Midseason trade acquisition Isaiah Thomas made his Los Angeles Lakers debut in the team’s 130-123 loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday night, and he showed a lot of promise, scoring 22 points on 7-for-12 shooting while dishing out six assists.
But offense wasn’t the area the Lakers needed the most help against the Mavericks. What the team really needed was more from a defense that’s posted the 12th-best defensive rating in the NBA this season, allowing just 105 points per 100 possessions.
Instead, the Lakers allowed the Mavericks to score at a rate that would’ve equaled 121 points per 100 possessions, after holding their prior five opponents to an average of 106.9 points.
And the obvious storyline that could start was how the Lakers’ new, diminutive point guard without a reputation for good defense led to slippage from the team. Lakers head coach Luke Walton did what he could to nip that narrative in the bud after the loss, via Spectrum SportsNet:
“Tonight He did as good as anyone. We didn’t really know what to expect but he was scrapping. When we did switch with him, I’ll check the tape, check the numbers on what it was but he seemed to have some success when he was switched onto bigger players.”
Shockingly, given both Thomas’ reputation and the fact that the Cleveland Cavaliers were a whopping 10.4 points per 100 possessions better on defense this season when the 5’9 guard sat, Walton was right.
While this could’ve come across as Walton refraining from torching his newest player before he has fully built a relationship with him, the quote is supported up by the numbers. Thomas not only wasn’t the Lakers’ biggest problem on defense, but he actually posted the best defensive rating of any player on the team (111.1).
Still, the Lakers continuing to be better on defense with Thomas on the floor seems unlikely. His defensive rating was far worse than the team’s average, and his size and athleticism limitations mean that on most nights the best he can do is manage to score more points than he gives up.
That might be hard if other teams mimic the Mavericks strategy of isolating whoever Thomas is guarding and letting them go to work, but Walton and his staff have managed to schematically plug basically every defensive leak the Lakers have sprung so far this season.
After turning the league’s worst defense into one of its best in one season with a completely overhauled roster, they deserve a chance to see if they can work their magic with Thomas.
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