Sitting on the Denver Nuggets throughout the season has been a sleeping giant in the form of everyone’s favorite little guy.

Isaiah Thomas is nearing a return to health for a Nuggets squad that needs an injection of energy. With the news that Thomas could return as soon as this week, his impending active status is surely a welcome sight for head coach Michael Malone. Injuries have forced Malone to play multiple young players more minutes than he figured he would have to, lamenting that many of his guys had surpassed their career highs in minutes.

Nikola Jokic, Malik Beasley, and Monte Morris are the only players on the roster to avoid missing games due to injury this year. A week ago, the Nuggets were leading the NBA in Man Games Lost due to injury. That hasn’t changed, and it likely never will this season. What will change is the available reinforcements. Jarred Vanderbilt finally returned from a foot injury two weeks ago. Jamal Murray has returned after a six game absence from an ankle injury. Gary Harris and Paul Millsap are still recovering, but both should return to full form after the All-Star break.

But the true game changer, for better or for worse, could be Thomas. All 5’9 of him (sure, okay IT).

When he was last healthy during the 2016-17 season, Thomas put up one of the best offensive seasons in NBA history, accumulating 28.9 points and 5.9 assists per game on 62.5% True Shooting. Among all players in NBA history, only Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and James Harden have matched that combination of scoring, playmaking, and efficiency. At that level, only Nikola Jokic would be the better player on the Nuggets roster. Throw out roster construction or expectations for Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, or Malik Beasley: the Nuggets would take a great player, one that could lighten the load for everyone else and simply make winning basketball games an easier endeavor.

But that’s probably not the IT the Nuggets should expect. Since that exceptional season, Thomas had an invasive surgery on his hip, was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving, rushed his recovery along in order to return to the court and wasn’t the same player when he arrived. After playing just 15 games for the Cavs, Thomas was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, where he spent roughly the same number of games serving as a backup to Lonzo Ball before sitting the rest of the season to have surgery. During those two stints, Thomas averaged a career low True Shooting % and a career high Turnover %, per Basketball Reference. It was a completely different Thomas from just a year prior.

So, what version of Thomas can the Nuggets expect?

First, Thomas provides scoring volume that the Nuggets lack in their bench unit. While there are some efficient scorers in Monte Morris and Malik Beasley, none of the players on the bench unit have a Usage Rate above 20% (average) except Trey Lyles, who happens to be the least efficient scorer of the bunch. With Thomas in the fold, the Nuggets would rely less on Lyles and more on Thomas to create offense through skilled scoring and playmaking.

Second, Thomas provides additional playmaking and facilitation for when Nikola Jokic leaves the floor. Monte Morris is an excellent player, but even he can struggle to create offense for others without Jokic to assist.

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Morris could surely use a helping hand to create offense from the bench unit, and Thomas would provide that dynamic for Denver without being forced to stagger one of the starters to the second unit. Previously, Denver would use Murray to play next to Morris on bench units, and while the Morris-Murray-Beasley-Lyles-Plumlee lineup was good (+5.8 Net Rating) Denver’s potential starting lineup is even better and should be maximized.

Lastly, Thomas provides some serious defensive issues against most teams. His small stature has been difficult for most teams to work around, but for the Nuggets, it will be even more stressful. In Boston, the Celtics had defenders like Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, and Jae Crowder to reduce the stress on Thomas defensively. Denver doesn’t have that kind of defensive talent in their rotation, even when Gary Harris and Paul Millsap are healthy. We don’t know what condition Thomas will be in to play defense. Even if he’s at peak form, he still has obvious limitations, especially in a bench unit next to another short point guard in Monte Morris.

Fortunately, there are some analogs for this situation. Rick Carlisle and the Dallas Mavericks have played primarily with two point guard bench units for a long time and have had great success. Last season, Carlisle played JJ Barea and Devin Harris together, both of which are small in stature, to the tune of a +10.2 Net Rating in the 591 minutes during which those two shared the floor. Of course, the Nuggets have their own analog as well. Back in 2010-11, Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton shared the court for 310 minutes to the tune of an outstanding +20.1 Net Rating, despite both players clocking in at under 6’2.

So, it CAN work, but the current day Nuggets will have to exercise constant vigilance surrounding their backup point guard duo in order to be optimized.

So, how many minutes will Thomas play?

In his first two games back from injury: Will Barton played just 16 and 14 minutes respectively. For Gary Harris, it was 18 minutes and 17 minutes in his most recent stint back from injury. Nuggets fans should expect Thomas to play 16 minutes at max, if not closer to just 10. Barton and Harris were ramping up to return as starters, while Thomas is in a different situation.

His place in Denver’s rotation when he does return will be fascinating though. Before the season, his envisioned role of backup point guard made a large degree of sense, at least until Monte Morris completely solidified the position. Now, it’s more difficult to envision where Thomas truly fits, especially when everyone returns healthy. With Harris out, it makes sense to use Thomas in a two point guard backup unit next to Morris, with Thomas acting as the primary scorer.

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Without Gary Harris and Paul Millsap in the fold, Thomas fits rather easily into backup minutes. With short stretches accompanied by Morris, Craig, Lyles, and one of Jokic or Plumlee, Thomas would have plenty of opportunities to get back into playing shape while operating as a scorer. With enough pressure on him to make him the focal point but not enough to be overbearing, this is an ideal scenario for him. In addition, playing next to Torrey Craig would put Craig on the tougher defensive assignments against bench units.

With Harris and Millsap back in the fold though, things become a bit dicey.

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When Denver gets entirely healthy, they will return to their beginning starting five of Murray, Harris, Barton, Millsap, and Jokic. That lineup has been killer in small doses, and the Nuggets owe it to themselves to revert to form when possible. Because of that, Morris and Beasley will be the primary guards off the bench, unless the Nuggets decide to run a three guard lineup with Thomas. There is a precedent for this. The Nuggets primarily utilize three guard lineups, just never ones with guards under 6’3. Malik Beasley has spent 38% of his minutes this year at small forward, so he has enough experience playing that way. Playing with Beasley at small forward removes Torrey Craig from the rotation, unless the Nuggets downsize even further to play Craig in place of Trey Lyles (or Juancho Hernangomez or Jarred Vanderbilt), something they might experiment with on occasion.

For now, let’s enjoy the comeback of “The King in the Fourth” as he sets on a path for redemption after injury. The most I could see Thomas playing initially is 14-16 minutes per contest, and Nuggets fans should be cheering him on every step of the way. He will need time to adjust to game speed once more, so expect some bumps. At his ceiling is an MVP candidate though, a true scorer with the heart of a champion. For the Nuggets, a team that has lost some energy and passion in search for their own redemption story, they can rally behind Thomas as the lightning rod for their stretch run. This is one of the best Nuggets teams in franchise history, and the team would be even sweeter if Thomas can turn his comeback a reality.

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