It's difficult to join a losing team at midseason and make enough of an impact to the point where the team feels it has to bring you back—especially when you've barely been a bit rotation player in your career.
But that's what Lance Thomas did.
A little more than a year ago, the New York Knicks engaged in a three-team trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Oklahoma City Thunder. Cleveland wound up with J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and a first-round pick in the deal. The Thunder came away with Dion Waiters. The Knicks received a 2019 second-round pick and three afterthoughts. New York waived all three within days but re-signed two of them to 10-day contracts soon thereafter.
One of them was Lance Thomas.
He did enough on his initial 10-day deal to earn a second one, and then he impressed enough on that deal to earn a contract that carried him through the rest of the season. The Knicks' coaching staff and front office saw enough from him during the doldrums of their 17-65 campaign to bring him back for the 2015-16 season.
How'd He Do It?
"I paid attention," Thomas said. "When you're learning a whole new playbook, you're learning playing with different guys, you're learning a whole new system, you really have to lock in and pay attention. And you have to earn the guys' respect on the team. I feel like, with my approach, I just came in and I brought it every day. The guys that were here knew that I was going to play my hardest at every moment that I had. With that, I feel like I earned their respect."
Knicks head coach Derek Fisher felt that Thomas, along with fellow 10-day signings Langston Galloway and Lou Amundson, helped establish the kind of culture the Knicks wanted to be part of their future. Not coincidentally, all of them are still on the roster.
Thomas' role sounds simple but is actually quite difficult. His job is, essentially, to make everyone else's job easier when he's on the court.
"It is a skill, Thomas said. "You've got to really pay attention. Knowing every position on the floor, knowing where everyone's supposed to be, even if you're not the point guard, and just paying attention."
In order to do that job well, Thomas had to spend the summer getting better. He had to become a glue guy who was more than just a glue guy.
More Is Better
The most noticeable area of improvement has been his outside shooting.
He's already made more three-point shots this season (35) than he had taken during the first four years of his career (23). When told of that fact, Thomas smiled and said: "Lotta reps. A lot, a lot of reps. Game shots, not just spot shots. A lot of reps. That's pretty much what I did."
At 41.7 percent from beyond the arc, he's now among the top 30 three-point shooters league-wide, per Basketball-Reference.com. He also supplemented the improved jumper with a stellar pump-fake, one he fooled his former teammate Kevin Durant with multiple times in the Knicks' overtime loss to the Thunder on Tuesday.
Thomas has used that pump-fake to drive an extra 0.5 times per 36 minutes this season, per the SportVU player tracking data on NBA.com. Considering the Knicks guards are among the most drive-averse in the league, they need all the extra penetration they can get.
Thomas' most important contributions still come on the other end of the floor.
"More times than not, Lance Thomas will be on the guy that is the more focal point offensively for our opponent," Fisher said recently. "That's a job that he relishes, and he does a pretty decent job handling those responsibilities."
While his offensive role is to make things easier for his teammates, his defensive role is simply to make things more difficult for the other team's best guy.
"Lance is a real team player," rookie Kristaps Porzingis said. "I know he gives 100 percent every game. He's always guarding the best player on the other team. He's the type of guy that gives everything on the floor and he's an example for myself as well."
"Lance can guard guys 1 through 5, realistically," Robin Lopez said.
Whether it's Durant, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard or even a guard like Dwyane Wade or Jimmy Butler, Thomas spends most of his night checking the toughest cover. For the most part, he acquits himself well.
"I'm able to do it. Regardless, I like to have the challenge of guarding the other team's best player," Thomas said. "Whether it's 1 through 5, I feel like I can hold my own. Whatever opportunity presents itself, either tonight or moving forward, I'll be ready."
Per NBA.com, the Knicks have defended about one point per 100 possessions better with Thomas on the floor than off, and they've forced opponents into a lower shooting percentage both in the restricted area and from three-point range (the two most efficient areas of the floor) during those minutes as well.
Thomas' ability to check scorers of any size comes particularly in handy when the Knicks go small and pair him with Carmelo Anthony in the frontcourt—a look that has become their go-to game-closing group of late. Melo is a below-average defender to begin with, and his offensive burden is so large that asking him to run around with the best scorer on the other team would be too much to request.
Through their 361 minutes together this season, Thomas and Anthony's plus-4.5 net rating (points scored minus points allowed per 100 possessions) is the best of any Knicks duo with at least 250 minutes played this season, per NBA.com. In the 1,094 minutes Anthony has played without Thomas, the Knicks have been outscored.
When he was out for three games last week, the Knicks missed Thomas dearly.
They won the first game in his absence against the Utah Jazz (though they almost blew it a few different times and needed overtime to secure the victory) but lost the next two to the L.A. Clippers and Charlotte Hornets by a combined 41 points. Those three games saw six different players go for 20-plus points, five of which (Gordon Hayward, Rodney Hood, Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lin and P.J. Hairston) Thomas could conceivably have made life more difficult for.
Thomas doesn't necessarily fit the profile of your typical Sixth Man of the Year or Most Improved Player candidate. He's not a microwave scorer. He's not playing a significantly greater number of minutes this year and hasn't significantly raised his scoring average. He just comes in, does his job and then sits down, usually with the Knicks having played better with him in than without him.
But given his importance to a surprisingly good Knicks team that is firmly entrenched in an even-more-surprising battle for a playoff spot, his name could start coming up in those discussions, particularly Most Improved.
Thomas, though, doesn't want to hear about that.
"I really don't care about any of that," he said. "We want to win. I've never been in the playoffs before. My whole attention is going toward doing anything that's possible to be in that position."
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.