Following a second straight loss at home in Game 4 of the NBA Playoffs last Sunday, Fred Hoiberg went on a rant in the postgame press conference about how Isaiah Thomas is impossible to guard. He proclaimed this not because of any sort of transcendent talent the Boston Celtics’ star possesses, but because the officials are allowing Thomas to take two to three steps in between palming whenever he controls the basketball. Hoiberg didn’t bring it up again after the Chicago Bulls’ loss in Game 5 on Wednesday, but a Boston media member made sure to remind Fred of the carrying claims again, which clearly got under his skin a bit:
Fred Hoiberg had a one-word response when asked if Isaiah Thomas was carrying in Game 5. pic.twitter.com/KpnsxwmN3Z— NESN (@NESN) April 27, 2017
But does Fred have legitimate beef here? Is Isaiah Thomas bending the NBA rulebook a bit too much every time he handles the ball?
Buddy of the blog Coach Nick did a video breakdown a few days ago on Fred Hoiberg’s behalf to determine whether or not the Bulls’ head coach has a legitimate gripe with IT dribbling the ball. The conclusion? Thomas is flagrantly carrying the ball almost whenever he tries to drive past defenders, but don’t expect the referees to blow their whistles because the NBA is an entertainment business.
Coach Nick starts by placing Thomas’ dribble moves into two distinct categories: crossovers and hesitations.
The example above is the first instance provided of Thomas carrying on drives. Nick notes that as Thomas crosses the ball from right to left, he places his fingers just beneath the ball to allow him to thrust it to the other side of his body as he begins his drive around Butler. The fact that the ball travels upwards as the cross occurs is indicative of a carrying violation. Butler’s moment of hesitation while attempting to adjust to Thomas’ change in direction allowed Thomas to force an And-1.
The next example comes from Game 2, and summarizes the dilemma that defenders face when trying to guard this sort of dribbling conundrum very well. Thomas discontinues his dribble at the perimeter when he hesitates and takes two steps, which freezes Dwyane Wade because Wade—reading the dribbling language of Thomas—is anticipating a pull up jumper, which is normally the only legal option here to avoid traveling. But Thomas is then allowed to take nearly a third step after the hesitation and throw the ball to his left, allowing an easy blow-by for a clean floater in the lane.
This is one of the most egregious examples provided by Coach Nick, as you can clearly see Thomas pick the ball up with both hands on the cross when Butler attempts to reach prior to Marcus Smart setting the screen. The fact that the official missed this blatant double-dribble while standing so close the action is pretty baffling. If Thomas can just pick up and shield the ball with both hands whenever defenders go for a steal, and then restart his dribble after doing so, how is anybody—let alone Jimmy Butler—supposed to guard him?
This next clip summarizes the dilemma with Thomas’ hesitation moves very well. Nick notes in the video that when Thomas’ stutter dribble to initiate the drive begins, his elbow drops to even level with his forearm, which clearly indicates that his hand is now below the ball. This combined with Thomas throwing his left hand forward to simulate the start of a jumpshot, but then using it to push past Butler instead gives Thomas a massive advantage when attempting to drive past the defender to the basket.
The final example I’ll include from the video is perhaps the most hilarious. While this move from Thomas looks fairly innocent in real time, slowing down the play illustrates his carrying issue perfectly. Thomas hesitates going around the screen from Gerald Green, and then after putting the ball on the floor takes a full four steps before continuing his dribble when trying to drive past Robin Lopez. I understand Thomas’ size and speed make this tricky for the officials to diagnose in real time, but the leeway that the referees are allowing Thomas here and in the other examples is remarkable.
But, again, will anything change? Nick’s final note in the video is that the NBA is all about entertainment, and fans are paying big money for playoff tickets to see stars like Thomas score; not hear the referees serenade the game with their whistles. Therefore, the Bulls are just going to have to bite the bullet when it comes to guarding IT, even if reviewing the tape clearly indicates that Thomas is getting away with flagrant carrying at almost every ball-handling opportunity.
You can watch Coach Nick’s full review of Fred Hoiberg’s complaint against IT below: