Three and a half years in, the Knicks are still trying to discover how to best use forward Lance Thomas, whose shortcomings on offense may reach a breaking point despite tremendous individual defense.
Playing on the wing is now a coveted position. In the past two seasons, as the cap has experienced a sizable jump, teams are seeing the importance of investing in young, long, athletic players who are capable of guarding three positions. Players such as DeMarre Carroll, Otto Porter Jr., and Robert Covington have secured the bag based on how they pose matchup problems all over the floor.
For the Knicks, they have had to endure through slim pickings on the wing. Yet, in his fourth season with the squad, Lance Thomas has maintained himself as a relevant 3-and-D player on this roster.
Thomas is the lone carry-over from an era we all would like to forget. Having been plagued by injuries last season, the absence of Carmelo Anthony and addition of Frank Ntilikina should have given Lance a prime opportunity to do what he does quite efficiently: space the floor and allow for more threes. To further that expectation, the injury to Tim Hardaway Jr. has thrusted Thomas into playing starter minutes. However, in the 19 games that he has started, he’s been quite possibly one of the more frustrating players to watch.
Thomas is one of those NBA players who will always have a place on a roster because of what he does as a defender. The Knicks’ defense has looked stout and has been focused on protecting the paint more than previous seasons. The improvement isn’t enough to make them a feared defense, but the needle has moved. It’s even more noticeable with Lance in the starting lineup on the wing. For context, when Lance missed 36 games during the 2016–17 season, the Knicks allowed opponents to shoot 47.5 percent overall while giving up 108 points per game. This year, per NBA Stats, the defense is giving up only 105 points per game and locking opponents down to a 44 percent shooting average.
Lance is solid one-on-one, but this squad is made better defensively due to his ability to read switches and react quickly on closeouts.
Frank Ntilikina + Lance Thomas work off each other to shutdown Kemba pic.twitter.com/YtE6YANaaC
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) November 8, 2017
Lance Thomas showing off his defensive value pic.twitter.com/XCC5TxeSJL
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) January 14, 2018
Unlike other players on the team, Thomas is not a liability inside or outside. He’s unrelenting on the perimeter and plays tightly on opposing wings who can put the ball on the floor. The problem, however, is that Lance has hit a wall when it comes to his offense and his overall activity that side of the floor.
In Tim Hardaway Jr.’s absence, the Knicks did not have a consistent scoring option to chip in behind Kristaps Porzingis and the automatic double-double Enes Kanter. Michael Beasley, Doug McDermott, and Courtney Lee have been taking turns racking points. Even Jarrett Jack has strung together a few weeks here and there where he’s worth plugging into your daily fantasy lineup. Unfortunately, for the most part, the offense had no single player to pacify us as fans and maintain the offense until Timmy’s recent return. And in the midst of being in a timeshare with the more aggressive bucket-getter McDermott, Thomas has all but become useless on offense.
For the sake of being genuine, the Knicks brought Lance Thomas back because he’s a shooter. Prior to signing his four-year deal worth $27 million, Thomas finished the season hitting 40 percent from long distance. He followed that up last year with 41.5 percent of his scoring came from long distance. This season, threes have made up 38 percent of his scoring. Granted the sample size is slightly different (21 minutes per game in 46 total games played versus 19 minutes per game in 41 games this season), but the larger point remains. The 29-year-old veteran hasn’t picked up the slack or even maintained the offensive output he’s known for.
One of the visible differences this season is Thomas doesn’t call for the ball. Despite the fact that he’s not the type of player coaches would draw up a play for, Thomas has passed up easy shots that he used to take with confidence. On the season, he’s had seven games where he posted zero points. In December, he only averaged 4.7 shot attempts, and that could be trending downward once THJ gets healthy and coalesces back with the team. The silver lining is that Thomas does get to the line, where he knocks down free-throws at an 80 percent clip.
As youth has been repeated as a central objective going forward, the Knicks have to create situations where their vets garner enough interest to get something favorable in return (for example, extra picks in the late first). Courtney Lee has done an outstanding job without Timmy to boost the former’s trade value. As we’re halfway through January, you can expect Lee to continue to make noise as Timmy’s minute restriction may change based on his health. Teams reportedly also have interest in Willy Hernangómez. Yet what are the Knicks to do with an old-ish wing defender who is shying away from shooting the long ball?
Based on his pieces for The Players Tribune, remaining a Knick is something Lance Thomas would love. However, one has to accept this simple fact: shooting from long distance is what general managers want to add to their rosters as seventh, eighth, and ninth men. If a major component of Thomas’ two-way allure continues to underperform as the Knicks chase for that eighth spot, then the team has no choice but to consider that his intangibles can be found elsewhere long-term.