Posted by Neil Paine on September 23, 2009
Dallas Mavericks newcomer Tim Thomas had arthroscopic surgery on his knee this week, and apparently it went well, which means he will be back on the court in no time. That's good news for Thomas and the Mavs, who spent about $1.3 million to acquire the forward this offseason, but I don't really want to talk about Thomas' present condition as much as I want to focus on his past, and a future that once seemed certain but never quite materialized...
You see, Thomas was a superstar prep player for New Jersey's Paterson Catholic back in the day, a two-time Parade All-American who averaged 29 PPG & 12 RPG (and dueled Kobe Bryant in dunk contests) as a senior in 1995-96. While he didn't exactly challenge Kobe in that contest (or Corey Benjamin, for that matter), more than a few observers felt that Thomas was a better prospect than either Bryant or Jermaine O'Neal when it came time for their graduating class to choose between college and the pros. Longtime NBA Director of Scouting Marty Blake had this to say about Thomas back in 1996: "Let me say this, there are some people who felt [Thomas] was the best high school player in the country. The kid Bryant came out because he had a big-time deal with adidas. O'Neal came out because he didn't get the SAT. We had three high school kids come out [in the 1996 Draft]. Thomas was probably better than all of them."
Statements like those are why I've always been fascinated with Tim Thomas (no joke, I even wrote his Wikipedia page). Simply put, Thomas oozed with raw potential as a young man. At Paterson, scouts from all over the country had flocked to his high school gym for a chance to see a 6'10" 17-year-old do things on a basketball court that high schoolers simply aren't supposed to be able to do. Versatile and lithe with long arms, great athleticism, and a pretty shooting stroke, Thomas was quickly labeled "the next Kevin Garnett" as every big-name NCAA program in the country came calling for him, flooding him with visits and promises of superstardom. When Thomas finally made his decision, he chose to stay relatively local and attend Villanova. Sportswriter Jim Carty described the scene back in 1996:
"[In the days leading up to the deadline to declare for the '96 Draft], the ever-friendly Thomas went underground. He stopped answering his phone and stopped talking to reporters. He laid low for about a month and then answered 'The Question'.
'Villanova,' Thomas said during a news conference he called for a few reporters sitting on his own bed.
Then he started to cry.
Villanova is safe. Villanova is talented. Villanova is a place where Thomas can finally be a part of something instead of being absolutely everything."
As a freshman at Villanova in 1996-97, Thomas was not exactly the sensation everyone had predicted, but he did manage to score 16.6 PPG (with a .555 TS%) and haul in 6.0 RPG. Come time for the 1997 Draft, Thomas finally declared himself eligible, and was taken by New Jersey with the 7th overall pick. And even when his home-state team traded him 2 days after the draft, Thomas' destination wasn't an unfamiliar place, as he landed with the Philadelphia 76ers in a swap that sent Jim Jackson, Eric Montross,Thomas, and Anthony Parker to Philly for Michael Cage, Don MacLean, Lucious Harris, and 1997 #2 overall pick Keith Van Horn. Clearly the Sixers had the same visions of stardom in mind for Thomas that so many scouts had been enamored with back in 1995, and he would ostensibly team with '96 #1 overall pick Allen Iverson to form an unstoppable core in the future.
Unfortunately, that dream only lasted a season and a half. Thomas didn't have a bad first year at all by rookie standards (a -1.45 SPM and a 108.5/21.8/110.8 line -- translated to 2009 -- are thoroughly respectable), even garnering NBA All-Rookie 2nd Team honors, but when those numbers -- as well as his playing time -- dipped in his second season despite playing alongside Iverson and another highly-touted young piece, 20-year-old guard Larry Hughes, Philly soured on Thomas' apparent lack of work ethic and commitment to improving his game. On March 11, 1999, the 76ers sent Thomas and Scott Williams packing to the Bucks for Tyrone Hill and Jerald Honeycutt.
Thomas' play improved markedly the rest of the way in Milwaukee, as he took to his newfound starting role and George Karl's willingness to deploy him in almost every conceivable way, increasing his scoring rate, raising his shooting % nearly 10 percentage points after the trade, and even showing more activity on defense. Because of his unique versatility and skill set, the Bucks felt that in Thomas they had a key player for the future, the perfect complement to Glenn Robinson, Ray Allen, and Sam Cassell. In the Bucks' 5-game first-round playoff loss to the Pacers in 2000, Thomas was a force, posting a 22.6 PER and a 129 offensive rating while leading the team in Win Shares. The following regular season, Thomas posted career highs in categories like SPM, PER, WS, and ORtg, and was 3rd on the team in WS during their march to within one game of the NBA Finals. Satisfied with his progress and his role on the team, that summer Bucks owner Herb Kohl made a long-term commitment to Thomas, lavishing him with a deal worth roughly $66 million over 6 years.
Thus began a trend of Thomas playing well in contract years, only to fall off after securing a big payday. The Bucks would almost immediately regret Thomas' contract, as his production declined steeply in 2002. By 2003-04, Karl, Allen, and Robinson were gone and Thomas had shown few of the flashes of brilliance he had displayed during his most successful stretch in 2000-01. At the trade deadline in 2004, he was shipped to the Knicks in a complex trade that saw him once again swapped for Keith Van Horn. With New York, he infamously referred to Kenyon Martin as "fugazi" ("fake") during their loss to the Nets in Round 1 of the 2004 playoffs, but he did very little of note on the court in a Knicks uniform. Before the '06 season, Thomas was traded to the Bulls largely for salary reasons (Isiah Thomas was trading in one clunker of a contract for another -- Eddy Curry's), and the Bulls only suited him up to play in 3 games before waiving him, eating his sizable salary just to make him go away (Scott Skiles had major personality conflicts with Thomas, as you might imagine). In typical Thomas fashion, he responded by being happy for the vacation.
But the talent was still there. When the Suns signed Thomas for the veteran minimum, Thomas used the regular season to get accustomed to their breakneck pace and free-flowing offense, and then proceeded to play one of the best sustained stretches of basketball in his life during the playoffs. Not only were his numbers far beyond what anyone had come to expect from Thomas (he hadn't put up 15 PPG or a 117 ORtg since his playoff runs with Milwaukee), but the dramatic nature of Thomas' performances was especially striking -- he made a variety of clutch 3-pointers, including daggers that helped bury both the Lakers and Clippers in a pair of game 7s. It's no coincidence that Thomas was at his best when freelancing and having fun with basketball, as a large short-term goal loomed in the near future. Short-term goals have always been the best motivators for Thomas.
Again, Thomas earned a sizable contract largely on the basis of a huge playoff performance. This time it was the Clippers, ironically the same team he had decimated with clutch shooting just few months earlier, that rewarded Thomas, as they gave him a four-year, $24 million contract in the hopes that they could build on their breakout 2006 campaign. Unfortunately for all parties, the Clips regressed quickly, falling from 47 wins to 40 in Thomas' first season in L.A., and then 23 in his 2nd season. Ten games into the 2009 season, the Clippers sent Thomas back to the Knicks in a salary-related move, and the Knicks in turn sent Thomas back to the Bulls. This time, though, there would be no contract-year playoff surge from Thomas, as he managed to get into just 2 games for 15 minutes in the postseason.
As a free agent this summer, Thomas had to sign on with the Mavs for the veteran's minimum, and he hurt his knee working out at home in September. While he'll probably come back and be a reasonable spare part for Dallas as a 3-point specialist, it's hard to imagine that he'll end his career in that role after the future that had been predicted for him back in 1995. He was supposed to be a superstar on the order of Bryant, but the gulf between the two players' work ethics could not be larger. Bryant has a relentless will to dominate and works himself tirelessly 24-7/365, just on the off chance that one of his opponents is working hard that day, too. Thomas, on the other hand, can be summed up by this passage in Jack McCallum's excellent book Seven Seconds or Less:
"[In Game 1 of the 2006 Suns-Lakers series], Tim Thomas bails out the Suns. At practice the day before, I watched him effortlessly put up three-pointers as [Marc] Iavaroni tried to distract him. Thomas would get a pass, and Iavaroni would wave a hand in his face or fake a shot toward his nether regions, but Thomas would just smile and launch another, insouciance in a six-foot-ten-inch package. During games, Thomas has begun a ritual by which he waves his own hand directly in front of his face after he makes a jump shot, an indication that nothing can bother him. 'I wish he'd take that hand and shove it up his ass,' Alvin Gentry said, almost wistfully, after watching it on film a few dozen times. The gesture doesn't quite rise to the level of taunting. But it smacks of taunting. Of all the Suns, though, Thomas appears to be the most impervious to playoff pressure, which is good and bad. He is what [Phil] Weber calls 'a low-flame guy,' coasting along at a certain speed, unable or unwilling to shift into a higher gear, but, on the other hand, maintaining almost an eerie calm."
As it turns out, it was never really in Thomas' personality to dominate like a Garnett or a Bryant. Maybe this should have been apparent to everyone when he called his impromptu press conference, settling for nearby Villanova when the whole world was calling, sitting on his bed and crying. John Hollinger once semi-jokingly accused Thomas of "defrauding the Knicks and Bucks out of $67 million for his maddeningly average play," and he certainly has a peculiar habit of "flipping on the switch" in contract years and playoff situations, while largely coasting on talent alone (like this generation's Derrick Coleman) the rest of the time. But by all accounts, Thomas is not a bad guy to be around, it's just that -- like McCallum writes -- he's unable to motivate himself into that higher gear for anything longer than a short burst, like a playoff run or the push for a new contract. If Thomas had the personality of Kobe Bryant, he would have been an all-time great, but it just wasn't meant to be.