A Jester in the King's court: Is Isaiah Thomas as efficient as Lebron James?

In the land of the advanced statistician, he with the highest points per possession is king.

For those who don't know, points per possession (hereafter called PPP) is a measure of how many points a team scores on a play in which an individual player finishes a play with either a drawn foul, field goal attempt, or turnover. It is a statistic that attempts to quantify just how valuable an individual player is -- how strong a strand he is in the spider's web, if I might wax poetic for a moment.

The league leaders in this category (among players with a high usage rate -- no one particularly cares that Jeremy Evans has a 1.31 PPP besides his family and close friends, and even that might be a stretch) read like an MVP ballot. Stephen Curry leads the league with 1.18 points per possession, followed somewhat closely by Kevin Durant (1.14 PPP) and in front of a number of notable names including Anthony Davis (1.02 PPP) and James Harden (0.99 PPP).

The lower echelon of the list is where things get interesting, however. Take a look at the table below (the column on the right is the league leaders among high usage players) and take special care to note the last two.
You read that right. our very own mighty mite, Isaiah Thomas, has the same production on a per possession basis as a certain Midwest monarch, Lebron James.

Wait, what?

It may seem ludicrous at first glance, but as the old adage says, numbers don't lie. They can, however, mislead -- and that is perhaps what is happening here. I am not here to say Isaiah Thomas is anything short of an excellent player. He is clearly the best offensive weapon in green, and is one of the more crafty scorers in all of the NBA. He single-handedly keeps the Celtics offense afloat at times; his offensive rating of 104.0 dwarfs the team's average, and the Celtics bench went from run and gun to run and groan-at-every-latest-miss once he filled in for the injured Marcus Smart.

Despite that, however, to say Isaiah is as efficient as Lebron is a bit of a stretch. James shoots 49.2% from the field (and that is after a truly horrific two game run a week ago that dropped his percentage more than three points) compared to Isaiah's 42%, and even their effective field goal percentages, which take into account the added difficulty of three-pointers, shows a clear edge in favor of James -- 51.2% to 47.8%.

So how does a player who finds himself lacking in so many categories -- from raw scoring average to field goal efficiency -- find himself tied with James in points per possession? The answer lies in two categories; the aforementioned dissonance between the two behind the arc, and Thomas' proclivity as a foul drawing machine.

Thomas averages more than two more three point attempts than James, 6.0 to 2.9, and though neither has a particularly high percentage from downtown (a below average 34.1% for Thomas and an abysmal 25% for James), Thomas' raw total of makes from behind the arc buoys his advanced numbers. Meanwhile, Thomas and James make an equal amount of free throws per game -- 5.3 for Isaiah, 5.2 for James -- but Thomas shoots 90% from the stripe, while James manages only 72% on his more than eight attempts per game.

Add in the fact that the two have a somewhat disparate usage rate (the percentage of a team's plays in which the player in question shot the ball, turned the ball over, or registered an assist), with Lebron checking in at 33.5% to Isaiah's 28.3%, and we paint a picture of a player (Isaiah) who bests James in a few categories that could very well be a product of volume rather than of skill -- not to mention the fact that one of Isaiah's big advantages (free throws) may be marginalized once James regresses to his career 75% clip from the line.

None of this means that Thomas is somehow better than James. Lebron is a cyborg built to play basketball, and Isaiah Thomas looks like that kid at the playground who always pissed you off with how good he was despite his height. To compare the two is almost unfair -- though it should be mentioned that, at age 26, Thomas still has a few years of upwards trends before we see his true "prime" years.

Thomas has made great strides as a player since becoming a second round novelty who shot too much and passed too little in Sacramento, and that development has certainly benefited a Celtics team that would likely be in the low lottery without him. However, Lebron James is one of the most efficient players the NBA has ever seen, and IT isn't on that level now, and likely never will be.

Photo courtesy of ESPN.com
Stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com and NBA.com
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