Isolated Scoring Outbursts Wasn’t Enough For Thomas To Make Mark In Nets Rotation
I’ve seen quite a few “glass half-full” Nets fans on social media who view the just concluded regular season as a success. The team did make the best of a lousy situation, managing to top last season’s win total by one and avoiding the Eastern Conference play-in round by finishing as the sixth seed, thereby earning the right to face Philadelphia in a best-of-seven series starting on Saturday.
If that’s your definition of success, that’s fine. However, those of us who measure it based on where we thought the team would be at this juncture will look back at this season feeling the most profound disappointment.
From the Nets parting ways with Head Coach Steve Nash just seven games into the season, the Kyrie Irving suspension, the failed Ben Simmons experiment, the dreaded injuries (particularly the MCL sprain incurred by Kevin Durant just as the team was gaining steam), the Irving trade…followed soon after by the Durant trade…it’s been a season in hell. Simply qualifying for the playoffs just to engage in a second consecutive noncompetitive first-round series did not soothe the pain from the proverbial championship window jamming shut on our fingers.
Somewhere in the lower percentile of the above events sits the disappointment that is Nets sophomore guard Cam Thomas. The 21-year old clearly has NBA talent—in his five best games this season, he AVERAGED 42.6 points on a ridiculously efficient 57/64/89 shooting split. He dropped over 40 points in four of those contests, becoming just the fifth player in franchise history to accomplish such a feat in a single season and the youngest ever in NBA history to do so in three consecutive games.
By all rights, the post-trade deadline stretch should have been Thomas’ time to shine. The resulting Nets roster was lacking in shot creators, Thomas’ specialty. Starry-eyed Nets fans could see the growth in his game to that point, particularly the improved fundamentals of his three-point stroke, and extrapolate based on his expected increased usage. They envisioned he could have been doing what Mikal Bridges ended up doing for Brooklyn on the offensive end.
Except it didn’t happen. Following a 43-point outburst against Phoenix on February 7 through the penultimate game versus Orlando where he was DNP’d for a seventh time in 26 games, Thomas’ numbers plummeted. He averaged 11 points, 1.8 rebounds, 1.2 assists, and 1.3 turnovers per game on a 39.6/32.8/95 shooting split.
That’s not good enough. When given rotation opportunities, Thomas looked unsure of how he was supposed to fit in with his new teammates. He deferred when he could have been aggressive…and he was too aggressive when the best basketball play in the moment was a pass. All the while his defense and playmaking, the two glaring flaws in his game, also regressed down the stretch. In his last 19 games, Thomas registered a positive assist-to-turnover ratio (greater than 1.0) just three times.
Some will blame Nets Head Coach Jacque Vaughn for stunting Thomas’ development, but that’s not entirely fair. The Nets as an organization were intent on maximizing this season’s win total, so Vaughn’s standing orders were to play those who produced.
The bottom line with Thomas is that he wasn’t a winning player. In the 15 games where he saw at least 20 minutes of action following Irving’s last appearance in a Nets uniform on February 1, which included all of his 40-point outbursts, the Nets went 3-12. As I tweeted during his 46-point eruption against the Sixers in Sunday’s regular season finale, the way to get the best out of Thomas is to allow him to get through a series of brutal decisions with the ball in his hands—from crazy shots to driving recklessly into traffic—so he can find his groove. Once he does, then he often morphs into the unstoppable dynamic scorer that makes him such a tantalizing prospect.
Unfortunately, not many NBA coaches have that level of patience when managing games of consequence. It’s hard to fault Vaughn for pulling Thomas after a few offensive forays that didn’t end well, especially since he doesn’t typically make positive contributions on the other end of the floor. Vaughn’s priority is to try to win the game.
For Saturday’s Game 1, Vaughn will likely shorten his rotation further. I surmise that Seth Curry will eat up any reserve minutes at guard while Spencer Dinwiddie and Bridges take (short) rests, with Thomas relegated to the pine.
Then again, since I’m not expecting much from the Nets against the loaded Sixers, I expect Vaughn to do a lot of tinkering. One of his dice rolls could conceivably land on Thomas.
While one can never discount the importance of gaining playoff experience, I do not have high hopes for Thomas in this spot. Who will he be able to guard? Can he navigate through the increased physicality of playoff basketball? And what will happen if he gets off to a poor start?
The biggest question going forward is how Thomas and the organization respond to the trying segments from this season. I’m not advocating that the Nets give up on their No. 27 overall pick from the 2021 NBA Draft this offseason. He’s still on a relatively cheap rookie contract for the next two years and you never know when maturity will kick in on such a young talent. From my perspective, this season hasn’t lowered his career ceiling as a microwave scorer type like Vinnie Johnson or Jamal Crawford.
Still, the ducks were all lined up for Thomas to shoot his way to regular rotation minutes down the stretch of this season, and that missed opportunity is just one more reason for Nets fans to feel disappointed about how it played out.