It is an NBA truism that LeBron James makes his teammates better. After all, he's a mega-star player who has outstanding court vision and absolutely loves to pass. James' unselfishness on the court is well-documented, and easily seen when watching the Cleveland Cavaliers play.
For this reason, the expectation is that James is a player who you can pair with other superstars, and have them play well together. This was one of the biggest reasons that people were so incredulous that Kyrie Irving, a young player coming off three straight NBA Finals appearances and an NBA championship playing next to James, would ask to be traded.
This was also one of the biggest reasons that Isaiah Thomas' reputation has taken such a huge hit due to his struggles this season. After all, if Thomas was unable to play well next to an unselfish mega star like James, then perhaps that's a sign that what he accomplished before might be a fluke.
I heard on the radio the other day an ex-NBA player opine that Thomas was the type of player who could succeed only in certain situations, and that playing next to James had exposed Thomas' limitations as a true impact player.
There is just one problem with this truism: It's not true.
Or at least, it's not universally true.
While James is unselfish for a mega star, he still is a hugely ball-dominant player. The Cavs' star is both the de facto point guard and a heavy volume scorer. His strength is in breaking down the opposing defense and setting up scoring opportunities, either for himself or for teammates, and he does that well. So, if a player is a spot-up shooter or a rim diver, playing with James is like a dream.
However, if a player is used to the autonomy of creating offense on his own, then playing next to James is actually a big transition.
Because, for perhaps the first time, this player is in a position where most likely any offense that he creates is less valuable than what can be created by a teammate. That causes a certain weight to be placed on each possession. It's like if a player waves off a coach's play and runs their own. Good players are often given license to do that to some extent, but if they do it their play had better work more times than not, or the coach is going to put a stop to it. By the same token, a great isolation player might be forgiven for breaking James' offense and trying to create for himself, but if so he'd better be scoring.
And even if that player is able to produce on his own at a high enough clip to be not overly censured, he's not going to get as many chances to create as he's used to getting. Plus, he's still almost universally going to be considered as the lesser player in the partnership, another new thing for many "star" players.
This isn't a new, or a shocking phenomenon. It's part of the price of playing with the King. But, because we've seen it before it should help us to get some idea of what to expect from Thomas, George Hill and Jordan Clarkson for the rest of the season.
Thomas was a unique case in Cleveland, because he was a mega-volume MVP candidate for the Boston Celtics last season, but he was injured for the majority of this season. As such, (A) the team went through the entirety of training camp and most of the season without him, thus forming a rhythm that his return broke and (B) he was coming off a major injury to his hip that had an unknown impact on him, and possibly a larger than normal one because of his diminutive height. There was also a third issue, that (C) the Cavaliers were three-time defending Eastern Conference champions with James in a free agent year, so everything in Cleveland was incredibly high pressure.
Per the charts above, the norm for high-volume lead guards playing with James is that their volume of shots went down, their numbers of assisted shots went up, but their scoring efficiency didn't improve. Similarly, their numbers of assists went down, but their number of turnovers remained consistent. What this tells us is that high-volume lead guards, unlike spot-up players or finishers, don't like being set up by someone else. It isn't comfortable for them.
And while their volume goes down, their efficiency doesn't (as many expect) go up, because while they may get more open shots, they aren't shots that they typically take. Thomas was another example of this, in general, and it was compounded by the complications of his situation to lead to a nightmarish result in his short time with the Cavs.
However, this was my prediction on Thursday, the day he was traded:
Isaiah Thomas looks like a #FantasyBasketball winner in this trade, because he can be more ball dominant and shoot out of slump on team w/o championship pressure this year ... assuming he gets run. Ironic that trade to Lakers means less eyes and pressure on IT @ESPNFantasy
- Andre Snellings (@ProfessorDrz) February 8, 2018
Thomas is in a much better situation for him, as far as being able to handle the ball and set up his own shot. The question is all about how large of a role the Los Angeles Lakers give him, especially once Lonzo Ball is back, but as long as they let him do his thing he is likely to look a lot more like he did in Boston than he did in Cleveland.
On the other hand, the new Cavaliers are much more of the ilk that tend to play well next to James. The only player on that list of lead guards that saw their shot volume increase next to James was Mo Williams, and Hill shares a lot of similarities with him as a pure shooter who happens to be point guard height. Williams was also the lowest-volume of those lead guards when not with James, so there were actually enough shots in Cleveland for his volume to increase. Williams was also one of only two lead guards on the list whose scoring efficiency increased next to James. All of this bodes well for Hill's scoring volume and efficiency in his new role.
Clarkson comes off the bench, so he won't be playing the majority of his minutes with James. He's more of a scorer than Williams, but he is also a shooter and operating at a low enough volume that James' presence can help him. Rodney Hood is a pure off-ball shooter, so getting the wide-open looks that James can generate should be a dream for him. And Larry Nance is a rim diver, and should get a lot of dunks playing off King James.
Thus, from looking at the trends, this series of trades is the rare instance in which everyone seems to win. Fantasy-wise, Thomas should be (potentially much) better off without James. But on the other side of the coin, the perimeter players that the Cavaliers traded for look like they should actually improve while in Cleveland.