Why Lance Thomas?

Why Lance Thomas?
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Lance Thomas, the Knicks forward who is probably most famous for getting away with this move, has been playing a lot of basketball lately. Through the first five games of the regular season, Thomas has averaged 20 minutes per game, just short of his career-high 24 minutes per game, which he achieved last season when he split his time between an injury-ravaged Thunder squad and a Knicks team where this guy often looked like the number one option on offense. When the Knicks re-signed Thomas last summer for just over the veteran’s minimum, it seemed more a bid for continuity on a roster that was undergoing a massive remodeling than an indication that he would be a significant part of the team’s on-court picture. Few expected that, as an offensively limited role player who doesn’t have a reputation as a defensive stopper, he would see much playing time on this year’s more talented roster. Even fewer could have predicted that he would be playing crunch-time minutes in close games just a week into the season.

On the surface, it’s not entirely clear why Thomas, a 3-4 tweener on a team with four of them, is getting so much burn to start the year. While it’s true that two of the four players who figure to ultimately spend some time at power forward spot have been injured (Kevin Seraphin and Lou Amundson), few would have guessed that Thomas would beat out Cleanthony Early, a younger player coming off an impressive preseason, on the depth chart this early in the season. A look at his per game stats doesn’t provide any more of an explanation for his playing time—so far this season, he’s averaged 8.8 points, 1.8 rebounds, 1.5 fouls, and less than one assist, steal, and block per game.

Coach Derek Fisher tried to shed some light on why Thomas has been given so much responsibility early in the year after the Knicks’ 117-110 win over Washington on Oct. 31. Per Marc Berman of the New York Post:

“There are guys on teams — [guys like] Rick Fox and Robert Horry — who do a lot things in the game people don’t see that makes a difference between winning and losing,’’ Fisher said. “Lance does a lot of those things for us — being in the right spot on defense, doing what we want offensively.”

This is a pretty vague answer (Fisher loves giving those), and thus is not so helpful. Langston Galloway, another holdover from last year’s squad who has been getting big minutes to start the season, was equally non-specific when asked that night about his and Thomas’s crunch time roles. Again, from Berman of the Post:

“We do all the loose things you can’t get on a stat sheet,’’ Galloway said. “Down the stretch, that’s what we need.’’

All of this, of course, begs the question: What are those “things in the game that people don’t see,” those “loose things you can't get on a stat sheet” that Lance Thomas brings to the table? What, exactly, does Thomas do when he’s out on the floor that makes him deserving of his minutes?

His most obvious contributions come on defense. At 6-foot-8 and 235 pounds, he has the physical tools to guard 3s, 4s, and small-ball 5s, and he’s quick enough to hold his own when he has to switch onto 1s or 2s for short periods of time. His versatility was put on display during the Oct. 29 game against the Hawks, when he was assigned, at various points, to cover Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap and Al Horford. He was pretty effective against all of them, chasing Korver around screens, fighting Millsap in the post, and trying to prevent Horford from getting open looks on the perimeter.

He’s a very alert defender. He seems to always be aware of passing lanes, and he does a good job of cutting them off. In his best moments, he makes it hard for opposing point guards to make cross-court passes to spot-up shooters or to drop the ball off to backdoor cutters:

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The above clips from games against the Wizards and the Hawks, respectively, illustrate some of Thomas’s defensive utility for the Knicks. In the first, he intercepts a crosscourt pass from John Wall to a wide-open Drew Gooden spotting up on the 3-point line. In the second, he deflects a pass from Lamar Patterson to a cutting Justin Holiday, a pass that, if you read the way the play was going, could have easily turned into a Tiago Splitter dunk. If the Knicks have any hope of shoring up their deficiencies on the defensive side of the ball this season, they’re going to need alert plays like the ones Thomas makes here.

Part of Thomas’s value on defense lies in his ability to communicate what he sees happening on the floor to his teammates. If you look closely, you can often see him orchestrating the defense, reading play calls and yelling out switches. Sometimes you can even see him physically forcing his teammates to make smart defensive plays, as he does here when he shoves Melo forward to make the switch to cut off an Otto Porter backdoor cut:

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Thomas’s contributions on offense are a little quieter. He’s hardly ever given the ball for extended periods of time, and for good reason. He’s not a natural ball-handler, and he has a bad habit of travelling when he goes to make drives after receiving passes on the perimeter (he got called for this during the recent games against the Wizards and the Hawks). Those travelling turnovers notwithstanding, he makes his limited offensive abilities work for him by playing a smart, reserved game. In this way, he’s something of the anti-Derrick Williams, as he keeps the ball moving, makes plays well within his capabilities, and generally refrains from taking contested shots.

To that end, the Knicks’ offense this season primarily has Thomas spotting up in the corners behind the 3-point line. He shoots the three at about league average—he’s shot 34.6% from beyond the arc for his career—but opposing defenses still don’t cover him very tightly. Pay attention to him during any offensive possession he’s involved in and you’ll likely see him wide open in the corner waving for the ball, like in this clip from the Oct. 29 game against the Hawks at Madison Square Garden:

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The Knicks’ guards haven’t been great at finding him in those spots early in the season, but if they start looking for him, he has the potential to really punish opposing defenses that collapse around drives from Langston Galloway or Jerian Grant:

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When he’s not spotting up, Thomas has a great off-ball game. He’s very aware of the balance of the floor on offense and is good at just getting out of the way when more ball-dominant players and scorers move into his area. In his best moments, he finds the open spaces on the floor and fills them. Here, you can see him taking advantage of a double team on Melo to get open right under the hoop for an easy and-1 basket:

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In those rare moments when Thomas has been allowed to hold the ball for extended periods of time, he has proven himself to be a serviceable passer. Here, again, his awareness of the floor allows him to make the smart play, as he takes advantage of the floor imbalance created by his post-up to make a drop-off pass to Kyle O’Quinn for a layup:

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Of course, Lance Thomas isn’t a great player. He struggles to box out for rebounds and his weak ball-handling can cost his team in critical moments. He’s never going to give you consistent scoring or make the highlight reel defensive plays, and there are definitely players out there who do all the things he does better than he ever will. Still, Thomas’s contributions on the court far outweigh any harm caused by his shortcomings. In essence, he’s the very definition of a glue guy. He makes the game easier for his teammates on both sides of the ball, as he plays active defense and constantly responds to the shifts in the floor distribution on offense. In large part, he’s the reason why lineups with Derrick Williams as the primary scoring option can work, and why the Knicks might have a chance to succeed defensively in crunch time in spite of Carmelo Anthony’s defensive shortcomings.

In his remarks to season ticket holders last offseason, Phil Jackson said, “[Lance Thomas and other midseason additions from last year] have had no problem learning the system. They play defense, they’re two-way players. That’s the direction we’re looking to go.”

If they want to build a contender around Melo, that might be the only way forward. To that end, Lance Thomas isn’t a bad start.