There’s a thin line between desire and desperation. Given the Sixers’ season to date and our innate yearning for a better tomorrow, it’s hard to blame people who look at the waiver wire and think that the fluttering in their loins is attributable to one instead of the other. Tyler Johnson and Isaiah Thomas — hubba, hubba, baby.
There are plenty of plausible reasons to think that Elton Brand and his front office should take a long, hard look at both of the veteran point guards who have hit the free-agent market since last week’s trade deadline. Topping that list is the fact that both Johnson and Thomas can dribble a basketball at an above-average level, a trait that would put them in rare company on a Sixers roster that often looks like it was designed by someone who spent 10 hours on YouTube watching AND1 mixtapes and then made it his life’s work to create the exact opposite of what he saw.
Of course, there’s a reason Hot Sauce and The Professor will spend the rest of their days telling tales not of NBA glory but of the wonders of VHS and the sad misfortune of Internet 1.0 celebrity when compared with the lives of the rich and Insta-famous. In short, winning basketball games requires more than a hypnotic handle.
The longer you consider the resumes of Johnson and Thomas, the more you conclude that their primary appeal lies in the fact that 1) they are available, and 2) they have not yet let Sixers fans down. Beyond that, it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which either player would earn enough minutes on the court for his playmaking abilities to matter.
The argument for Thomas, who was waived by the Los Angeles Clippers after they acquired him in a trade with Washington, relies heavily on the shooting numbers he posted in a supporting role with the Wizards this season. In 40 games this season, he shot the ball better than he has at any point in his career, connecting on 41.3% of his three-point shots and averaging 4.7 attempts per game.
If he played even passable defense, that alone might render him a net positive to the Sixers’ cause. Problem is, Thomas didn’t offer that even when he was at his peak, and in his 925 minutes with the Wizards this season, they allowed a staggering eight more points per 100 possessions than when he was off the court. That’s actually a better split than the Celtics logged in his last season in Boston, when they were nearly 10 points better on defense with him on the bench.
The path to positive value for Thomas has always come in offensive volume, and he simply wouldn’t be a volume player in the Sixers offense, and there’s reason to doubt that any playoff offense would offer him that opportunity. There’s a reason he did not log a single postseason minute for the Nuggets last season (granted, the Nuggets are rich with guards).
As for Johnson, who was waived by the Phoenix Suns, he’d bring a lot more to the table on defense than Thomas, but he is hardly the sort of ballhandler and playmaker that would make him a better choice for the minutes that Alec Burks would presumably get. Johnson is shooting just 31% on wide-open threes this season and is .289 overall from deep after being in the neighborhood of the league average the previous couple of years.
With Furkan Korkmaz and Matisse Thybulle playing in well-defined roles off the bench, the Sixers have room for two more players in a postseason rotation. If Sunday’s win over the Bulls was any indication, Glenn Robinson III is deserving of one of those roles.
Despite playing less than 24 hours after a cross-country flight, and with unfamiliar teammates, Robinson scored 10 points in 12 minutes off the bench, showing a smooth athleticism and a feel for exploiting open space off the ball. A career 40% shooter on wide-open threes, he knocked down 43.8% of such looks during his time with the Warriors this season. Sunday, Brett Brown referred to him as a spacer, which gives you a pretty clear indication that the Sixers do not envision him as a ballhandler.
That latter role seems likely to fall to Burks, whom Brown commended for his ability to create scoring opportunities off the dribble, particularly in pick-and-rolls. Burks combines that skill with a better ability to knock down an open three-point shot than Johnson has shown lately. There is certainly room for a combo guard to establish himself as a viable part of this rotation, but it seems unlikely that the Sixers would have traded for Burks if they thought the buyout market would offer an option whom they preferred or who preferred them more.
That last point is really the one most pertinent to any discussion about further additions. While the price they paid hardly leaves them pot-committed to Burks and Robinson, the fact that they chose to pay it matters.