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Key matchup: The impact of returning players Steph Curry and Isaiah Thomas to the Warriors-Cavs rivalry

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After missing the Christmas Day matchup between the Warriors and Cavs, All-Star guards Stephen Curry and Isaiah Thomas will both be present for today’s game. How will that affect the direction of this rivalry?

Boston Celtic v Golden State Warriors Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Once upon a time, Isaiah Thomas was a problem for Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors.

In limited minutes during his first two NBA seasons with the Sacramento Kings — s/o Keith Smart — Thomas had a true shooting percentage of over .700, including a 31-point game in which he shot 7-for-12 from the 3-point line. You may also recall that the Kings somehow managed to beat the Warriors three times that season.

Thomas really started to take off in his third season when he got more minutes and although he didn’t get off quite the numbers of those first two seasons, he dropped 22 points on the Warriors once and the preseason highlight in which he dropped Curry is still probably memorable for a certain subset of haters.

He also posted highlight-worthy wins against the Warriors during his stint with the Phoenix Suns and, of course, the Boston Celtics — in the Celtics’ win at Oracle in April 2016, during a season in which the Warriors seemed almost invincible at home, Thomas turned in another noteworthy performance.

On some level, Warriors fans should be worried about Thomas joining the Cleveland Cavaliers, the one team that prevented them from enjoying a three-peat right now. Thomas seems to add something that gives the Cavs a bit of an edge.

However, Thomas’ efficiency against the Warriors has gone steadily downward, bottoming out with a TS% of .444 on a usage of 28.9% in two games during his second year with Boston before bouncing back up last season — of course we’re talking small sample sizes here, but the Warriors have multiple wing defenders to throw at a 5-foot-9 guard. And in his first few games against the Cavs, that efficiency appears to be creeping up as an issue yet again.

Anyone still sure Isaiah Thomas >= Uncle Drew?

Wasn’t Irving secretly extremely terrifying in a Cavs uniform?

I pleasantly remember the day he seethed his way out of Cleveland’s dysfunctional organization’s back door like the world’s most passive-aggressive MENSA student. It was pretty awesome.

So you can only imagine the drama that has unfolded this year in Cleveland.

They started out slow — as newly acquired “Kyrie replacement” Isaiah Thomas missed time receiving what I presume was the same surgery Wolverine received in seminal movie classic X-Men Origins Wolverine.

Then, they had a cute lil’ 19-2 streak after Derrick Rose mysteriously vanished yet again. Still, all of that winning was met with a rather tepid reaction when compared to what the champs were tinkering on.

Now the “The Land” is in their annual “We Hate Playing With LeBron As Much As You’d Assume” January swoon before King James does that thing where he protects his bubbling legacy and cranks up Incredible Hulk-mode. Now they are stuck trying to figure out just how in the hell to use the diminutive 5-foot-9 assassin, “Brinks Truck” Thomas.

Suddenly, it almost feels like we’re back to Thomas’ early days in Sacramento when Keith Smart couldn’t seem to find more minutes for a guard who had a TS% of over .700 against a budding dynasty.

Per ESPN: “Thomas’s personal struggles coincide with Cleveland hitting the roughest stretch of its season -- losers of 8 of its last 11 games -- heading into Monday’s NBA Finals rematch with the Golden State Warriors.”

Poor Dwyane Wade, doing his best to tie in his last Miami Heat era team to this Cavs team. Were the Heat really this hard to watch back then? Let’s not forget the Cavs’ defense is positively atrocious...and Thomas isn’t exactly going to help on that end of the ball.

In a recent analysis of NBA players by Jacob Goldstein of Nylon Calculus that incorporates multi-year on/off stats, Thomas is the fifth-worst defender in the NBA right now. You can see it in those old highlights when he was with the Kings, Suns, or Celtics, but Thomas’ size defensively is compounded by what looks like a struggle to even be in position to make plays.

So what does that mean for today’s match between the Cavs and Warriors?

Who will impact this matchup more?

The Cavs and Warriors battled until the bitter end this past Christmas in the Warriors’ thrilling 99-92 victory over Cleveland, in Oakland. Both Thomas and Curry were absent from that game due to injury, but they will both be on the court tonight. Thomas is averaging averaging 12 points, 3.3 assists, and shooting 35% from the field (26% from three) in limited minutes, trying to find his legs during a rusty return.

Per the aforementioned ESPN article, Thomas revealed the effect his time off post-surgery has had on his game:

“I just have no legs,” he said, pointing out the majority of his misses were short. “Like, this is my preseason. I can’t do nothing about that. Usually guys have an offseason to prepare and a preseason to prepare as well before you get going with the real games, and I had neither of them. So this is my preseason; I have to figure out ways to get my legs back.”

That’s really unfortunate because he’s probably going to have to chase down the greatest point guard alive in Mr. Curry, who is finding his own legs after he missed a month due to a frustrating ankle injury. He’s also finding his boots on the throats of opposing point defenses recently.

From that same analysis by Goldstein at Nylon Calculus, Curry has the biggest impact of any player in the NBA this season.

This season, Stephen Curry once again sits on top with a PIPM of +7.61 points per 100 possessions. Due to missing time with injuries, he is not Wins Added king. That title belongs to James Harden as of today, at 6.6 Wins Added...Looking at just the offensive side of the court, Curry once again holds the top spot with an Offensive Player Impact Plus-Minus of +6.74.

No matter how you look at this matchup or how much you remember about the history of Curry and Thomas’ duels, it’s pretty clear that the value Curry adds to the Warriors is far greater than what Thomas will add to the Cavs. Even if the Cavs manage to win today at home, chances are that it will be merely be another regular season highlight against the Warriors for Thomas to file away when a champion is crowned at the end of the season.