Head2Head: Isaiah Thomas vs. Damian Lillard

By Josh Eberley #41

Welcome to Head2Head. Deciding a winner between two similar players or topics in the only way that makes sense: through a one-on-one debate between two basketball minds.

Every edition will feature two writers making their case. A poll will be posted with each article, and it’ll be up to the readers to decide who wins. For the inaugural run, Dan Greenberg of Barstool Sports drops in to debate the superior clutch scoring point guard: Damian Lillard or Isaiah Thomas.

Two players, two authors, one vote.

Here’s the tale of the tape:

Damian Lillard 35.9 8.8 19.8 44 2.9 7.7 37 6.5 7.3 89 4.3 5.9 0.9 0.3 2.8 27 24.15
Isaiah Thomas 33.8 9 19.4 46 3.2 8.5 38 7.8 8.5 91 2.7 5.9 0.9 0.2 2.8 26.6 26.59


Dan Greenberg: It’s hard to pick just one way to go, so I’ll start with the basics. Both are close in age (Isaiah is 27 to Lillard’s 26), and both played very close to the same amount of games, 75 for Lillard and 76 for Isaiah.

So what does this all mean? Well, I read this as saying in fewer minutes on the court, and in fewer shot attempts per game, Isaiah was a better offensive player across the board. Aside from a few rebounds, there isn’t really a category Lillard beats out Isaiah in. Now the flip side to that is Isaiah did have a slightly higher usage rate compared to Lillard (34 vs 31.5), and that is somewhat roster-dependent in my opinion.

Also, as poor a defender as Isaiah is, it could be argued that Lillard is equally as poor. He did have a higher defensive rating than Isaiah last year, but a slightly lower defensive win share. Their bad defense is so close that the tiebreaker for me goes to which is the better offensive player, which Isaiah has proven is him.

Find a flaw in that!

Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

Josh Eberley: Age is a wash, no doubt. But the contract situations are not. I know, I know—what does that have to do with the question at hand, but bear with me. Lillard is locked in for the next four years and you don’t hear anyone talking about how his contract is some sort of issue. Yet, on the other side of that, Thomas is going to be a free agent next offseason and half the basketball world thinks it’d be a mistake to pay Thomas anything near max money.

Lillard is a bad defender. Thomas is the worst defensive starting point guard in the NBA. Not hyperbole, he ranked 81 out of 82 qualified point guards in DRPM. (Lillard was at 62 of 82.) There’s definitely a difference. Pure and simple, Thomas is going to be at a disadvantage due to his size forever, regardless of game plan, matchup and effort, making him a mismatch on the defensive end. In general, we as a basketball community are bad at assuming every defender is excellent or terrible. There’s a divide here that should be acknowledged.

Here’s the kicker. All that King in the Fourth talk, all the clutch talk, is for naught. The Boston Celtics had a better net rating in the fourth quarter when Thomas was off the floor (+6.4) than they did when he was on (+1.2)! A lot of those close finishes were close at least in part because Thomas’ defense cost the Celtics as much as his offense blessed them. Compare the same bar to Lillard and here comes a haymaker: In the fourth quarter, Portland had a net rating of +5.9 with Lillard on the floor and a net rating of -3.4 when he was off it.

Finally, on the issue of Thomas scoring at a slightly higher rate. Thomas plays in the Leastern Conference. How much does that move the needle? Well, that’s up to the voters. But Thomas got four games against the Sixers, four games against the Nets. In essence, there’s an extra four games to run wild against bad teams right there. On the other hand, poor Dame had an extra two games vs. Golden State, an extra two games vs. San Antonio. There’s no country for fourth quarter liabilities out West.

Throw in the towel!

Greenberg: Well, hold on just a second. Who’s to say Lillard’s contract isn’t an issue? Like you said, he has four years left on his deal, for $26.1M/$27.9M/$29.8M/$31.6M. Next season, he takes up over 18 percent of their entire cap. They were a .500 team and barely snuck into the playoffs. Their cap situation for the rest of Lillard’s deal is in no way great. So, paying a player that much money and sacrificing that much of your cap for a .500 team isn’t an issue? Now let’s look at Isaiah. Next season, Isaiah takes up just 6.05 percent of their cap. His team makes the ECF. You’re right though, he’s about to get somewhere close to max if not a max this summer. Here’s why that isn’t a problem. The Celtics own his Bird rights and can go over the cap to keep him. Ownership just came out and said they will once again pay the luxury tax. In other words, Isaiah’s contract doesn’t limit their ability to add pieces after this coming season. Something you can’t say is the same with Dame’s current deal. So I would call this an advantage for Isaiah.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Again, I can’t disagree with you on how teams attack Isaiah. Teams that took Isaiah into the restricted area shot 61.6 percent. For comparison, Smart was 59.1 and Avery was 61.5, two guys I think you would say are decent defenders. I bring this up because let’s not act like Lillard wasn’t at 58 percent in the same area. But the thing about defense is it happens all over the court. When we look at how these two help opponents from other areas, Isaiah has a lower opponent field goal percentage in the paint (non-restricted area), the right corner, and above the break. So yes, if an NBA player is going to get within three feet of the basket against Isaiah, he’s going to score. Yet if he just keeps them in the paint area, he’s actually a better defender than Lillard.

Your “kicker” is probably the thing that makes me smile the most. Now we hold it against a player if he plays with better teammates? I think you would agree that simply from a roster standpoint, the Celtics are deeper and have more talent. Within the Celtics, there are clearly two lineups. An offensive and a defensive rotation, if you will. The reason their net rating is what it is simply comes down to the style of the lineup. For example, when Isaiah is on the court, their offensive rating is 120.1, but their defense struggles. The point is that his offense outweighs those defensive issues. When he’s not on the court, the team can’t score: their offensive rating is 104.9. The defense vastly improves, sure, but why should defense outweigh offense? That’s why you have a team, that’s why you build around him with defenders. The net rating doesn’t negate the fact that Isaiah is Westbrook-esque in fourth quarter scoring, and if we want to talk about clutch situations, NBA.com tells us that Isaiah had ratings of 126.3/108.5, or a net rating of 17.8. Lillard comes in with 109.3/101.4 and a net rating of 7.9 in such situations. So tell me again how Lillard has a fourth quarter advantage?

And also, it’s not Isaiah’s fault he plays in the East. I agree it’s nowhere near the competition in the West, but it seems like you are trying to say he wouldn’t put up similar numbers if he played on Portland. Well, all we can do is look at the actual facts, the on court production against these Western Conference powers:

GS – 21.5/1.0/3.5

SA – 24/1.0/8.0

HOU – 29/3.5/6.0

LAC – 30.0/2.0/6.5

UTA – 20.3.0/10.0

OKC – 34.0/2.0/10.0

MEM – 32.5/2.0/6.5

POR – 37.5/2.0/5.0

I think he’d do just fine. In 28 total games against the West, Isaiah averaged 29.6/2.3/6.0 and had 46/37% splits. In 29 against the East, the inferior conference, Lillard averaged 27.3/5.1/5.9 with 45/37% splits. Still pretty good, but not quite as good.

So I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to keep searching.

Eberley: Well for starters, I’m not surrendering my contract argument! Marc Stein had warm thoughts on Lillard at the time of the extension, saying the following:

“…he’s shown in his first three seasons in the league that he’s definitely worth building around. He is a two-time All-Star, won rookie of the year in 2012 and has cemented himself as one of the best point guards in a league full of very good ones.”

Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

The common sentiment at that time was, and remains, that Portland did the right thing locking up their star, a star who has improved each and every year. You know better than most that this is not the sentiment in Boston with Thomas.

Not to entirely disregard the defensive field goal percentages, but at this point, it’s wildly hard to rely on those stats. Roles aren’t clear and even the best tracking data publicly available can’t account for what a player is supposed to do defensively every possession.

The net rating doesn’t negate his fourth quarter heroics but it does dampen them some. “Clutch” is a gross word that should be saved for reactionary tweets. The numbers tell us the Celtics are a better team with Thomas off the floor in the fourth and that’s tough to just look past. As stated before, Lillard’s the opposite!

Neither Lillard nor Thomas has exceeded expectations in the playoffs. Both have seen their per game numbers and advanced numbers drop rather significantly. However, when stakes were the highest this season, Thomas’ team fought harder and presented more opposition to the Cavaliers with him not in the lineup. A small sample, but one more iceberg threatening the vessel of Thomas.

Greenberg: It feels strange to use Lillard’s award achievements as a reason why he’s a better player and to ignore that Isaiah is also a two-time All Star. He also happened to make Second Team All-NBA this past season and finished Top 5 in MVP voting. Lillard hasn’t sniffed that yet in his career. 

And I reject the notion that Isaiah has not improved each year. Look at every year he’s been a Celtic; each has been better. Scoring is up, efficiency is up, PER is up: it’s hard to say he’s not improving. And you may not like the word “clutch,” but how a player performs in the last 5 minutes of a close NBA game matters. I’ve already explained the on/off issue with Isaiah, and I get why you want to hold on to that nugget. It’s really all you have.

And finally, I wouldn’t say Isaiah doesn’t exceed expectations in the playoffs, at least when you look at the playoff run they just had. His win shares has increased each of his three playoff years as a Celtic, and his performance against Washington certainly was at the level we saw all year from him, if not better. Also, yes, the Celtics won a game against CLE on an Avery Bradley game winner, but Isaiah also had a torn hip. To say they are better without him because of one made shot is a little lazy in my humble opinion.

To sum it all up, Isaiah has better production, more on-court success and more accolades. The defense rests.

Eberley: Well Dan, it’s clear you’re not taking your foot off the gas. This feels like as good a place as any to toss it to the readers.

What do you think, Damian Lillard or Isaiah Thomas? Let HOOP, Dan, and myself know!