top-tier defenses that have been able to see through the fog and keep Thomas in check. With the Horford signing, the Celtics had their first major leap to becoming a consistent offense. While execution is bound to improve, finishing is the next objective.