“I feel like I’m the best player in the world.”
Those were the words spoken by Boston Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas that ignited a social media firestorm.
I’m not sure why.
Thomas is having a transcendent season for the Celtics. I wrote about him pretty extensively here. But it bares repeating that if this were any other season, Thomas would probably be getting serious MVP consideration.
In the 2016-17 season though, Thomas’s performance is lost behind one of the biggest stories of the year and that’s Russell Westbrook’s pursuit of being the first NBA player to average at triple double since Oscar Robertson in the 1961-62 NBA season. He’s currently averaging 30.7 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 10.4 assists per game.
Westbrook has put the Oklahoma City Thunder on his back and the team is currently the 6th seed in the Western Conference.
Not bad for a team that a lot of people counted out when Kevin Durant bolted for the Golden State Warriors.
Isaiah Thomas may not be on the verge of a historically great season, but what he is doing is very impressive none-the-less.
At 5’9”, Thomas is one of the shortest players in the entire NBA. A lot of people have counted him out because of that fact.
It’s why he was selected dead last in the 2011 NBA draft
He was deemed as expendable in Sacramento – where he played he first three seasons of his career – and in Phoenix – where he spent most of the 2014-15 season because of his size. These teams didn’t want to commit to moving forward with an undersized point guard despite his impressive numbers (Thomas averaged 20.6 points and 6.3 assists per game in his final season with the Kings becoming one of the only players under 6’0” in NBA history to average over 20 a game.)
The Kings passed him over for Darren Collison and the Suns felt Thomas was expendable due to the glut of talent they had in their backcourt at the time (seriously then-Suns coach used to play point guards Thomas, Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic at the same time in some small ball sets. The first time that happened was one of the greatest moments of my life).
Both teams are probably full of regret right now.
At the 2014-15 trade deadline, Thomas was shipped to the Boston Celtics for Marcus Thornton and a 2016 first round pick (Skal Labissiere at pick 28 who they later traded to Sacramento) in one of the best trades Danny Ainge has ever made.
Now saying any move that Danny Ainge has ever made is a pretty big statement considering the man has overseen one of the shortest rebuilds in NBA history, shipped an aging Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry to Brooklyn for literally all of their picks – including an unprotected one that could turn into the first overall selection this season given that Brooklyn is currently the worst team in the NBA. Terry, Garnett and Pierce are all long gone from Brooklyn.
But Isaiah Thomas has been that good for the Celtics.
In his first full season in Boston, Thomas elevated his game to a level nobody had ever imagined he was capable of. He averaged 22.2 points and 6.3 assists per game. He took over games for Boston and showed a killer instinct and ability in the clutch that hadn’t been seen in Beantown since Pierce, Allen and Garnett were leading the Celtics to glory.
He became – tied with Calvin Murphy – the shortest player ever selected to an All-Star game and only the ninth player under 6 feet tall to do so. He also is the lowest draft pick since the NBA draft went to two rounds in 1989 to be selected to an All-Star game.
Thomas was establishing himself as one of the league’s most premiere guards fuelled by his blinding speed – with the most explosive first step in the entire league – and an ability to take over games that few in the league possess.
The result was that the Celtics posted their first winning season since 2012-13 and both the team and Thomas were established as forces to be reckoned with in the East.
In fact, he was one of only six players last season to average over 20 points and six assists per game. The others being Steph Curry, LeBron James, James Harden, Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. To quote the great Walter Sobchak: Not exactly a lightweight, dude.
In my wildest dreams I could not have imagined what would come for Isaiah Thomas this season.
On December 30, 2016, Thomas put up 52 points against the Miami Heat with 29 of them coming in the fourth quarter. He was just two shy of Wilt Chamerlain’s record of 31 points in a fourth. During that scoring blitz, he went 6 for 9 from three point range.
Thomas’ fourth quarter blitz was indicative of his play late in games this season.
To say that Isaiah Thomas is the most clutch player in the league is an understatement. His 10.1 points per fourth quarter average isn’t just the best in the NBA, it’s the highest the league has seen in two decades.
He’s also scoring at a unbelievable pace. Thomas has currently scored 20 points or more in 29 straight games. He’s hit that mark in 40 of his 41 games played this year and sits one game back of the longest such streak in Celtics’ history set by Kevin McHale in the 1985-86 and 1986-87 seasons.
He can tie it tonight against the Orlando Magic. (01/29/17 UPDATE: He did and then scored 37 against the Bucks the next night to set a new team record)
Isaiah Thomas’ 29.1 points per game is second only to Russell Westbrook and he’s currently in the top ten for three points made this season. He also currently enjoys the 8th highest player efficiency rating in the entire NBA at a whopping 27.19. Higher than even LeBron James.
Also higher than the man that barely beat him out of starting spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star game – DeMar DeRozan.
That DeRozan is starting over Thomas is the second biggest gaffe in All-Star voting this year (I wrote about the first here).
Thomas plays an exciting, speed-based game and literally takes over games in the fourth quarter while DeRozan is stuck in the Raptors plodding iso-reliant offense and generates a large portion of his scoring by literally jumping into opposing defenders to draw fouls. Thomas also dominates DeRozan in most statistical categories.
This miscarriage of all-star justice can be explained in two ways: first, since the Raptors are Canada’s only basketball team, DeMar had a whole country behind him while Thomas relied on the support of Celtics fans. Second, a lot of online ballots were spelled wrong.
Although Thomas was named after Detroit Pistons legend Isiah Thomas after his father – a lifelong Lakers fan – lost a bet over the 1989 NBA Finals (true story), his name is spelled differently. Isaiah not Isiah. That extra “a” makes all the difference.
Truth be told I make that mistake a lot and I’m enough of a basketball fan that I blog about the NBA. Imagine how many casual fans cost Thomas votes by blowing the spelling.
Regardless of the all-star vote outcome, it’s hard to argue against Isaiah Thomas being, if not the NBA MVP, certainly the MVP of the Eastern Conference (or at the very least tied with Giannis Antetokounmpo). The numbers make it really hard to refute such a conclusion.
So why all the furor over him saying that he “feels like the best player in the world”?
Well sports media as a whole, particularly coverage of the NBA, exists in a 24 hour news cycle. Much of it is filled with talking head type shows going over and over and over and over (ad infinitum) the top news stories of the day. Think your Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith types.
They literally make a living out of making mountains of molehills and take quotes like this out-of-context and try to turn them into something they are not.
The other thing to consider is that in the current social and political climate, many of these talking heads are literally seeking to misrepresent a young black man’s words. Given that former reality star who was recently sworn in the 45th President of the United States (still not saying his name) ran on a campaign that openly courted white supremacists that is something we should be extremely wary of.
Sports reflect wider society. That is a theme we will continue to explore on this blog (hint hint).
There was absolutely nothing conceited or cocky about what Thomas said. The full quote was: “Not to be cocky, but I feel like the best player in the world. That’s just the work I put in, and if you don’t feel like that, then you’re cheating yourself.”
This is self-affirmation and actualization. It’s the kind of talk that people with way too much money pay self-help gurus like Tony Robbins way too much money to instill in them.
This kind of confidence isn’t just important for any athlete at an elite level but also essential for a 5’9” point guard in a big man’s league.
Believing in yourself is essential in any profession and we should celebrate Isaiah Thomas for modelling that behaviour for the rest of us. He knows how hard he works and he knows what he can achieve if he keeps it up.
The numbers continue to bare that out.
Is Isaiah Thomas the best player in the world? There aren’t many who would make that argument but he is definitely one of them.
But in a way it doesn’t matter what any of us think.
It matters what Isaiah Thomas believes. And as long as he believes in himself it will pay huge dividends for the Boston Celtics.