Of the four worst players in the NBA by box plus-minus, a perfectly solid catch-all metric used by Basketball Reference, three are rookies, none of whom are old enough to buy their own drinks, one of whom was a second-round pick. The fourth is Isaiah Thomas. Those youths have promise and potential, in varying measures; Thomas is a husk. He plays for the Washington Wizards, and despite his team’s catastrophic lack of genuine NBA talent, Isaiah manages to make them demonstrably worse every time he takes the floor, which is often. He is the worst player in the NBA.
It’s a bummer. This was supposed to be a comeback season for Thomas, a chance to play real minutes on a rebuilding team with a John Wall-shaped vacancy at point guard, and remind the basketball world that he still deserves rotation minutes on serious NBA teams. This will seem incredible now, but he finished fifth in MVP voting in 2017, and at one point that year was clearly headed for a nine-figure max or near-max contract. He powered through the sudden death of his sister to lead the Celtics to a pair of playoff series victories. Isaiah was on the very cusp of superstardom.
That went completely to shit. Thomas’s right hip went kerblooey during the Eastern Conference Finals, and hasn’t ever been right since. Rather than give Thomas the life-changing contract extension he’d been working toward, Danny Ainge and the Celtics shipped him off to the Cavaliers in the trade that brought back Kyrie Irving. Thomas lost two seasons bouncing around from Cleveland to the Lakers to the Nuggets, before landing in Washington on a cheap-shit, veteran-minimum contract, to keep Wall’s spot warm for a season and hopefully rehabilitate his own failing career.
Instead, Thomas has definitively proven that his proper spot in the basketball landscape is somewhere in China. If you watch one single Wizards game this season—which, why on earth would you, surely there’s tile you could grout somewhere within a 50-mile radius—you will not need statistics to convince you. It’s a miserable, soul-darkening show. Thomas can’t move! The logo at center court is a bigger threat to penetrate an opposing defense, and is much more likely to make a significant defensive play. Thomas cannot run; he cannot jump; and he cannot hold up physically in any phase of an NBA game. He can shoot threes, so long as he finds himself unexpectedly alone along the arc, and that’s it. He is Steve Novak, but shorter and vastly more heartbreaking.
Still, here are some stats. Back in 2017, during his final season in Boston (which was the last time he was both healthy and good at the same time), Thomas generated an impressive 27 percent of his points from the free-throw line. That Isaiah was a terror at beating a hasty closeout, and was quick and bouncy and strong enough to leverage his way to the rim, where because he was a crafty finisher he was often able to draw contact. But that was many moons and possibly several pelvises ago: The 2020 version of Isaiah Thomas would need rollerblades and a jetpack to beat any defender more mobile than a stop sign off the dribble, and without his former athletic gifts he’s just a very tiny person venturing into the part of the court where tall men live. When he gets in there at all, which is exceedingly rare—fewer than three points per game from inside the paint, a hilarious number in its own right and by far a career low—opposing big men just glare down at him and he scurries off, wisely. As a result, a man who at his peak finished fifth in the entire NBA in total free throw attempts is getting fewer than two looks from the stripe per game, a dismal 12.7 percent of his total offense. Where once Thomas was able to effectively work the refs, now he is reduced to occasionally working over the refs:
Forget about making up the difference in transition. Thomas is getting a pathetically low 6.2 percent of his points on the fast break, less than half his career number and less than a third of what he averaged as The Man in Boston. Partly this is because the Wizards don’t generate a ton of transition offense, but the larger part is because Thomas cannot possibly participate in anything involving the word “fast” unless it comes with the word “intermittent” and is in fact a diet plan. What you’re left with is a guy with late-career Dirk Nowitzki’s offensive profile, and foot speed, and athletic dynamism, but with a full 18 inches of torso hacked off and removed. More of his buckets than ever before are now assisted; his shooting is worse from within 10 feet of the cup than it is from 25 feet away; he’s shooting just 40 percent on all two-pointers; and he’s got 23 percent usage!
But none of these ghastly, depressing offensive numbers compare to his absolute futility and uselessness on the defensive end. There is a very strong argument to be made that Isaiah Thomas is now the worst defensive player in NBA history. By all measures the Wizards have the very worst defense in the NBA this season, and they are for sure the worst in the relatively short history of the NBA’s defensive rating metric. Considering the gaudy spike in offense over the last decade, the worst defense of this era is a strong contender for the worst defense of all time.
No one participating in that mess can be said to be anything other than a crummy defensive player, but here Thomas stands out as uniquely, profoundly hopeless. He ranks dead last among 491 qualifying players in Basketball Reference’s defensive win shares; he’s 84th out of 85 point guards in ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus, ahead of only Trae Young, a tiny second-year fellow constructed mostly of balsa wood. He ranks dead last among all NBA players in defensive RAPTOR, the metric used by Nate Silver’s math blog. Thomas is so comprehensively powerless on the defensive end that he cannot be hidden, no matter how shitty the opponent. Teams regularly ditch their practiced offenses in favor of just singling him out with screens, or in isolations, or on the block. The lottery-bound Atlanta Hawks recently spent a delirious few minutes hunting him down with, of all people, underwhelming rookie De’Andre Hunter, picking up cheap buckets in the paint by just having this scrawny teenager go down there and hold his hand up, while Thomas bounced around beneath him like a hungry puppy.
It’s not just that he is small. Thomas has the 11th-lowest steal rate in all of basketball, in the range of galoots like Meyers Leonard. He is second in the NBA to teammate Bradley Beal in my own proprietary metric, Time Spent Lingering Irritably In The Backcourt While The Other Team Scores Cheap Buckets Against Your Outnumbered Teammates (TSLIITBWTOTSCBAYOT), because on top of being tiny and immobile, he is also grumpy and easily demoralized. As a Wizard he has never met a screener whose navel he didn’t head-butt, because he is evidently utterly incapable of navigating his way around picks. If he finds himself switched onto any player larger than your average blogger, forget it. That’s a bucket.
Washington’s horrendous defense is almost eight points better per hundred possessions with Thomas on the bench. Thomas’s defensive box plus-minus (-5.1, another Basketball Reference metric) is 33 percent worse than the second worst in the NBA (Beal, natch), or the same difference between second-worst and 45th-worst. The worst defensive player on history’s worst defensive team deserves some sort of recognition, a plaque on the wall of the gnarliest bathroom in the seediest diner in the outskirts of Springfield, Massachusetts.
This is all super-duper unfortunate and sad, which, you can imagine, doesn’t make the nightly spectacle of wan little Isaiah Thomas shitting things up for your team any easier to accept. Wizards games are brutal enough without also being actively depressing. Prior to the season, IT was talking about his inevitable return to the All-Star Game; instead, his crappiness played an obvious role in torpedoing Beal’s own, very credible All-Star candidacy. Thomas is such a blight that by contrast alone he’s turned his replacement, well-meaning-ass Ish Smith, into a Washington folk hero:
I for one have had enough of this shit! The Wizards are going absolutely nowhere. It will hurt them not at all—in fact, it would make them better, immediately, both as an entertainment product and a basketball team—to shelve Isaiah Thomas for the rest of this season and then set him free to pursue what’s left of his basketball career someplace else, perhaps abroad, where the food is better, the players are worse, and his name might still mean something.