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Terrible Bobcats Business Decisions, Vol. I: The Tyrus Thomas Signing

I bought a used car just over a month ago and I’ve already sunk almost a thousand dollars’ worth of repairs in it. First the air conditioner stopped working and then the radiator started leaking. Now I’m distraught and terrified to admit the awful truth: my car might just be injury-prone. And so, with my mind in a dark place, it was only natural that my thoughts turned to Tyrus Thomas’s contract. Like my used car, Thomas didn’t come with a warranty, broke down almost immediately, and made everyone involved wish the he’d never happened. Will my used car avert the same terrible fate as Thomas? Or will I end up not even bothering to take it with me when I go on road trips and eventually paying someone else to just take it off my hands?

In order to answer these questions, I need to see if there are any differences in the way I bought my car and the way the Bobcats signed Thomas. I swear I researched my car before I bought it—carfax.com, blue book, etc.—and I tell you it checked out. But maybe the Bobcats did with Thomas, too. My memory of the entire Thomas affair is that of an entirely ill-conceived nightmare vomited from the jaws of hell, scream-worthy from the outset. But maybe I’m just doing the old 20/20 hindsight thing, and maybe Thomas’s contract was a good idea that unexpectedly went from Mr. Chips to Scarface.

Nope, it turns out I was right the first time with the hell-vomit thing—phew! There’s hope yet for my car! The Bobcats’ contract offer to Tyrus Thomas was a dreadful management decision on par with M&M’s passing on doing a silly promotional tie-in with that gloomy Spielberg movie featuring the ugly alien and the weird kid. Follow me down nightmare memory lane if you dare...

In July 2010, fresh off their first and only playoff appearance, the Bobcats signed Thomas to a 5-year, $40M deal. Thomas had come over from the Bulls at the trading deadline and was in the last year of his rookie deal that paid him $4.7M. Even in what would now be considered his hey-day with the Bobcats for their stretch run, Thomas rarely started. He usually came in off the bench for Tyson Chandler or for—holy obscure Bobcats trivia—Theo Ratliff!? (I was just starting to feel stupid for not even remembering that Ratliff was a pretty important cog on my favorite team’s only playoff run when it occurred to me that Ratliff himself probably doesn’t even remember it). Anyway, according to 82games.com, Thomas was only part of the 4th-most effective 5-man unit on that team. Splitting his time roughly equally as a 4/5, he was a mildly net positive on offense and defense and the team’s second-best rebounder from a percentage standpoint, yet he was essentially the fourth big man behind Nazr Mohammed, Tyson Chandler, and the aforementioned Ratliff. Nothing about his work screamed, “Pay this man $8M a year!”

Thomas did have a nice playoff run, though, leading the team in PER. However, he only played just over 15 minutes per game, and the Bobcats as a whole did NOT have a nice playoff run. It was more like a crippled playoff zombie crawl that ended with the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic blasting them in the face with a shotgun, 99-90, in the fourth game of an easy sweep. Thomas put up 21-and-9 in that game, however, and he was just 23 years old at the time. With the wizened Larry Brown at the helm as coach, team owner Michael Jordan must have assumed a steep performance growth curve was in store for young Thomas.

But there was nothing on which to base that assumption. Thomas had already completed 4 full seasons of basketball, and though his PER had steadily risen to 16.8, there were already some serious red flags. First and foremost was his abysmal shooting. Thomas’s true-shooting percentage has been digging its own grave for years. Here are his annual TS% rankings—just among power-forwardssince his rookie year in 2006: 44th, 55th, 45th, 54th, 42nd, 74th, and 69th. Everybody in Atlanta railed against Josh Smith for all of those silly long 2-pt attempts he used to chuck up, but did you know that on a per-40 minute basis, Thomas has actually upchucked more than Smoove in two of the last three years? You do now. The difference is that Smith actually plays about 40 minutes every night.

Which brings us to the other lasting legacy of Thomas: after signing that contract his playing time immediately fell off a cliff, down a well, into a Sarlacc, and out its rectum. In 2010-11 Thomas played in just 41 games. He had knee surgery that shelved him for half the season, the team limped its way to 34 wins, and Larry Brown was fired as head coach (presumably to save the famously impatient Brown from repeatedly stabbing himself in the eye with a fork). With no more Brown, who was by all accounts a good mentor for Thomas, Tyrus literally butted heads with new coach Paul Silas the following year in a locker room incident. This might have been seen as an unfortunate clashing of personalities, except for the fact that Thomas’s 2 suspensions and numerous run-ins with the Bulls’ management were widely known. On-the-court problems + off-the-court problems < $40M.

When not shoving him in lockers, Silas limited Thomas to under 19 minutes a game, and Thomas missed another 12 games entirely with random injuries and DNP-CD’s. Really, though, Thomas limited himself, as he launched more bombs than Ryan Reynolds, hoisting a career high/low of 3.2 attempts from beyond 16 feet every night, which resulted in a comical 41.8 TS%. Frequently too far out of position, Thomas’s rebounding suffered badly (Byron Mullens actually had grabbed a higher % of boards), and his PER sank like a lead turd to 9.0.  Even weirder still was his ghastly, emaciated, heroin-chic appearance, which was never really explained.

The next year was more of the same under Mike Dunlap, only more so. Thomas went from looking like a ghost of himself to being an actual ghost, playing in just 26 games and not even joining the team on trips. Dunlap openly despised Thomas, his name became synonymous with bust, and his approaching amnesty at season’s end was a foregone conclusion. Sure enough, he was shown the door almost three years to the day after he signed his contract, with about $18M still remaining on it.

So his career trajectory was obviously not what the Bobcats had in mind when they gave him that contract, and they should have known better. But does the context of the 2010 free agent class make them more sympathetic? The answer ranges from either “not really” to “no, not at all,” depending on how you feel about it. Other free-agent power forwards in 2010 (Chris Bosh, David Lee, Dirk Nowitzki, and Luis Scola) were older than Thomas, got a lot more than Thomas, and were worth it. Of the 4’s who signed for less than Thomas, really only Amir Johnson (5 years, $34M) and Udonis Haslem (5 years, $20M) have outperformed him since. So in that sense, if you squint hard enough and maybe pop a Xanax, the contract isn’t outright terrifyingly bad. But when I say those other two “outperformed” Thomas, I really just mean “performed,” period, because as we just discussed, Thomas has played in only 117 games in 3 years. Had Thomas just retained his minutes and his level of play from pre-2010, his contract might have just been seen as a mild burden, and the bust of the 2010 FA class trophy probably would have gone to John Salmons’ identical 5 years/$40M deal. Instead, whether he shot his mouth off too many times or shot too many long-distance 2’s, Thomas just didn’t play much after inking his paperwork. And all of his calamities save the knee surgery were foreseeable.

The other reason the Bobcats looked especially bad was that Thomas didn’t appear to have any other serious suitors in 2010. In reading the ESPN coverage of the deal, there’s only mention of one other team, the Nets, who seemed to be interested. Thomas probably could have been locked up for a lot less, either in terms of years or dollars (e.g., Amir Johnson, who was probably the closest analogue to Thomas at the time). Instead Jordan bet on him like he was with Charles Barkley and Lawrence Taylor at the Wyndham, lost badly. We also can’t leave out GM Rod Higgins, who paid dearly for his severe mismanagement by...being promoted to president of operations two years ago, where he still presides.

And with that out of my system, I see it’s time to go pick up my car at the shop. We’ve got about 5 weeks or so until the start of the season. I could probably write some more articles on the biggest flops in Bobcats history, except that might not give me enough time to cover them all; the team could build a monument to bad personnel moves that would resemble the Sistine Chapel, with Sean May breathing life to Adam Morrison.