Riddle me this: last year, at 29, Lance Thomas set a career-high in games played and started 31 times, the second-most of his career. That’s good, right? Yet Thomas averaged just 4 points and 2.4 rebounds a night, playing his fewest minutes per game since he was a New Orleans Hornet. These facts are at odds. Such is the tao of Lance, basketball myrmecoleon: a creature of competing natures doomed to fail because neither nature wins out.
On one hand, Thomas brings intangibles, and we’re taught not to overlook or underrate intangibles. While not a lockdown defender, Thomas is willing and competent on that end. The longest-tenured Knick is also a native New Yorker and by all accounts a positive, professional presence, especially meaningful on such a young team. Earlier this month he discussed his leadership style and what a Knick renaissance would be like:
“I lead by example,” Thomas said. “When you’re in the gym with me and my teammates and you’re not working hard, you’re going to stand out like a sore thumb. That’s the environment that I’ve been trying to set in New York.
“We haven’t had the seasons that we’ve wanted to — record and success-wise — but that doesn’t mean guys aren’t getting better, and that guys aren’t learning how to be professionals. When it turns around, and it’s going to turn around, it’s going to be an amazing thing because there’s nothing like winning in New York.”
On the other hand, Lance’s tangibles do not impress. At. All.
A review of Thomas last season unveils conflicts between numbers, the eye test, hype, logic and fear. To know Lance is to know each facet of knowing Lance. And so:
The most encouraging number around Thomas is his salary. Owed a little under $15M over the next two years, he could offer value balancing salaries should the Knicks look to make a big trade, or be packaged in a deal to acquire more cap space for next summer.
Another positive number: 40, as in his percentage from three-point range last year, second on the team to Courtney Lee. Thomas has put up a 40/45/40 slash line from distance over his three full years in New York. Much respect!
Offensively, that’s it. That’s Lance’s only tangible plus. He was fourth on the team in free throw percentage, but he never gets to the line. Being fourth on a team in free throw percentage is like...well, it’s so banal it’s not like anything else. Fourth in free throw percentage is the analogy.
After that, the numbers get ugly. His PER was closer to zero than to replacement-level. He shot 38% on twos, and Lance was wiiiide open a LOT of the time. The only Knick open more often was Frank Ntilikina.
Spotting up or on the move, Lance would not could not find the groove.
Per game, Thomas averaged less than one assist, steal, block, three-pointer and free throw. He didn’t even average one stinking turnover. Didn’t even have the decency to cause enough agita to angry up the blood. Watching Lance Thomas last season was like life after a heart attack. It’s a thing...but that’s literally all it is. Nada más.
THE EYE TEST
David Fizdale seems like a build-your-castles-in-the-air kinda dude. Like, he says things that are wild, but you know he believes them. Or practices believing until he really does. It’s a humane instinct. I dig it.
The beauty of hope is it doesn’t need reason to live. The dark side emerges when reason’s dismissed out of hand. When the numbers fail to smile upon you and you have no credibility to appeal to, emotion is the only game in town.
Until the games start, Fiz has no track record to judge. All the love right now is for the hope he inspires, for the hope he’ll appeal to free agents, for the hope that his is the rare smile New York can’t knock off someone’s face. No Knick fan needs to apologize for that. Hope your little hearts out. Feel them feels.
But Fizdale comparing Lance Thomas to Draymond Green smells juuuust bat-shit crazy enough to warrant a second glance. Remember what he said?
“He’s a Swiss Army knife-type of player that can guard multiple positions and you can run offense through him,” the coach said on WFAN. “I think he can push the ball off the break a lot like Draymond Green plays. Obviously the thing I’m going to demand from Lance is to play defense like Draymond. And be a guy that’s pushing to be a First Team All-Defender.”
If you’ve seen Thomas and Green play, ever, you know this comparison is absurd. If you haven’t — if you just woke from a five-year coma, and after the initial exhausting wave of re-connecting with loved ones and re-adjusting to consciousness you’re sitting around wondering “How’ve the Knicks been?” — let the numbers quash the hype.
Last season, Thomas played 73 games, scoring in single-digits 68 times. Draymond averaged double-digits. Thomas never pulled down 10+ rebounds in a single game; Green did so 22 times. Green tallied 10+ assists 11 times. Lance’s season-high was three. Draymond, a former Defensive Player of the Year, finished 6th in DPOY voting. Thomas never had more than two steals or blocks in a game. Neither is a chucker, but even where they shoot when they shoot differs. This is Thomas’ shot chart:
There’s an obvious tilt toward shooting from the left side of the floor, and Thomas puts up shots from the midrange; he ranked in the 81st percentile for most long midrange shot attempts.
Pretty direct: most of his looks are from straightaway, almost all behind the line or in the paint, especially at the rim.
Thomas finished in the 34th percentile in both steal and block percentage, Green 64th and 91st, respectively. While Green may be starting to slip, falling to the 55th percentile defending shots at the rim after reaching the 95th and 94th percentiles the two years prior, that’s still light years better than Thomas, 19th.
One more difference: Lance is two years older. I know Fizdale wants to talk him up, and building up players is cool. But keep one foot in reality, Coach. Don Nelson came to town determined to run the offense through Anthony Mason rather than Patrick Ewing and slot Hubert Davis ahead of John Starks. Nelson was already a future Hall-of-Fame coach, but he didn’t last a year trucking that nonsense. Stephon Marbury compared Channing Frye to Tim Duncan before Frye had spent a month in the pros. Crazy doesn’t end well. Lance isn’t Draymond. Nobody’s Draymond except Draymond, and even he doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with that. Let Lance be Lance.
Looking forward, Thomas is a logical fit for where the Knicks are as much as he isn’t for where they’re headed. He’s not an exciting potential piece for the future, like Mitchell Robinson. But he’s a professional; even if he’s less productive than most of his co-workers, he knows how to exist in that work space.
New workers will see him going about his business and will note a guy without nearly as much game as most has already beaten the odds as he enters his eighth year in the NBA. The presence of the lesser-but-stabler Lance isn’t going to win popularity contests with the fan base, but it helps his young co-workers gain a better approximation of what the pro game is and isn’t.
Looking far forward, Thomas will be gone and forgotten. As the Knicks have won nothing during his time in New York, his presence and contributions will rust, unremembered. He reminds me at times of Jared Jeffries, a former Knick who could do some things but who’s mostly remembered for all he couldn’t do. Or didn’t.
Thomas will be gone soon. While he’s here, his job description has less to do with Xs and Os than it does modeling what a working athlete looks like. In 2025 the Knicks will be NBA champs and a confetti-and-champagne-covered Kevin Knox will give a speech in the Canyon of Heroes and one of the names he’ll mention will be Lance Thomas. And some folks’ll look surprised. Not us.
Earth looks beautiful from far away. The closer you get to it and its truths, the closer you come to realizing it’s becoming Venus. We can take the big-picture bird’s eye view of Lance Thomas all we went, but watching him 82 nights is like watching a hot dog get moldy: you weren’t really thrilled with it from the start, and watching it grow more and more disappointing over time becomes a kind of hell.
My biggest fear is this being the kind of year where everything goes wrong, and by March you’re surprised to learn Lance Thomas leads the team in minutes. Sound impossible? Three years ago, Shane Larkin led the Knicks in minutes played. Jason Smith was second. Langston Galloway was fourth. If we’re saying that about Thomas in six months, this will have been, even by Knick standards, a deadass slog of a season.
Lance Thomas does some things, but mostly doesn’t do the rest of them. But he’s a good role model on a young team. But also he will be gone soon.