His Clipper career deserves more in depth analysis at some point, but when Mike Prada at Bullets Forever asked me for some thoughts on Al Thornton earlier today, I dashed off a quick eMail. I figure I might as well post it here:
Thornton has a very solid offensive game. He has a good first step, and can make a variety of shots. He is pretty effective at creating his own shot. His perimeter game is not great, but not terrible - although he's essentially stopped taking threes this season.
His trajectory has been very disappointing. As a rookie, he was officially behind Corey Maggette but ended up playing a lot at both forward positions because of all the injuries, and even started 31 games. He averaged almost 17 points per 36 minutes, and had games of 33 and 39 in the second half of the season that had us pretty excited around here. He was always a 'volume' scorer guy - never particularly efficient, but as a rookie, the logic was that he'd get more efficient.
His second season, after Maggette signed with the Warriors, Al was the starter at small forward from day one. His per 36 scoring went down a few ticks, his true shooting percentage was more or less the same, and his PER dropped a little as well. A 12.7 PER for a rookie finding his way in the league on an injury-ravaged team is sort of OK - you figure he'll be better with more experience. A 12.6 PER for a second year player (who happens to be 25) is more of a concern. The biggest issue was that it was becoming pretty clear that Al was 'just' a scorer. He's a terrible rebounder, a poor passer, has a pretty low basketball IQ, and consequently is a very poor team defender (though he is a decent on-ball defender). All of those things needed to get better his second season - none of them did.
When the Clippers added Rasual Butler this summer, Al found himself fighting for his starting job and it clearly affected him. He started the season in a miserable slump - bounced back when he made it back into the starting lineup alongside Butler while Eric Gordon was hurt - continued to play well for awhile after returning to the sixth man role - and then went back into the slump the last month. Whether he tailed off because he was losing minutes or he lost minutes because he tailed off is a tough one to answer. But clearly in was in a negative feedback loop. It probably didn't help that the Clippers knew they had to move him to get into the LeBron Sweepstakes. Take a look at his game logs and his season splits - you can see the roller coaster he was on. From mid November to mid December, he played as well as I've ever seen him play. He was significantly more efficient, taking the ball aggressively to the rim rather than settling for jumpers, played some nice defense and was tearing up the offensive glass. He scored in double figures in 18 out of 20 games and twice when for 30+. Then he lost his mojo for some reason, and has 9 double figure games and zero 20+ games in his last 23.
The unfortunate thing is that I think the 'instant offense' bench role could be ideal for Al. In the early season 'Butler vs. Thornton' debate here, I was pretty adamantly in the Butler camp, not because I felt he was a lot better, but simply because he fit better. Al's a scorer, and on the Clippers team (the one we thought we had) he would have been the fifth option, behind Kaman, Gordon, Griffin and Baron - having a one dimensional scorer in your starting lineup as the fifth option is a really bad idea. But bringing him off the bench, as the first or second option for the second team, is a great asset. There were a few times this season when it looked like Al was embracing that role - but they were way too few.
John Hollinger would tell you this was all foreseeable - that 'old' rookies (Al was a fifth year senior at FSU) never develop. I don't think it's that simple. But Al's tracking the wrong way. He's been a more efficient scorer this season - but everything else is moving in the wrong direction. Maybe a change in scenery will help. Obviously with Butler and Jamison and Arenas gone (wow, that's astounding) he's going to get some shots for the Wizards. Frankly, that's when he's been best - when he knows he's being featured in the offense and he plays with confidence, without looking over his shoulder.