Every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, we pose a question to a rotating panel of ESPN fantasy basketball experts to gauge their thoughts on a hot topic. Today's contributors are ESPN Fantasy's Jim McCormick, Kyle Soppe and Joe Kaiser
Isaiah Thomas has topped the 40-point mark in each of his past two outings and is having a career-best season. In fact, he ranks 10th on the Player Rater (based on averages), three spots ahead of LeBron James. Who would you rather have the rest of the season in fantasy: Thomas or James? Does the league scoring format impact your thinking?
Jim McCormick: Only Michael Jordan, Kevin Durant, Yao Ming, James Harden and James have sustained at least a 60 percent true shooting clip (a measure of shooting efficiency at all three levels) while maintaining a usage rate of at least 33 percent over a full season. Thomas is currently striking such a rare balance of volume and efficiency and, in fact, would become the first player to do so with a turnover rate below nine percent if he continues on his amazing pace. Which is to say, Thomas is amid a career campaign that appears even more impressive than the volume-driven scoring binges fellow diminutive dynamo Allen Iverson enjoyed in his prime.
As for comparing Thomas' opus campaign to James this season, I conclude it comes down to statistical need, as they are accomplishing elite production in quite different ways. James averages 66 percent more rebounds and 2.2 more assists, and he has nearly twice the steal rate of Thomas. Then again, Thomas nets twice as many made 3-pointers per game and offers unique differentiation in free throw production and efficiency, hitting 91.9 percent of his attempts from the stripe compared to James' sub-70 percent rate.
In a vacuum I'll take James, as I admire statistical balance over efficiency -- his rare triple-double skill set supports a greater variety of statistical categories. That said, if I'm in need of 3-pointers and improved free throw production, Thomas wins the deal. It's entirely impressive this is even a valid value discussion, with Thomas ascending to heights few ever imagined in both real and fantasy regards. Now if we're talking about who I want in the fourth quarter, that becomes truly intriguing!
Kyle Soppe: There are so many moving parts to this question that I am going to tackle it two different ways. If you're asking for my opinion, it would be that James sees a minutes reduction at some point in the near future (either for rest purposes or another "playmaker" is acquired), thus reducing his counting numbers and giving Thomas the edge. If you're asking for my numbers, they support James widening the gap that Thomas has gained in terms of field goal percentage and scoring on our Player Rater, thus giving the King the edge.
Thomas is shooting 41.94 percent when he is at least 8 feet away from the rim, a 5.29 percentage point jump over his career average. James is shooting just 34.1 percent from 16-plus feet away, his lowest rate in a decade. Assuming both of those regress to the mean over the final 2.5 months, simple math likes James to overcome Thomas' current 1.7-percent edge in overall value.
This is close enough that who I'd rather have is entirely situational. If you're in a roto league, it's pretty simple: Thomas is the play if you need 3-pointers and free throw percentage and James is the play if you're competitive in a number of categories and need the well-rounded production.
In head-to-head, it's based on what team you view as the biggest obstacle between you and a title. If that owner has Harden, Russell Westbrook, or Giannis Antetokounmpo, I would lean toward James, as he can keep you competitive across the board. If that owner is riding Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard or Kyrie Irving, then I would fight fire with fire and take Thomas.
Joe Kaiser: I attended the same high school and college as Isaiah, so I can appreciate his underdog story as well as anyone. What a story it is! Seeing him thrive in the Pac-12, then somehow carve out an NBA role after being picked last in the 2011 draft, then become an NBA regular and eventually an All-Star last season ... all are amazing accomplishments. Even still, who saw him potentially leading the league in scoring? Not I. What he is doing right now is shocking and incredible all at the same time.
As much as I appreciate Thomas his accomplishments, I'd still side with LeBron in fantasy. Thomas may have the edge in scoring (29.7 PPG vs. 25.7 PPG), 3-pointers (3.2 per game vs. 1.6 per game) and free throw percentage (91.5 vs. 69.2), but James is still the King in terms of rebounds, assists, steals and field goal percentage.
James has a particularly wide advantage in rebounding, field goal percentage and steals, and he has proven himself for longer than Thomas has. That also plays a factor. If Thomas cools off and sees his scoring dip into the 25 PPG range the rest of the season, truthfully, this probably isn't even that close.