For those of you who don’t know it, I have an irrational dislike of Kurt Thomas. As Mr. Thomas has aged (he’s now 38), he’s often been used as a center, instead of his natural position, power forward. He’s 6’9″, 230 lbs. In contrast, his presumptive position opponent at the New Orleans Arena tonight, the 26-year-old Aaron Gray, is 7′, 270 lbs. Gray’s also twice as wide. Lest I become an angry Bruce Banner-clone, Gray better do his best Hulk Smash!!! impression on Thomas tonight. You don’t want to see me when I’m angry.
If you follow me on Twitter, or have watched a Knicks, Suns, Spurs, Sonics, Bucks, or now Bulls game with me, you know I can’t stand Kurt Thomas. My hyperbole about his suckage is renowned, if, admittedly, a bit unfair. Here’s the genesis. Kurt Thomas was drafted 10th overall in the 1995 draft by the Miami Heat, played there two years, was shipped to Dallas for a year, and then established himself on several good Knick teams, from 1998 to 2005. I was living in New York at the time. Here’s a stat people some forget now, but one I’ll never forget, ingrained in my brain as it is: playing at a small college, Thomas managed to lead the NCAA Division I in scoring and rebounding in the same year, becoming at that time only the third player in history to do so, by averaging 28.9 and 14.6 per game.
In the real world, Thomas has career averages of 8.8 and 7.0. His highest rebounding average ever was 10.4 a game, his last year with the Knicks. His highest scoring average ever was 14.0, two years prior. Nevertheless, nothing, and I mean nothing, would stop Breen or Frazier, the local TV announcers, from mentioning at least two or three times a game that Thomas led the NCAA in rebounds and scoring at the same time (“one of the only players ever!”), as if it was a question (“did you know….?”), and always with boundless enthusiasm. Like viewers hadn’t heard this game after game after game after game.
Yet, New Orleans folks, Thomas is the quintessential Aaron Brooks (the ex-Saint quarterback, not the Rocket PG). Yup, that sums it up nicely. Just good enough to make you think he’s the guy who will win you games, but then, right then, at that point of hope, he inexplicably causes a series of losses singlehandedly. Do you keep him? Trade him? Make him the Man? (Ugh.) Thomas was never the star the Knicks thought he would be. Since leaving the Knicks, Thomas has never been more than a role player, yet the Suns and Spurs consistently paid him more than $6M a year (and as much as $8M), and you see his name among the “key free agents” available from year to year.
Why? He’s a too-slow forward, has no moves other than an open jumper, and despite having decent rebounding instincts, he’s 6’9″ and totally outclassed by a legitimate center. Can he defend? Kind of. But who cares. I’d prefer Mbenga as a back-up center, at least that cat’s 7′.
Enter tonight’s match-up. Thomas vs. Gray. Gray is no Dwight Howard, but he’s not the patsy some say he is. Did Howard post 20-17-1-1-3 (pts/rbs/stl/ast/blk) against Gray, who only managed 8-8-2-3-2? Yes. But did Howard have -10 and Gray +8? Yes. There’s something to that. Though Gray may have been outclassed by Howard, the Hornet held his own and helped anchor a defense that was finally clicking again. Considering he was playing against Howard, an MVP candidate, that’s saying something.
Gray has long been a conundrum among bloggers (not journalists, because so few actually use advanced stats). This year, by way of comparison:
- Gray has a PER of 13.5 and True Shooting % of 63%
- Thomas PER of 11.0 and TS% 55%
- (Howard PER 25.3 and TS% 60.0)
- Gray’s Total Rebounding percentage is 18.2%
- Thomas’s is 13.9%
- (Howard 21.8)
- Gray’s offensive rating is 115.
- Thomas’ is 111.
- (Howard’s is also 111?)
I could go on. The point is Aaron Gray is a good player; he just needs minutes. Clearly, he deserves to be in the rotation, and can do so on a contending team. And all it took for him to get the chance to prove it was an injury to Emeka Okafor and illness from Jason Smith. Shame on you Monty Williams. The numbers have been there. They come as no surprise. There’s only so many seven-footers out there, and only so many who can actually play well. Gray’s one of them.
Not to mention the fact that Aaron”s an excellent passer out of the post. The Hornets can run their screens, pick downs, and other sets with him in the game, he can help ball movement, and he can find your cutting and screening shooters. Also, as an aside, I’ve met him, and he’s just an awesome person, so I’m biased. (Kurt Thomas may be nicer than Oprah, but I’ll never know, nor do I want to. “Irrational,” remember?) Regardless, if I’m the New Orleans Hornets, I actively get Gray involved in the offense tonight and have him smash Thomas in the low post. Plus, you have this kid named Chris Paul who seems to be good at finding good looks for his players. (And, no, Rose won’t help Thomas the same way.)
Gray might not be getting alley-oops like Tyson used to. But you might see the jumbotron go Gray repeatedly tonight