Monday, December 29, 2014

Comparing Darren Collison and Isaiah Thomas 30 Games In

Last year, Thomas (right) seemed to fit the Kings roster better than Collison (red, left). That hasn't been the case with Collison a King and Thomas a Sun.

One of the biggest debates this off-season among Kings fans was the decision to not only let Isaiah Thomas sign in free agency with the Phoenix Suns (through a sign and trade), but to replace him with Darren Collison, previously of the Pacers, Mavs and Clippers. Thomas was coming of a 20 ppg season where he looked to be the clear third option and a bargain for a second round pick, while Collison was coming off an underwhelming Clippers campaign where he looked unable to match up on the better point guards in the league. To many, signing Collison rather than anteing up for Thomas looked to be a head scratching move by management, especially considering many felt the Kings could have drafted Elfrid Payton and gotten something similar to Collison's skill set for a whole lot less money.

Despite the pessimistic predictions from fans, Collison has been a pleasant surprise. Not only is he averaging a career high 16.3 ppg, 6.0 apg, 3.2 rpg and 1.8 spg, but he has been an instrumental factor in the Kings' 13-17 start as well as a key building block for their up-tempo plan going forward. As for Thomas, he primarily comes off the bench, unable to get starting minutes with Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe ahead of him. Despite his reserve status though, he has still been a potent force off the bench, scoring 15.3 ppg and averaging 4.0 apg in only 24.3 mpg (a downgrade from the 34.7 minutes he averaged last season in Sacramento), and his 36 minute numbers (22.3 ppg per 36 minutes) actually compare very favorably to his last season in Sacramento.

So did the Kings make the right call on this? Is Darren Collison a better fit for Sacramento or is Thomas simply being overshadowed by a crowded back court in Phoenix? Let's take a look at the two this season.

Where Collison has Been Better

One of the main reasons Pete D'Alessandro parted ways with Thomas is due to the fact he underwhelms defensively and is unable to match up with the better and bigger point guards of the league. Last year, Thomas posted a minus-2.0 Defensive Box Plus/Minus and posted a defensive rating of 111 (points per 100 possessions). Now, point guards are always vulnerable to lackluster defensive advanced numbers (simply due to the fact that defending NBA point guards is pretty damn hard to do). But at 5'7, Thomas simply didn't match up well physically, and he always seemed more inclined on the offensive end as evidenced by his advanced numbers as well as his defensive play on the court.

Collison came from Los Angeles with a better defensive reputation though he struggled to find consistency with the Clippers. He posted a minus-0.3 DPBM and a defensive rating of 107, both considerable upgrades over Thomas' numbers. Furthermore, at 6-feet, 160 pounds and with excellent speed, Collison physically showcased all the tools to help the Kings on the defensive end, which had been mediocre in 2013-2014.

This year, both guys have regressed a bit defensively, but Collison remains the better player on the defensive end by far.  Collison is better than Thomas in points per possession (1.04 to 1.06), DPBM (minus-0.6 to minus-2.6) and effective field goal percentage allowed (46.8 to 49.1 percent). So in that regard, Collison has satisfied what management wanted when they made the decision to go with Collison over Thomas.

One of the most surprising aspects though of Collison has been his offensive efficiency this season as well as his ability to fit into the more up-tempo style that the Kings want. Not expected to have much of an impact offensively, the point guard out of UCLA has been a pleasant surprise, with an 18.9 PER, 56.2 TS percentage and a 2.9 OBPM (Offensive Box Plus/Minus). Thomas has posted better numbers than Collison this season in those categories (20.6 PER, 57.6 TS percentage, 3.9 OBPM), but it isn't significantly better and any offensive upgrades Thomas could have presented to the Kings have been negated by his defensive inefficiencies. Thus, Collison has been a much better overall value than Thomas this year for the Kings (further evidenced by Collison's 2.8 VORP, value over replacement player, to Thomas' 1.2).

Furthermore, while Thomas' is fitting in Jeff Hornacek's up-tempo style in Phoenix, he also plays in an offensive system that is very liberal when it comes to distributing the ball and without true "go-to" guys. And because of Thomas' "alpha dog" nature, he is able to fit into their system nicely, willing and able to be assertive and take control when necessary. In Sacramento, that is not needed, as the Kings have two clear alpha dogs in Demarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay. What the Kings need from their point, especially in an up-tempo style which they want to go to, is a clear sense of role and responsibility (all the positions need this in the up-tempo style, but point especially), and it's obvious that Collison understands his role: to distribute and create offense for his teammates. This season, Collison is besting Thomas in assist percentage (28.6 to 25.8), assists per 48 minutes (8.6 to 7.9) and passing rating (11.3 to 9.4). Thomas fits on a roster where there is equal opportunity, but on a team that is trying to play faster while still keeping their top two scorers a priority, Collison fits in much better as a distributor and third-scoring option.

Where Thomas Has Been Better

While you could argue the validity of "clutch" stats, the numbers point that Thomas has been the better crunch-time scorer this season and beyond. In "clutch" situations (4th quarter or OT, less than 5 minutes, neither team up by more than 5), Thomas gives the Suns an offensive rating of 135.2, a defensive rating of 88.2, and a net48 of 47. Per 48 clutch-time minutes, Thomas is averaging 35.3 points and posting an eFG percentage of 55 percent. And lastly,when Thomas has been on the floor in the clutch (he has earned 35 percent of total clutch time minutes), the Suns have been plus-27 in net points and are 5-1.

The numbers don't favor Collison as much in "clutch" situations. When he is on the floor in clutch-time situations, the offensive rating and defensive rating are both lackluster at 84.8 and 107.3 and the net48 hasn't been good at minus-22.6. Hence, it makes sense why the Kings have a point differential of minus-29 and are 5-9 in clutch situations when Collison is on the floor. This isn't to say Collison isn't clutch or he is the sole reason they struggle in clutch situations, but it is obvious that he doesn't have the kind of impact that Thomas has had this season in Phoenix.

Why is this important? Well, with Cousins and Gay both battling ailments at various times this season, the Kings have had to rely on Collison in these important situations with neither go-to guys at a 100 percent or even in the lineup at times. It is in these scenarios (with Cousins and Gay hurt or ailing) that having Thomas would be an upgrade over Collison, as Thomas has that alpha dog mentality in these crunch time situations that Collison doesn't have or seem to have developed yet on this Kings squad.

The Final Verdict?

Thomas is missed and he deserved the standing ovation he got in Sacramento last Friday. But, the Kings are better without Thomas this year. As good and proficient a scorer as he is, Thomas simply was one Alpha Dog too many on roster that already has two. Collison plays a better complimentary role offensively, plays a more natural point guard, pushes the tempo a lot better thanks to his better passing than Thomas, and is a significant defensive upgrade over Thomas.

As sad as it was to see Thomas go, this is one situation where you can say D'Alessandro made the right call in choosing Collison over Thomas...or at least thus far this year (we still got 52 games to go after all).

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