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A Clipper a Day - Tim Thomas

In the ongoing Clipper a Day series, we've already covered seven of the 15 players on the roster.  That makes today's eighth post something of a 'hump day' for this series - we're passing the midway point!  

Today we turn our attention reluctantly to one Tim Thomas, the likely starter at the power forward until Elton Brand's return.  Entering his 11th season in the NBA, Tim Thomas is the Clippers third most experienced player, behind Sam Cassell and Aaron Williams.  He's had something of an up-and-down career, to say the least.  After all, how many players spend half a season forcibly retired by your coach while making $13M, and the second half of the same season starting for a title contender on a deep playoff run while making the veteran's minimum?

After playing a single season at Villanova, Tim Thomas was selected with the 7th pick in the 1997 draft by New Jersey and his rights were immediately traded to Philadelphia (along with Jim Jackson and others) for the rights to 2nd overall pick Keith Van Horn (and others).  That trade foreshadowed a theme in Thomas' career in which he would be traded frequently.  In fact, he was again traded for Van Horn in 2004.  

Interestingly, although he is frequently maligned, you can make a case that Tim Thomas has turned out to be the fifth best player from that 1997 draft after Tim Duncan (duh), 9th pick Tracey McGrady (in the days when high school seniors were still considered risky picks) and 3rd pick Chauncey Billups (who looked like a total bust until he ended up in Detroit) and Van Horn.  So there's that.

As a rookie in Philadelphia he was early in the long line of 'other scorers' the Sixers tried to pair with Allen Iverson (a list that includes Jerry Stackhouse, Larry Hughes, Van Horn, Glenn Robinson and finally Chris Webber).  As with all the others, it didn't work out so well.  After a respectable rookie season of 11 points in 23 minutes per game, Thomas saw his minutes drop precipitously in his second season under Larry Brown, and was shipped off to Milwaukee for Ty Hill.  His first full season in Milwaukee, 99-00, he had some nice numbers - around 12 points in 26 minutes a game as the Bucks 6th man.  He shot 46% from the field and 35% from the arc, the Bucks made the playoffs, and it looked like they had a nice piece in Tim Thomas.  And then something horrible happened, something that almost ruined Thomas' career.  In the summer of 2000, the Bucks re-signed him for 6 years and $67M.  

Why did the Bucks sign their 6th man, a distant fourth on the team in scoring behind Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson and Sam Cassell, to a near maximum contract?  You'd have to ask them that.  The NBA has always been unduly fascinated with big guys who can shoot, and indeed Van Horn had signed for 6/$73M the prior summer.  But Van Horn was averaging over 20 points per game in New Jersey and, what's that word, oh yeah - STARTING!  Tim Thomas, a 12 point per game RESERVE signed for $67M!  There are crazy illogical contracts signed in the NBA every season.  But even by the league's ridiculous standards, this one stands out.

And it almost ruined Thomas' career.  He is, was and always has been the same player: a significant talent who has size, a nice offensive game and a particularly sweet three point stroke.  But he was never worth 8 figures per season, and by signing a contract that paid him so much, suddenly he was being criticized for not being all those things he never claimed to be.  He wasn't a good rebounder for a guy 6'10".  He didn't have a true position.  He wasn't strong enough to defend power forwards, but he wasn't quick enough to defend small forwards.  He was unmotivated.  He was lackadaisical.  He was an underachiever.  All of these things were arguably true.  But they weren't secrets.  The fact that Milwaukee paid the underachiever like an overachiever (or at least an achiever) is the real problem here.

After three more seasons with the Bucks in which he played more or less exactly the way he had played before, averaging between 11.7 and 13.3 points per game, the Bucks got fed up with the fact that their delusional dream version of Tim Thomas had not become a reality, and shipped him to New York (in that second KVH deal) at the 2004 trade deadline.  If there's anything worse for your reputation than making over $12M to score 12 points per game in Milwaukee, it's making $12M to score 12 points per game in New York.  This was of course near the beginning of Isiah-mania in New York, and 20 months later Thomas (Tim, not Isiah) was traded to Chicago in the sign-and-trade that brought Eddy Curry to Madison Square Garden.

And if Tim Thomas' reputation was injured before, Scott Skiles finished the job with a professional hit.  The Bulls had gotten what they wanted out of the trade - the draft picks that would become Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah and rid of Curry (did I mention that Isiah Thomas was involved?)  They didn't need Tim Thomas.  The fact that Tim Thomas was never the most motivated guy, and didn't really want to get chewed out by Scott Skiles every day in practice only to sit at the end of the bench during games, should not really have been news to anyone.  So Thomas essentially took a 5 month vacation (while still making $13M, thank you very much).  

When the Bulls bought out Thomas' contract in March 06, the injury depleted Suns pounced.  Everyone seems to think that Tim Thomas' play during his brief stopover with the Suns was significantly better than it had been elsewhere.  Guess what?  Tim Thomas averaged 11 points per game in 24 minutes per game with the Suns.  He had a nice run in the playoffs averaging 15 points per game.  But he was still the same guy he always was.

And that brings us to his tenure with the Clippers.  In case you hadn't noticed previously, I'm not a huge fan of Tim Thomas.  But he is who he is.  Many people have criticized the Clippers decision to sign him for 4/$24 last July.  To this I say, huh?  The Clippers DESPERATELY needed a three point threat.  They got a proven shooter and versatile scorer for the mid-level exception, which in case you hadn't noticed is the going rate for players who are expected to help your team.  A year later, Jason Kapono signed for the same amount.  The fact that Thomas' deal was limited to 4 years and not the maximum allowed 5 was a real coup for Clippers management as far as I'm concerned.    Would you rather have Tim Thomas for 4/$24 or Vladimir Radmanovic for 5/$31?  Or should I ask you in 2010 when the Lakers are paying $7M to VladRad?

So what did Tim Thomas do in his first season with the Clippers?  Well, he averaged 11 points per game in 27 minutes per game, pretty damn close to his career averages (11.8 and 26.3).  His shooting percentage suffered some (a career low 41%), although most of that can be attributed to the higher percentage of three pointers he took as the Clippers designated long range specialist (356 of his 723 field goal attempts were from beyond the arc, an astounding 49%).  In fact, with all those threes, his effective shooting percentage was almost 51%, his highest eFG% for a full season in his career.

The guy is who he is.  He is not overly self-motivated, which frustrates people, myself included.  The reason teams get so excited about him sometimes is because of the way the playoffs are scrutinized.  Think Austin Croshere.  In the 2000 playoffs he averaged 15.4 points per game for the Bucks, and a couple months later they gave him $67M.  To suggest that maybe they should have looked at his performance in 207 regular season games in addition to his performance in 5 playoff games seems self-evident with the benefit of hindsight, but that's picking at nits.  Likewise, everyone got really excited about Tim Thomas when he again averaged 15 points per game in the 2006 playoffs for the Suns, including some huge shots.  

Here's the thing - it's easy to get pumped up for a playoff game.  Yet another of the 82 games in the regular season?  Yawn.  And that in a nutshell is the problem with Tim Thomas.

But you take him for what he is.  A significant talent on offense.  A legitimate three point threat on a team desperate for long range shooting.  He's actually a capable scorer, though by no means great, on the low post.  He'll have games this season when he is clearly the Clippers best option on offense, and he'll have games when he's essentially worthless.  In that regard, he's a terrific player to have coming off the bench.  If he's on, you leave him in and you ride the wave.  If he's not, you sit him down and check his temperature again the next day.  

This is the biggest problem with the idea of starting Tim Thomas at the power forward.  I do NOT want the team to be dependent on this guy.  Thomas is fine as offense off the bench, where you hope that he'll be productive, but you're not in too much trouble if he's not.  As a starter, it's a different story.  

Maybe being a full-time starter will agree with him.  Maybe he'll respond to the situation, the additional responsibility of filling in for the Clippers only All Star, with a more focused effort.  He definitely needs to pick up his career average of 6.3 rebounds per 40 minutes (pretty weak for a guy 6'10").  And he needs to work hard on defense against the talented power forwards in the Western Conference.

Look at it this way - obviously it's less than ideal to lose Elton Brand, regardless of who the back up is.  In Tim Thomas, at least we have a guy who has the physical ability and skills to be a major contributor - a guy who was once so highly regarded that he was paid $67M, a guy who has been a major contributor to playoff teams.  For the most part, he hasn't performed that way in the regular season, and I don't expect him to this season either - and that's fine.  I'm not mad at him.  He is who he is.  But maybe he'll step it up and surprise me.